Chemistry-Themed Books, 2019 – Science Magazine

This is the second part of my “gift list” posts, and this one is perhaps more useful for general gift-giving!  These will be chemistry-themed books (and related subjects) for a more general readership – no $200 monographs on biophysical methods this time around, although if you think you can give someone one of those without getting things thrown at you, there’s always Monday’s post.

I will start off, naturally enough, by plugging my own The Chemistry Book. Unlike the rest of the links in this post, that one is not an Amazon affiliate link; they frown on people affiliate-linking their own books. But I did get another royalty check just last week, which is always a nice surprise, and that one featured some revenues coming in from the French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, and (most recently) Chinese editions of the book. I have of course absolutely no idea how I come across in most of those; it’s hard enough for me to judge that in English sometimes. But the book will take even a non-technical reader through 250 separate (but often linked) moments in chemical and scientific history – I’ve had it described to me as a great bathroom book, and I have no problem with that at all!

In other books of this type, one of the best out there remains Theodore Gray’s The Elements, an excellent gift for anyone’s who’s interested in science or chemistry. I’ve enjoyed my own copy greatly, partly because of its (very high) production values, partly because of the wealth of odd information in it (much of which I didn’t know), and even more because Gray’s personality comes through on nearly every page. Having been through the copy-editing process myself, I salute him for getting away with it (if you think my books sounds like me as it is, you should have seen the first draft!) His follow-up book, Molecules, continues the high standard, and will teach any lay reader a good deal of chemistry without them even realizing it, and he’s added a third to the series, Reactions. I haven’t personally seen his earlier follow-up, the Elements Vault, since I sort of work in an elements vault, but it could also be a unique gift for a younger recipient interested in chemistry.

These have expanded into a whole set of companion gifts. A few years ago, I got the Elements Jigsaw Puzzle, which I did with my son and daughter during January and February. Being the sort of person I am, I didn’t miss the chance to teach a bit of chemistry along the way, based on personal experiences with quite a few of the elements themselves. Gray also has a deck of element cards and a calendar, for your decorating needs. And this year he put out two books for young children, My First Elements and ABC Elements, which I feel certain I would have been unable to resist inflicting on sharing with my kids if these had been available at the time. And it looks like there’s a magnet set on the way, too. (See the home-experiments section below for more from Gray).

There are, of course, a number of other popular chemistry books out there. Sticking with the elements themselves, The Disappearing Spoon is an entertaining book on their various odd properties (chemists will have said “gallium!” by now just from the title). In the same category is Periodic Tales, which comes well recommended. The Periodic Table: A Visual Guide is a less idiosyncratic version of Gray’s sort of book above, as is another photographic guide, The Periodic Table. Another tour through the table is The Element in the Room. Readers here have also recommended Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History (the more nerdy readers, like me, will have said “tin!” by now just from the title) and the (out of print) 1959 The Romance of Chemistry by Keith Irwin.

It’s only partially concerned with chemistry, but I have to mention Randall Munroe’s What If?, which is very entertaining, and will also teach a good deal about science and scientific thinking to a lay reader. I was very glad to serve as one source for the question of what would happen if you stacked up hefty physical samples of each element into a big periodic table. In case you’re wondering, the answer is “nothing good”.

Thomas Hager has written several books of interest on chemical history: The Alchemy of Air, on the Haber-Bosch process which simultaneously was of great use to the Third Reich and has subsequently helped to feed the world, The Demon Under the Microscope, on the discovery of sulfanilamide (another tangled tale), and a biography of Linus Pauling, Force of Nature. His latest is Ten Drugs, which should be of interest! Similarly, there is Miracle Cure by William Rosen, on the early days of antibiotic discovery. Fellow chem-blogger Wavefunction has recommended Stuff Matters, on materials science, and I reviewed its follow-up Liquid Matters for Nature here. And there’s an inevitable subset of books on chemistry that concentrate on the poisons. Readers here have recommended books by John Emsley, Molecules of Murder and The Elements of Murder. Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbookhas also been very popular. Her follow-up, The Poison Squad, is on the alarming early days of food safety in the US.

On the other end of that scale, another inevitable category is the intersection of cooking with chemistry and the other sciences. The forthcoming Chemistry in Your Kitchen looks like it will address this pretty directly, and there are others in this space already: Culinary Reactions, as well as The Science of Good Cooking (from the reliable, and reliably nerdy and detail-oriented Cooks Illustrated people). That one has a new followup, Cooks Science, which I haven’t seen yet. There’s also The Food Lab, What Einstein Told His Cook and its first and second sequels, as well as The Science of Cooking, and of course the classic book in this category, On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee. His own follow-up to that one, The Curious Cook, is more of a grab-bag, but it contains a valuable bit of empirical research: the finest and most comprehensive table of proportions for sorbet-making that has ever been published, along with insights into the physics and chemistry of that whole process. I have put several of those recipes to the test.

In the same do-it-yourself category, but less edibly, there are a number of books out there on home experiments with chemistry, and these could make good gifts for the right people. I believe that there’s a good audience out there of people who are interested in science, but have no particular training in it, either because they’re young enough not to have encountered much (or much that was any good), or because they missed out on it while they were in school themselves. And there are always curious kids and teenagers

A few years ago I mentioned Robert Bruce (and Barbara) Thompson’s Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments along with its sequels, the Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments and the Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments. I have one of the Thompson’s earlier books for my own home-science hobby, Astronomy Hacks – it’s full of sensible advice, and I have no doubt that the above guides are as well. Similar books are Hands-On Chemistry Activities and its companion Hands-On Physics Activities. Slightly off kilter from these are two from Theodore Gray: Theo Gray’s Mad Science, and its sequel, Mad Science 2. Both of these are subtitled “Experiments that you can do at home – but probably shouldn’t”, and I’d say that’s pretty accurate. Many of these use equipment and materials that most people probably won’t have sitting around, and some of the experiments are on the hazardous side (which, I should mention, is something that’s fully noted in the book). But they’re well-illustrated from Gray’s own demonstration runs, so you can at least see what they look like, and learn about the concepts behind them. More practical, but less eye-opening is the series of books by Bassam Shakhashiri, whose web site is here. These are aimed at people teaching chemistry who would like clear, tested demonstrations for their students, but if you know someone who’s seriously into home science experimentation, they’ll find a lot here. The most recent, Chemical Demonstrations, Volume 5, concentrates on colors and light. The previous ones are also available, and cover a range of topics in each book: Volume 4, Volume 3, Volume 2, and Volume 1.

A couple of coffee-table books that land on each side of chemistry (the physics side and the biology side!) have appeared in the last few years from MIT Press: The Atom: A Visual Tour and The Cell, and both have high production values.

Finally, we get to a couple of personal-tinged books on the science, both of which I’ve long recommended. First comes Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, which is a memoir as well as a meditation on chemistry (and the love of chemistry). I did not enjoy Sacks’ more recent (posthumous) memoir, which struck me as rather flat and not adding to his legacy very much, but this one is much better. Another memoir of sorts, an episodic one, is of course the late Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. It’s somber at times, but also amusing, and when I read in it the phrase “Chlorides are rabble”, I knew I was in the presence of a good writer, a good chemist, and a good translator. (As Wavefunction noted once when I mentioned this book, Levi’s text is not without mistakes, either, such as stating that Neil Bartlett won the Nobel for his noble gas fluoride discovery. He should have, and I’d bet that most people who know about it think that he did, but. . .)