Web edition: January 29, 2010
Print edition: February 13, 2010; Vol.177 #4 (p. 30)
Citing The Joy of Sex and The Joy of Cooking as texts that demystified important — yet sometimes perplexing — terrain, Cobb and Fetterolf aim to do the same for chemistry. Their book succeeds in doing just that.
The authors, both chemists, begin with an elaborate safety dictum followed by a shopping list calling for items such as sugar, galvanized nails and superglue. These come into play through simple experiments accompanying each chapter, which highlight chemical characters and reactions. And what characters they are: Water “can be a home wrecker,” and nitrogen “has several personalities,” including both nurturing and destructive ones, Cobb and Fetterolf write. The first half of the book brings to life chemistry’s fundamental principles and players, and the second half examines specialized chemistry. The challenges and thrills of organic, analytical and biological chemistry are revealed, along with a glimpse of what questions might confront future researchers.
Each chapter is prefaced with chemistry quotes from popular literature, such as D.H. Lawrence’s turn of phrase, “Tragedy is like strong acid — it dissolves away all but the very gold of truth.” The authors suggest that these references hark back to a time when readers were more familiar with basic chemistry than they are today.
This book is a wonderful effort to bring back that familiarity. It’s ideal for a student struggling with redox reactions or for those who just want to better understand “the central science” of the world around them — even the chemistry in kitchens and bedrooms.
Prometheus Books, 2010, 393 p., $19.