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Book Recommendations

The Chemistry Book

I wanted to mention to readers here that I’ve agreed to write a book (for a general audience) on chemistry for Sterling Publishers (the publishing arm of Barnes and Noble). They’ve been putting out a series of books (Sterling Milestones) on various scientific topics, looking at 250 key concepts or historical events. There’s a short essay on each of these, and an illustration on the facing page. Clifford Pickover did The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book for them, and recently they’ve published The Drug Book, The Space Book, and The Psychology Book as well. So I’m doing The Chemistry Book, which occupies me on my train rides home after work and after dinner – my wife and kids have been involuntarily roped in as the test audience for the entries.
The book itself won’t be out for a while – I’m delivering the manuscript next spring, and there will surely be a lot of editorial work after that. I have over 200 of the short chapters outlined so far, but I’m leaving some room for more topics as they occur to me (and as the chapters I’m writing suggest – sometimes I find that I have to include another topic to make the one I’m working on make sense to the eventual readers).
I don’t want to give away the complete list of chapters just yet, not least because it’s still changing around, but I would like to solicit nominations for events and ideas that anyone thinks I should be sure to cover. The book spans the whole historical record, up to the present day, in all fields of chemistry, so in one sense the challenge is narrowing it down to just 250 short essays. The other challenge is actually writing 250 short essays, of course. I’m doing OK against my list so far, but there are some topics that are difficult to do justice to in 350 words, as will be easily appreciated by the chemists around here.
So if anyone has some topics, obvious or nonobvious, that they think a book like this should be sure to include, please mention them in the comments. I’m sure some of them will already be on the list, but since I have room to add more, I certainly don’t want to miss too many good opportunities. Thanks very much!
And yes, the “Things I Won’t Work With” manuscript is being worked on as well. “The Chemistry Book” is giving me some practice at integrating a longer manuscript, and I’ve been adding some new material along the way. The trickier part of that one has been getting rid of some repetition that you notice when the original blog posts are stacked up together. But it’s definitely in the hopper.
Update: a lot of good ideas in the comments! Many of them were already on my list, but I’ve already seem some that I wouldn’t have thought of, and some others that I really should have but overlooked. Much appreciated! Anyone who hasn’t added something and still wants to, though, feel free – I’ll be checking this post pretty frequently.

146 comments on “The Chemistry Book”

  1. NoDrugsNoJobs says:

    Always the great Albert Hofmann Lysergic acid diethylamide story.
    Theres the rapamycin discovered on Easter Island Soil story, kind of a cool introduction to natural product isolation.

  2. old man says:

    Don’t forget the other allotropes of Carbon, Buckyball, Carbon nanotubes, Graphene etc.

  3. MTK says:

    Is the format chronological like Pickover’s books?

  4. Derek Lowe says:

    Yep, the format is exactly the same as the others in the series, from ancient history to modern day.

  5. Derek Lowe says:

    Just wrote the buckyball entry the other night, actually, and the nanotube/graphene story would be a good one to add to the present-day end of the book. And I have Rapamycin on the list, for just the reasons mentioned, but looking over the chapter headings, I see that I’d forgotten Hoffman! Just the reason that I put this query up – thanks.

  6. X Chemist says:

    -whoever it was who first showed the ‘equivalence’ of a chemical from non-natural and natural origins. the name and the experiment escapes me
    -ytterby – the small swedish town which gave the world four elements
    – thomas midgley – the dark side of chemistry! key role in the development of highly effective anti knocking agents and non-flammable refrigerants. Shame that they turned out to be highly toxic (tetraethyl lead) and environmentally destructive (CFCs)
    – discovery of effective antivirals for HIV
    – aspirin
    you probably had all those anyway, but that’s what sprung to mind for me. Should be some more physical, theoretical, inorganic examples I guess

  7. Fluorine says:

    The discovery of PTFE and CFC filled refrigerators are interesting anecdotes from the best part of organic chemistry (fluorine chemistry…).

  8. JK says:

    “whoever it was who first showed the ‘equivalence’ of a chemical from non-natural and natural origins. the name and the experiment escapes me”
    That would be Friedrich Wöhler’s synthesis of urea. Wikipedia claims it is “considered the starting point of modern organic chemistry” so I hope it’s already on the list!

  9. ADC Chem says:

    I really always amazed about how much Lavoisier got right in his table of elements in 1789!
    A look at some of his early experiments like the ones were he had to dip his hands in mercury under a glass bulb to preserve an inert atmosphere for his caloric experiments would be really nice.

  10. MTK says:

    I think you’re referring to Wohler who was able to make urea from ammonium cyanate.

  11. Sam says:

    The “polywater” story, where the samples were contaminated with human sweat

  12. LeedsChemist says:

    I always think Clair Patterson is worth a mention. He was a “geochemist” rather than the standard organic/inorganic physical chemist so I don’t know if he fits into your book, but his story is pretty amazing.
    Nicolas LeBlanc and the first ever industrially synthesised chemical (sodium bicarbonate)? seems mundane now but at the time it was highly regarded. And help to kick start industrial chemistry which turned out to be quite important…for a while at least!

  13. dogbertd says:

    If you’re using a historical approach, are you going to include the Alchemists? Jim Al-Khalili’s TV programmes on the history of chemistry made me realise that they weren’t all bonkers but did in fact make new discoveries (albeit by accident).

  14. anomalous says:

    1. van’t Hoff’s (& Le Bel’s) proposal of tetrahedral arrangement, and the ridicule it was initially received with
    2. Pasteur’s chiral resolution of “racemic acid” into (+) tataric acid and the hitherto unknown (-) tartaric acid. Doing it again with Biot watching like a hawk to make sure there was no funny business. “My dear child, I have loved science so much all my life that this makes my heart throb!”
    3. Russell Marker taking off into the jungles of Mexico, extracting diosgenin from cabaza de negro and coming back with a fortune in progesterone

  15. How about something on polyacetylene, the first(?) electrically conductive polymer? It was one of those nice serendipitous discoveries, like a lot of good things in science and resulted in the Nobel prize.

  16. Jim says:

    If you are going to incorporate figures/images, you need to visit Fundamental Photos (
    They have a nice image collection of chemical reactions.

  17. Hap says:

    1) The invention of steam and catalytic cracking – it made much of the petroleum-based chemical industry and modern transit possible.
    2) Either polywater, the Nozaki-Hiyama-Kishi coupling, Ledbeater’s palladium-“free” couplings, or “arsenic-based” life might be good, to show how chemists have to be careful to know what’s in what they are using, and that we’re fallible.

  18. pchemist says:

    Gibbs and Boltzmann

  19. MoMo says:

    Wilhelm Norman and the discovery of hydrogenated fats like Crisco. Singlehandedly killed more people over the years that alll the tyrannical dictators combined.
    Then there’s the story of PFOAs, penquin fat and teflon and the fact they are organic persisters in the environment that keep circulating in the food chain.
    But don’t kill your book by putting in the balancing of equations or too abstract of topics-a sure audience killer.
    Try to write to the general public and not the braniacs we are all surrounded with, we don’t count. And then Oprah will read it and you stop the those long commutes to Boston.
    Good luck!

  20. Poul-Henning Kamp says:

    Random ideas:
    One often overlooked aspect of the Manhattan Project was the groundbreaking research in complex-chemistry and the subsequent massive chemical operations for separating plutonium from the spent fuel from the Hanford reactors.
    Most of the “legacy” from the cold-war nuclear hey-days is in the form of tanks and dumps of “assorted chemicals” laced with stuff from the troublesome end of the periodic table.
    Another cold-war legacy is liquid hydrogen, although it can be argued that would be physics rather than chemistry.
    Consider Niels Bohrs dissolved nobel medal, if you need a “hook” for why gold does not tarnish.
    Maybe Acid rain ?
    HFC’s should be pretty obvious.
    (I realize that those sound like “negative” chemistry stories, that was not by intention, it’s just the ones where I remember thinking “chemistry is amazing…”)

  21. Anonymous says:

    Eluded to by others, but I always find stories of the practical applications during wartime very interesting.
    Also, my personal favorite: R. B. Woodwards quinine synthesis

  22. 1) Obits on Fred Sanger reminded us that proteins were thought to be disordered messes & he couldn’t initially get funding to pursue crazy idea of them having a defined sequence. Sanger & Edman could both be deserving for protein sequencing
    2) Crystallography could get a few spots — initial work by the Braggs, first protein structures, Rosalind Franklin, first virus structures
    3) Linus Pauling working out alpha helix and beta sheet in his mind
    5) First attempt to make a polymer as ivory substitute — celluloid (failure for target use)
    6) Aluminum going from uber-precious (capstone on Washington Monument) to uber-cheap due to the right chemistry
    7) Invention of photography? Or instant photography — very creative applications of chemistry
    8) Clock reactions — perhaps more for visuals in book than overall impact
    7) pre-chemistry era — invention of distillation (lots of great woodcuts out there
    8) Discovery of technetium, a long-standing hole in the periodic table
    9) Allison effect, N-rays — important detours that showed how scientists can be fooled
    10) Farber, Elion & the birth of rational drug design
    11) Chemistry in space — mass specs & other devices flown on planetary missions. Also, use of earth-bound spectrometers to determine chemistry of stars.
    13) Miller-Urey (if you could work in a photo of Julia Child making primordial soup, that would be super!)
    14) First liquification of air
    15) Liquid helium & its strange properties

  23. dlib says:

    I second #9 for Antoine Lavoisier.

  24. David Borhani says:

    Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
    Benjamin: Yes, sir.
    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
    Benjamin: Yes, I am.
    Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

  25. morphine says:

    Serturner and the isolation of morphine,
    which was the isolation of the first alkaloid ever from a plant

  26. UndergradMinion says:

    I love scientific history and I’m totally gonna love this book!
    Some thoughts, in roughly chronological order:
    -Johann Friedrich Böttger and his european porcelain. He was held a prisoner to discover a way to produce porcelain, which was very rare and expensive that time (and maybe a way to transmute lead into gold, too).
    -Already mentioned, Antoine Lavoisier is a must, I suppose. Not only his work, which was an impressive example of the scientific method. Also how the french revolution (and his involvement on both sides) cost him his head and humanity many potential discoveries.
    -One of the most ambigous persons in chemical history was maybe Fritz Haber. His ammonia synthesis is, without question, among the most important developements of his century, and his attempts to extract gold from sea water were, at least, ambitious. Yet his intense involvement in warfare makes him questionable, but on the other hand he did what his country needed him to do, didn’t he? It’s this kind of moral grey that oftenly thrills me about historical persons.
    -Alfred Nobel. Poor guy. Do I need to say more?
    -At last there is a story about Diels and Alder, told by Peter Plichta in one of his books. I don’t know how accurate it is, this guy is pretty nuts himself. But he stated that Diels was incredibly jealous of Alder’s fast successes and eventually even tried to lock him out of his lab. Therefore Alder started to actually live in his lab, never leaving it, bribing undergrads to bring him pizza and drinking vast amounts of lab ethanol. In the end the two split the nobel prize strictly in half and never exchanged a word again. As I said, you might want to find more info about this, I can just forward what Plichta wrote…
    In the end, I think to myself that those human fates and failures are the really interesting part. One can only fully appreciate inventions and discoveries if one knows how hard-earned they are and if one is aware of the social and cultural background of the researcher. It is easy to say “well, now where is the great deed in discovering xyz” whithout knowing that said xyz was believed to be beyond impossible or even ridicolous. The strength required to push through that boundaries, thinking out of the box and defending your ideas against all odds is what brought humaity most of our greatest achievements.

  27. Klimt Limped says:

    The Meselson-Stahl experiment. Although it’s been termed “the most beautiful experiment in biology”, it’s actually the clearest example of how control of chemical composition (N14 vs N15 in DNA) can be used to elucidate the most fundamental aspects of biological processes at the molecular level (the semi-conservative process for replicating double-stranded DNA).
    The story of Fritz Haber. How his discovery for synthesizing ammonia enabled food production for billions, and how his subsequent contributions to chemical warfare agents produced some of the most obscene episodes of human cruelty in history.

  28. schinderhannes says:

    Whatevr you do, dont forget the doebereiner feuerzeug in your section on catalysis!

  29. nekekami says:

    May I suggest a look at various glues/bonding materials through the ages? Or the chemistry of various inks/colours? The chemistry of concrete?
    So many things in modern society that wouldn’t function without those…

  30. Project osprey says:

    The development of enantioselevtive synthesis is probably the biggest achievment of the last 150 years.
    Plus is covers a lot of other things: the discovery of chirality (and the later discovery that carbon is tetrahedral), disproving vitalism, thalidomide, etc.
    It’s not the easiest subject to sum-up… and I know that first-hand: I tried writting an account for wikipedia. My attempts are patchy but perhaps you could use it as a crib. (half the battle is finding the references)

  31. isodope says:

    speaking of CFC’s. The story of the ozone hole and the persistence to bring it to world attention and ultimately fix it.

  32. anon says:

    Along similar lines, can anyone recommend a good book that chronicles the history of organic chemistry?

  33. Rhenium says:

    26. UndergradMinion
    Yes, please find the quote, I’m not sure if they had pizza in Weimar Germany, but it does sound interesting.

  34. Anonymous says:

    the whole historical record you say? then you must talk about the synthesis of soap from fats…one of man’s most important syntheses.

  35. Anonymous says:

    the whole historical record you say? then you must talk about the synthesis of soap from fats…one of man’s most important syntheses.

  36. Curt F. says:

    I second X Chemist’s suggestion of an entry for Thomas Midgley. Tetraethyl lead AND CFCs!? The man’s a genius! No wait, a horror!
    And I raise up the idea of an entry on any / all aspects of Harold Urey’s many contributions, from the discovery of deuterium to the many contributions he made on the practical use of isotopes in geochemistry. The first paleoclimatic temperature proxy was 18O/16O in carbonate rocks, which Urey applied to a fossil Belemnite to determine the summer and winter temperatures during the 100 million year old fossil animal’s life. Then there’s the whole Miller-Urey thing.

  37. Dave says:

    From more of an inorganic chemistry perspective:
    – The discovery and structural elucidation of ferrocene, which really jump-started the modern era of inorganic/organometallic chemistry
    – Ziegler-Natta polymerization, specifically the story about nickel contaminants in the autoclave (serendipity caused my poor cleaning procedures!) leading to the development of titanium-catalyzed ethylene polymerization
    – Quasicrystals, and how Linus Pauling went to his grave convinced they were bullshit
    – Definitely the development of NMR as a spectroscopic/diagnostic technique – taking the spectrum of ethanol (of course) and realizing that not all protons had exactly the same frequency
    – The acetic acid process, still probably the largest scale process that uses homogeneous catalysis
    – Certainly Werner’s coordination theory, for which he won the only Nobel Prize in inorganic chemistry until ferrocene!

  38. Ted says:

    French process chemists discovering copper mediated 1,4 additions the hard way.
    Counter crystallization of stigmasterol and sitosterol from soy sterols (John Beaton). After 20 years, it led to the massive (skiable?) pile of sitosterol in Kalamazoo, prompting Pearlman, Livingston and Denmark to develop the SNAP chemistry for C-17 side chain degradation.

  39. Sili says:

    Soveso and Bhopal – even if they’ve been done a million times before.

  40. Jal_Frezi says:

    I did a poster on the history of synthesis for an open day a few years back – here are those that made the final cut after a lot of discussion
    Wohler – urea
    Perkin – mauveine
    Komppa – camphor
    Robinson – tropinone
    Woodward – quinine
    Djerassi – norethindrone
    Sheehan – penicillin V
    Corey – prostaglandins
    Woodward/Eschenmoser – B12
    Kishi – palytoxin
    Halton – taxol

  41. I love mauve says:

    William Henry Perkin’s development of aniline dyes makes a great story for a general audience.

  42. christophe verlinde says:

    Our heroes Democritus of Abdera and Leucippus who came up with the concept of the ATOM.

  43. cynical1 says:

    Marie Curie and radium? Got the nobel and led to all those x-ray machines?? Marie got the Nobel in 1911……as a woman!

  44. annon fore says:

    nuclear energy
    development of the atomic bomb
    imaging (MRI, PET) tracers & dyes
    discovery of “heavy hydrogen”
    proteins (enzymes) as chemical catalysts
    genetic codes and codons for amino acids
    identification & isolation of Helium
    NMR and imaging
    structure & synthesis of penicillin

  45. jhb says:

    Carl Djerassi and Haber/Bosch, both completely changed the world.

  46. Another derek says:

    Marker, for steroids from diosgenin (barbasco)

  47. facehiker says:

    1. serendipity and viagra
    2. fleming and penicillin
    3. kekule
    4. John Fenn and electrospray

  48. gcs says:

    Not sure if this really fits into the interesting anecdotal stories you’re looking for, but a more modern area of interest is the emergence of Green Chemistry as a field, starting with the definition of the term in the mid-90’s by Paul Anastas and John Warner.

  49. Semichemist says:

    I’m very interested in picking this up when it comes out, but
    And yes, the “Things I Won’t Work With” manuscript is being worked on as well.
    This is the best news I’ve gotten all month. …It’s been a slow month.

  50. Chris says:

    Some really excellent suggestions in the comments so far.
    How about the history of Alum, in UK it is a process that has actually reshaped the countryside.
    The story of Mauveine was covered by the RSC but is certainly worth repeating

  51. DannoH says:

    Have parameters been set for where Chemistry ends and Biology begins? Some additional ideas that I am sure have been identified above, that have had longer ranging effects to the everyday joey bag-o-donuts in the world:
    Penicillin (and the beginning of antibiotic research)
    UDMH / N2O4 (Ignition Style, rocketry)
    XeCl (and other assorted excimers)
    Bakelite (and the run of fully synthetic polymers / plastics)
    Sulfur Mustard (and subsequent design of immunosuppresants and cytotoxics / antineoplastics)
    DDT (the learning process in relation to halogenated organics in the environment and the food chain / bioaccumulation)
    I can go on and on but the instructor of the training I am attending is giving me the evil eye…

  52. David Borhani says:

    @40: Woodward: quinine instead of strychnine (which was filled with truly stupendous insights, IMHO, especially given the date and techniques available), or reserpine (just simply beautiful)?

  53. Brad says:

    If you ask me, you should have a section about the phlogiston theory. I remember learning about that for the first time when reading “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. This part of scientific history was never mentioned at all in any of my school classes, but it really gave me a new respect for the first chemists/alchemists and what a ridiculously challenging project it is to understand the chemistry of the natural world without any starting point. The amazing thing is how much sense phlogiston actually makes given what they knew at the time (phlogiston is more or less anti-oxygen). It probably dovetails quite nicely into Lavoisier.

  54. Pig Farmer says:

    Humphry Davy’s discovery of sodium and potassium, and contribution to the demonstration that chlorine and iodine were elements (also his poor treatment of Faraday).
    Hennig Brand and Phosphorus.
    Crick, Watson, Franklin, Wilkins and DNA.
    Glenn Seaborg and the transuranium elements
    Hermann Emil Fischer and his many contributions to organic chemistry.
    Wallace Carothers and Nylon
    David Phillips and Lysozyme
    Mendeleev and the periodic table
    and then of course you should finish it all with the Great Pharma Crisis, just in case you’ve made anyone want to become a chemist!

  55. gippgig says:

    Look thru all the comments made about exhibits for a chemistry museum. Also, the discovery of Es & Fm in fallout from the first thermonuclear test.

  56. Hap says:

    @52: Strychnine and reserpine were much prettier than quinine, but the synthesis of quinine, I think, captured the general imagination and publicity more than his others. People thought that there might be a better route to antimalarial drugs, or that it might mitigate the “supply problem” for quinine (words that probably should haunt nearly every natural product synthesis paper since). I assume that played into why Stork attempted to disprove the synthesis, because it mattered so much and was potentially not what it claimed to be.

  57. Mad Dog says:

    I second 14 with the “Van’t Hoff’s (& Le Bel’s) proposal of tetrahedral arrangement, and the ridicule it was initially received with”.

  58. Congrats! This will be a must read and thank you for the links to other relevant titles in the series. I’ll add the titles to my BiotechDueDiligence “library” of suggested books in the biomedical sphere. I’ve linked the page here is anyone is interested since we are in that shopping season!

  59. anonymous says:

    Merrifield’s work on peptide synthesis might be worthwhile. It opened up new ways of looking at proteins.

  60. KevinM says:

    the development of solvents

  61. Chrispy says:

    How about the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen? This is why we’re not all farmers. You could also throw in some Dust Bowl stuff.

  62. X Chemist says:

    This may not be quite chemistry enough, but the coolest thing I found out this year was how absolute stereochemistry was defined. They guessed. No, really. Yep, at some point someone decided – arbritrarily – that (+)-glyceraldehyde was (R). Wasn’t until someone invented the anomalous dispersion X-ray technique (1950s) that they were able to unambiguously (I hope…) show that some tartrate salt was (R,R) and that the original guess was correct. Would have been a lot of corrections needed if not…

  63. Steve says:

    Nitrocellulose my favorite polymer
    from saving elephants from extinction in the 1860s (replacement for ivory), killing people (gun cotton), entertaining people (film stock), killing people again (cinema fires), all round use (hair spray, shoe polish, table tennis balls), now almost extinct.

  64. Joe Loughry says:

    Noble gas compounds!
    Elementary school: “noble gases never EVER form compounds.”
    High school: “We lied; there is just one: xenon hexafluoride, but it’s unstable.”
    College: “We lied; a few noble gas compounds have been known since before you were born, but they have no uses.”
    Pipeline: “We use the difluoride sometimes in drug discovery. It’s a boring grey-white powder.”
    Neil Bartlett is my hero.

  65. Alan...M says:

    Chromatography…one of the most common and ubiquitous techniques in the laboratory!

  66. Anonymous says:

    Agree with # 61. The Habor-Bosch process is hard to ignored. For better of worse, it is likely one of the most influential discoveries in chemistry,

  67. DannoH says:

    In line with 61 and 66…I add:
    Bessimer process
    FCC / petroleum refining
    Always better when training is complete! Manual integration of F values is fun, but never past 1700.

  68. CP Minotaur says:

    Nicoloau discovering WordArt

  69. An Old chemist says:

    1) How chemistry started in the West hundreds of years ago and now is being outsourced to Asian countries
    2). J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electron about 120 years ago
    3). How Synthetic chemistry climaxed in 1980s and has been deteriorating since then
    4) The big bang that created all the deuterium that exists in the World and also the creation of other elements in the core of stars
    5). Silicon that has made all the computers possible
    6). The ultimate realization that “life can be explained chemically.” reference is:
    “Early in his undergraduate days Sanger became fascinated by the possibility that life could be explained chemically.”

  70. DV Henkel-Wallace says:

    If you want to talk about lab procedure, the story of cyclamate is fun: Sveda was smoking in the lab and noticed that his cigarette paper tasted sweet. Frankly this story always frightens me and not because smoking is bad for you!
    And of course no discussion of lab procedure would be complete without a discussion of erlenmeyer flasks of brightly coloured liquids (and purple backlighting).
    Homeopathy and why it makes no sense.

  71. Anders says:

    Something that changed the world:
    The chemistry of cement and concrete (start with the romans)
    The chemistry of steel
    The chemistry of silicium (crystals for semiconductors)

  72. someguynamedpete says:

    From he softer sciences: maybe photochemistry in biology:thymidine dimers, psoralens for PUVA, photodynamic therapy, photosynthesis, bioluminescence, fluorescence as a lab tool, etc.

  73. morphine says:

    My second comment here, I usually lurk.
    I will also suggest the tartaric acid story, my Turkish friend swears why the Muslim world fell behind in chemistry was the prohibition on alcohol and uses this story to support his position.
    If you do use the isolation of morphine (first alkaloid from a plant) you could also talk about how heroin was developed as a cure for “morphinism” which worked but patients then were hooked on heroin. [If they were hooked on heroin did they then have “heroinism”?]
    Sorry about that terrible pun, they really did refer to morphine dependence as morphinism back then. Please pardon us opioid medchemists as we continue on the search for the holy grail, the “non-addicting narcotic analgesic”….

  74. sp3 says:

    Silly putty and silicone polymers… or am I showing my age?
    Perhaps something about using biology as a chemistry tool – synthetic biology? Artemisinin is a great story.

  75. TPH says:

    I am not sure if it qualifies as chemistry, but I think carbon dating is a pretty cool topic.

  76. Betacarbon says:

    Paul Ehrlich and his contributions to immunology and drug discovery. The entire idea of chemotherapy.

  77. Lindsay says:

    c13 breath test interesting use of breath tests.
    Premarin is cool because its many constituents gave long patent life and I love people taking pregnant mares urine!

  78. IC says:

    The story of cis-platin.

  79. Nick K says:

    The Bohr model of the hydrogen atom. A beautiful example of pure mathematical reasoning in Chemistry and Physics.
    Henry Moseley’s use of X-ray spectra to deduce the nature of atomic number.
    Boyle’s Law, and Bernouilli’s derivation thereof from first principles. One of the foundation stones of the Physical Sciences.

  80. Eric Robert Jablow says:

    1. Prontosil and the first sulfa drugs.
    2. Nitrogen mustard, the Bari disaster during WWII, and chemotherapy.
    3. The attempts to separate the rare earths.

  81. Old Guy says:

    A second for Werner here.
    The Werner vs Jorgensen story is a great example of the scientific process, hypothesis testing, etc.
    Maybe not jazzy or accessible enough in this context, but as an inorganicy, I have to speak up for it!

  82. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    My wife suggested Priestly and “paneity” (look it up!) To which I would add the book Galileo Heretic some years ago made the case that atomism was what really got Galileo in trouble with the Inqusition was it was incompatible with then-prevailing views on Transubstantiation.
    Also be sure to mention the use of aqua regia for dissolving Nobel Prize medals of two anti-Nazi scientists. Bohr had kept them for safekeeping; when the Germans were marching down Copenhagen streets he and a colleague were frantically dissolving the medals. After the war the gold was recovered and the Nobel Institute recast the medals.

  83. texascarbon says:

    Really great ideas here so far. I love the range of perspective people have and I am amazed how everyone is getting vocal on this really great topic.
    For me, I’d love a blurb on either the public’s perception of chemistry or the media’s coverage of chemistry. Mayhaps some element of chemical education. Ideally, this woulld be a historical account… I.e. How the publics perception has changed with time. But an emphasis on the current state would be cool and I think of general interest. I don’t know how you can write this book without this topic….

  84. Brian L says:

    -Sulfa drugs, followed by penicillin, followed by a wide swathe of antibiotics that extended the average human life span by five years.
    -As a subset of plastics you might mentions that nitrocellulose coated billiard balls tended to explode when hit too hard and that the chemistry to make polypropylene first came about from the accidental addition of nickel salts from a chemistry spatula.
    -Silicon chemistry in semiconductors and microchips

  85. ProteinChemist says:

    One of my favorites has always been Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan (aka Geber) whose life in the 9th century spawned over 3,000 works on alchemy. The reason they are important is (a) they were probably an early school of students all writing in his name, (b) the books had early examples of distilling equipment and protocols, and (c) the translation/expansion of the work in the 13th to 16th centuries in Europe helped build the alchemical and chemical foundation for today.

  86. Vinod Jairaj says:

    Since this is a book on chemistry, I am sure many will be inspired to take up the study of chemistry. What about a chapter on safety? I am sure, you will do full justice to that. Secondly, a chapter on chemistry humor would be interesting, especially the way you write!

  87. Erebus says:

    An overview of phytochemistry would be nice… A review of the basic natural product classes such as the alkaloids, terpenes, carotenoids, saponins, etc., their biosynthesis, natural product isolation and extraction, and a few examples of their medicinal or industrial use… which would tie-in to later discussion of morphine, strychnine, etc.
    Bacterial fermentation is also a fascinating topic, with lots of relevance to the foods people eat, and many of the drugs they take.

  88. bcpmoon says:

    The story of ritonavir would be nice for the concept of polymorphs.
    Also, always highly recommended:
    Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes / Walter Gratzer

  89. Grignard says:

    Hi Derek, great idea. I sure you know the book “World Records in Chemistry”, by Hans-Jürgen Quadbeck-Seeger, Wiley-VCH 1999. Quite some ideas in this post are dealt with there. Looking forward to your synopsis!

  90. HBA says:

    organometallic medicinal chemistry
    DNA-based nanotechnology

  91. Erebus says:

    As far as the ‘historical record’ is concerned, discussion of dyes would also be very interesting. From the ancient peoples of the Mediterranian extracting ~1.4 g of pure 6,6′-Dibromoindigo from 12,000 Murex brandaris snails, to the massive dye industry of the second half of the 19th century (which is part of the reason that German was the official language of chemistry until comparatively recently), to Prontosil, the first Sulfa drug which was originally a coal tar dye…

  92. misanthrope says:

    Sanger dideoxy sequencing? Or for a few historical lessons – Dorothy Hodgkin and her hair brained idea that penicillin contained a beta-lactam? Watson/Crick vs Franklin? As mentioned above Haber is an interesting study in human nature as well.

  93. Ljstewarttweet says:
    Fascinating look at structure driven progression from building blocks to polymers to higher order structures and living organisms

  94. paolo d. says:

    Emil Fisher assignation of relative configuration of asymmetric carbon atoms in glucose and other hexoses (1891).

  95. sepisp says:

    I think one inherent risk with this project is that it’ll all be academic and practical industrial chemistry is ignored. This is after all what brings in the most cash, but very rarely gets press or Nobel prizes. Yet it has been the main driver for interest historically, starting from manufacturing of dyes. What I also see on this comment thread is mentioning it usually in a negative light, as if industrial chemistry was a history of disasters.
    For instance of practical organic chemistry and chemical engineering, most is petrochemistry, and excluding that, still, 80% of the total revenue of the industry is from plastics. So, oil, plastics, paint and coating, pulp and paper, glass, semiconductor, etc.
    “Bio” is also very media-sexy, so it may be severely overrepresented.

  96. Anonymous says:

    to expand on TPH (N°75): wasn’t something like isotope abundance used in a squabble over the Taxol patent? That would be an interesting thing too.
    The discovery and early synthesis of white Phosphorus, and of Nerve gases (I think I’ve read about them on this very website).
    Wolaston discovering BOTH Pd and Rh, and nerver finding any use for them (when you see how those are used today…). In addition, Wolaston’s refusal to see Nb as a different element form Ta, pushing back the “official” recognition of Niobium as a different element almost a century…That and Pauling show that you can measure the importance of a scientist by how long they prevent the advance of science when they are wrong…
    Justus Liebig, better known today for the soups (at least in Europe).
    I also second both Lavoisier and Haber, probably the two most important chemist of all time.
    The Kolbe group discovering combustion analysis: a few alumni of his group were guys like Frankland (Et2Zn anyone?) and Zaitsev

  97. simpl says:

    so many stories, I look forward to more of yours Derek.
    – The words that escaped from alchemy and chemistry into the real world – distill, spirits, solution…
    – DDT, herbicides, pesticides
    – upscaling: penicillin, or one we are struggling with, production chromatography.
    – Primo Levi’s stories, especially how he treats analytical chemistry as a mix of detective work and reinterpretation of “rules”
    – paper, leather and cloth treatments
    – household chemicals, how they have changed over time
    – food chemistry
    – waste treatment and recycling

  98. TAR86 says:

    The cross-couplings have been mentioned in other contexts already. Designing and synthesizing things like cubane, merely because they could. My undergrad training shows in mentioning stable Arduengo carbenes and frustrated lewis pairs.

  99. John Wayne says:

    Lots of great ideas in here:
    – I’ve always liked the story of the discovery of Kevlar; good personal interest, extension of our understanding of physical properties, and gives credit to one of the earlier female scientists; also, it improves my slapshot
    – I hearty second to household products. The chemical principles they are based on tend to be very basic (soap scum remover = quaternary amines, Oxyclean vs bleach, etc.) and probably make interesting bits that most people can relate too.
    – While I am a total synthesis guy by training, I don’t think that the greats should be drawn out too much. Overall, I’d message that section as ‘we didn’t think we could make urea, then we made that, quinine, some huge therapeutically interesting molecules and now we have a grip.’ I don’t think people outside of the field can appreciate a lot of the details. I’m preaching to the choir here, but please don’t oversell our abilities 🙂

  100. An Old chemist says:

    War in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction
    Crisis in Syria over use of chemical weapons
    Acid attacks on women
    Formation of amino acids and polycyclic hydrocarbons in deep space and then their transportation to earth on coments
    Search for methane on Mars
    Raman spectroscopy to detect the composition of stars and planets millions of light-years away
    Why nature chose phosphorous, and pentoses not hexoses
    Carbon-based life on earth
    earth has Silicon and mars has Iron
    Nylon parachutes/panties
    Rubber for so many things including cars/condoms
    Light aircrafts and airships for space travels

  101. J. L. Proust, the founder of analytical chemistry, and his law of definite proportions vs. Berthollet and his non-stoichiometric compounds.

  102. J. L. Proust, the founder of analytical chemistry, and his law of definite proportions vs. Berthollet and his non-stoichiometric compounds.

  103. Paul Moskowitz says:

    Alchemy perhaps? Turning Pb into Au. I once did some work at CERN-ISOLDE, where Pb was made into many other elements including Au.
    I look forward to the Chemistry Book.

  104. Jim Hu says:

    Perrin and Avogadro

  105. David says:

    The list of topics I read here seems great but I gather this is a book that should be written for the general public. I’d focus on topics that are closer to them. There aught to be really good stories behind oil refining, making of cement, carbon fiber, clay and ceramics, rubber and tire manufacture, glass making and molding and optical fiber, the first antibiotics and current problems, edible polymers and potential uses in packaging, biodegradable plastics, paper making, designer drugs, neon lights, spider webs, cotton, aurora borealis, light bulbs, paint, Gore-tex, Fireflyes and current use of luciferase, transitor manufacture, the chemistry behind cooking and current “molecular cooking” trends, or the chemistry of something as simple as bread, beer, whine or whiskey, milk, cheese. Food allergies and what an allergy is…I don’t know…but again may be I am getting the point of this book wrong.

  106. Scientistbymistake says:

    I’ve only had a very quick scan through, but Fritz Haber might merit a mention, if only to include the photo with the pince-nez as here:

  107. ddrpm says:

    The discovery of ether anesthesia and then the search for safer agents which eventually lead to the flourinated ethers we use today

  108. Steve says:

    Bhopal. Not because I’m chemophobic, but precisely because I’m not. It’s important that at some point the book looks at the dark side of chemistry – or it will be open to false claims of cheerleading.

  109. Doug Steinman says:

    Maybe include something about how the structure and composition of new chemicals is determined today compared to how that was done from the beginnings of chemistry. The structure identification of compounds is something that always comes up with my undergrad students, particularly in the context of the first determination of the structure of, for example, benzene. It should be a great book and I look forward to buying it.

  110. How about chemical terms which have become general parts of the language. “chemistry” for interpersonal interactions, “litmus test” for
    Tri-phasic solvent systems might be interesting to anyone who has watched a shaken salad dressing separate.
    Liquid crystals & other fun structural isomerizations (such as in vision)
    Crown ethers & other host-guest systems (clathrates, ionophore antibiotics) I think can be easily understood but quite imagination-provoking
    DNA origami & other self-assembling molecular systems.
    Molecular epitaxy, imaging single molecules, single molecule detection

  111. echemist says:

    I agree with the suggestions to include the Haber-Bosch process and Thomas Midgley’s work.
    As a practicing electrochemist, something about Michael Faraday would be nice too.
    Looking forward to the book!

  112. echemist says:

    I agree with the suggestions to include the Haber-Bosch process and Thomas Midgley’s work.
    As a practicing electrochemist, something about Michael Faraday would be nice too.
    Looking forward to the book!

  113. Ted says:

    invention of flame ionization detector for GC made possible analysis of traces of pollutants – giving rise to modern environmental movement.
    Development of DDT – greatly diminished malaria, until it was banned.

  114. Sweden Calling says:

    #86 “chemistry humor would be interesting”. A tough one. Tried that. Didn’t get any reaction… ; )

  115. Cip says:

    Hmm..earlier post mentioned alchemists. Todays equivalent would be the bioartists that build biospheres and squat space for labs. Expertise, education and equipment are certainly variable, but it’s a growing trend. Focus is mainly on agriculture and herbology with some positive statements on GM food. So that’s unlike rest of the art scene.
    Chemistry involved is mostly done by hobbyists with few exeptions.

  116. Cip says:

    Hmm..earlier post mentioned alchemists. Todays equivalent would be the bioartists that build biospheres and squat space for labs. Expertise, education and equipment are certainly variable, but it’s a growing trend. Focus is mainly on agriculture and herbology with some positive statements on GM food. So that’s unlike rest of the art scene.
    Chemistry involved is mostly done by hobbyists with few exeptions.

  117. Cip says:

    Hmm..earlier post mentioned alchemists. Todays equivalent would be the bioartists that build biospheres and squat space for labs. Expertise, education and equipment are certainly variable, but it’s a growing trend. Focus is mainly on agriculture and herbology with some positive statements on GM food. So that’s unlike rest of the art scene.
    Chemistry involved is mostly done by hobbyists with few exeptions.

  118. Cip says:

    Hmm..earlier post mentioned alchemists. Todays equivalent would be the bioartists that build biospheres and squat space for labs. Expertise, education and equipment are certainly variable, but it’s a growing trend. Focus is mainly on agriculture and herbology with some positive statements on GM food. So that’s unlike rest of the art scene.
    Chemistry involved is mostly done by hobbyists with few exeptions.

  119. Cip says:

    Hmm..earlier post mentioned alchemists. Todays equivalent would be the bioartists that build biospheres and squat space for labs. Expertise, education and equipment are certainly variable, but it’s a growing trend. Focus is mainly on agriculture and herbology with some positive statements on GM food. So that’s unlike rest of the art scene.
    Chemistry involved is mostly done by hobbyists with few exeptions.

  120. Moz says:

    How about the Pitch Drop Experiment, Univeristy of Queensland. Longest running laboratory experiment at 86yrs and counting

  121. AD says:

    Willson, Ito, and Frechet’s development of chemically amplified resists and the effect on the semi-conductor industry.

  122. Graduate Student says:

    121 in and nobody has mentioned JJ Thompson and the first mass spec? I can’t believe you wouldn’t have included that already Derek, but seems important.

  123. BCP says:

    The central role of chirality in the thalidomide story, and it’s impact on the regulation of drug development seems worth a mention.

  124. Rockette Morton says:

    Think some of the modern chemical biology will be of general interest target pull downs probe localisation etc. Millikan’s oil drop /Avogadro’s number? The sleeping addicts and designer drugs (importance of adequate QC and purification)?

  125. Haftime says:

    lithium cobaltate, high T super conductors, perovskitse.

  126. An Old chemist says:

    Radiochemistry (technitium)
    Agricultural chemistry-ethylene gas as a quick ripening agent for fruits
    Laughing gas
    Biological significance of a simple molecule like Nitric Oxide (NO)
    Colorful artificial dyes without which the World would have been a dull place

  127. LRM says:

    Here’s some, that the general public would be able to recognize as useful, and that would make for good reading:
    1. Someone previously mentioned the Royal Purple dye from ancient times, obtained from the Murex snail – this could be a good introduction to the color blue from natural sources, from cultivated indigo plants, and from synthetic indigo. Plus, this covers a multitude of centuries.
    2. The history of soap – how it was made for centuries, and then move onto the development of modern synthetic and semi-synthetic surfactants, and the efforts towards development of biodegradable surfactants. Everyone uses soap and detergents, so it’s something familiar – it would also be a way to work in some Green chemistry.
    3. The history of Kevlar – originally for tire cords. It failed to catch on for this, but has found its greatest use in body armor. It’s a way to show that not plastics can save lives.

  128. Veracitor says:

    Something about invisible inks, which absorbed a curious amount of chemical brainpower in the 20th Century.
    A historical, not technical, article:

  129. Veracitor says:

    Naturally you will not omit the vulcanization of rubber (latex, synthetic rubber, and eventually other polymers) which has got to be one of the most important gifts Chemistry ever brought to our mechanized world.

  130. Bleh says:

    Emil Fischer’s proof of the configuration of glucose was what hooked me onto organic chemistry in junior year of high school. if that’s your target readership, it certainly deserves a mention. In brief:

  131. Bleh says:

    Oops. just read comment #94. Guy misspelled Fischer, so I didnt find it with Ctrl+F

  132. lvv says:

    Mendeleev and eka-compounds
    (methane) clathrate
    PET and/or MRI – Why are so Expensive

  133. Jonadab says:

    Practical application stories tend to work well for a general audience, so I’ll second the development of photography and of affordable aluminum refining and perhaps also synthetic rubber, and I hereby propose the story of the Post-It note (wherein they discovered a chemical with interesting properties, different from what they had been looking for, and went looking for practical applications).
    If you want something simultaneously hair-raising and yet also close to home for non-chemists, throw in a page about what can happen when well-meaning people put bleach and ammonia in the same mop water.

  134. Morten G says:

    You’ve worked on carbohydrate chemistry – how about something about glucose-protein reactivity? Good example of how life is lived on the balance and how concentration can affect how a reaction goes. Ties into general public interest through diabetes.
    Lovely explanation here:
    Also exemplifies reversible vs irreversible and oxygen environment vs anoxic.

  135. An Old chemist says:

    @133: ACS published a short book, many years ago, titled “serendipity in Chemistry/Science?”. I guess it was compiled by late Ernest Eliel(?).

  136. Anon says:

    Roger Tsien’s development of calcium indicators for imaging and reengineering of GFP. Or in the words of the Wolf Prize: “…contribution to the design and biological application of novel fluorescent and photolabile molecules to analyze and perturb cell signal transduction.”

  137. dearieme says:

    In case it’s any help:
    i) “An Approach to Chemistry” by F D de Korosy: I wish I had had it at secondary school, but it didn’t come out until afterwards.
    ii) I like the thrust of Dasent’s “Nonexistent Compounds”.

  138. RD says:

    It might be more medicine/biology than chemistry, but I’d like to suggest the “father of toxicology”, Paracelsus, who came up with the maxim that’s now condensed to “the dose makes the poison”. He also named zinc, and invented laudanum by playing around with the (organic vs aqueous) solubility of opiates.

  139. Lighter Fluid says:

    Some ideas-
    The early experiments with oils by Langmuir and others leading to the discovery of lipid bilayers touches on various concepts important to biochemistry.
    Rubber too has an interesting history – both in terms of colonialist expansion and exploitation, the chemistry of the stretchy stuff, and the push-pull of technologies.

  140. Becky says:

    great news about the books; I look forward to them. I’ve been lurking here for quite awhile. I’m not much of a chemist (electronics major) but do enjoy the stories and the history of chemistry. Also, thanks for the links to the Gergel books. What a hoot!

  141. k. says:

    You probably shouldn’t be listening to me since I’m not a chemist. I’m descended from a long line of chemists, though, on one side, which explains both how I know this story and how I know how it happened:
    My uncle (other side of the family) is so color-blind that he couldn’t do any of the “flame tests” that were considered to teach basic chemistry as late as I was in school, so he never even attempted to study the subject.
    As a result, he never learned that mixing “common” ammonia and chlorine bleach was a truly bad idea until he forced the evacuation of the grocery store he was mopping as a part-time job during high-school.
    I’m genuinely not suggesting that your book delve into just how bad an idea that was so much as I’m suggesting that a similarly ignorant populace probably commits even worse accidents on a daily basis, which is the reason this non-chemist values your insights so much!

  142. chemdiary says:

    cisplatin-“accidental” discovery and how it became the most effective drug for some types of cancer

  143. Nile says:

    Salvarsan: not the drug itself, but the method of its discovery. A landmark in the emergence of the pharmaceutical industry.

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