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Chemistry-Themed Books for Non-Chemist Readers

As a follow-up to my earlier post on specialist medicinal chemistry and drug discovery books, I wanted to include a separate list of chemistry-themed books for general readers. I should note here that the links here are affiliate links to Amazon, meaning that although your price per item will be the same, I’ll receive a percentage of the sales through them, which I promise to use for vital stuff like pizza and more books to line my own shelves. As suggestions for further titles show up, I’ll add them to this post.

One of the best out there remainsTheodore 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. I haven’t personally seen his first 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. His next book, Molecules, continues the high standard, and will teach any lay reader a good deal of chemistry without them even realizing it. There’s an iPad and iPhone app for that one, too, which I haven’t seen.

These have expanded into a whole set of companion gifts. A few years ago, I got the Elements Jigsaw Puzzle, which I did with the kids 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. (See the second section below for more from him).

There are a number of popular chemistry books out there (see the other post today for a first recommendation!) 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. 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 physical sample of each element into a big periodic table.

Thomas Hager has written several books of interest: The Alchemy of Air, on the Haber-Bosch process which simultaneously was of great use to the Third Reich and has 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. Fellow chem-blogger Wavefunction has recommended Stuff Matters, a new book on materials science. An inevitable subset of books on chemistry concentrates 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 Handbook has done very well since its publication as well, although the original hardback has some errors which have been corrected in later printings.

On the other end of things, 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, and of course the classic book in this category, On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee.

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.

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 should mention that I don’t actually recommend his recent (posthumous) memoir, which struck me as rather flat and not adding to his legacy very much, but your mileage may vary. Another memoir, 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. . .)

6 comments on “Chemistry-Themed Books for Non-Chemist Readers”

  1. Chrispy says:

    “Happy Accidents” is a great book about serendipity in drug discovery, enjoyable by both scientists and laypeople. It makes drug discoverers sound like a bunch of clueless, occasionally lucky hacks, but there you go.

  2. Anon says:

    I found “Absolutely Small” by Michael D. Fayer to be an excellent introduction to quantum mechanics. It’s targeted toward a general audience, and so it explains the concepts and the history of the field without getting bogged down in the mathematics behind it.

  3. gippgig says:

    Any books for a general audience focused on chemical engineering or the sort of similar applied home chemistry (besides the cooking tie-ins)?
    Another book that needs to be written if it hasn’t already is Handling Hazardous Household Chemicals (and Less Hazardous Alternatives).

  4. SnupSnus says:

    Any recommendations from you, or the readers, for interesting Neuroscience themed gifts (books I guess)?

  5. switchnode says:

    Another good ‘un in the bug-hunting category is The Forgotten Plague by Frank Ryan (the development of most of the early TB drug families); less chemistry-related but just as entertaining are Berton Roueché’s medical essays (collected in the Medical Detectives omnibi and in a number of smaller books) and Paul de Kruif’s classic Microbe Hunters. I enjoyed The Poisoner’s Handbook as well.

    Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything has some chemistry; Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge has some more (particularly on early industrial chemistry), not to mention a great hook.

    Of course, the two crucial chemistry books are John D. Clark’s Ignition! and Max Gergel’s Excuse Me, Sir, Would You Like To Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide? But I know you know that.

    How is The Disappearing Spoon, really? I didn’t really care for Kean’s The Dueling Neurosurgeons (although it’s quite popular; you may want to check it out, SnupSnus) and have always been a little skeptical of those periodic potpourri books—I grew up on Asimov’s essays and always seem to have heard the best stories before.

  6. Jeff says:

    I don’t know the print status, but I can’t recommend enough Isaac Asimov’s “The World of Carbon” and “The World of Nitrogen”. They made organic chemistry come alive for me.

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