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Science Gifts

Science Gifts 2014: General Books (and More) on Chemistry

It’s that time of year again! I wanted to go ahead and put up a few posts over the next few days with science- and chemistry-themed gift recommendations. Today will be books in the general chemistry category.
I’ve mentioned Theodore Gray’s book The Elements before as an fine gift for anyone’s who’s interested in science or chemistry. I have a copy at home, although I still don’t have the follow-up, the Elements Vault, which has some chemical samples in it (doubtless some of the more obtainable and less offensive elements!)
This year, Gray has a second volume out in what he says will be a trilogy: Molecules. I haven’t seen this one yet in person, but it looks like it has high production values, and Chemjobber enjoyed the accompanying iPad and iPhone app.
Two years ago I ordered the companion Elements Jigsaw Puzzle, which I did with the kids during January and February, to produce a three-foot-wide periodic table with information and photographs of each element. 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.
There are other good entries in this area. The Disappearing Spoon is an entertaining book on various odd properties of the elements (chemists will have said “Gallium!” by now just after having seen the title). I haven’t seen Periodic Tales myself, but it comes well recommended. Readers here have also recommended Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History and the (out of print) 1959 The Romance of Chemistry by Keith Irwin.
Update: Stuart Cantrill has a very good list of popular-level science books here, and from that I’d like to add two by Thomas Hager that I’ve also heard good things about: The Alchemy of Air, on the Haber-Bosch process and its effects on everything from feeding the world to the rise of Hitler, and The Demon Under the Microscope, on the discovery of sulfanilamide. And fellow chem-blogger Wavefunction recommends 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. It originally had a number of errors in its chemistry, but looking at the current paperback, I see that things have been fixed in many cases.
A slightly different note is struck by another book I’ve long recommended, Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten, which is a memoir as well as a meditation on chemistry (and the love of chemistry). 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 last year 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. . .)
I should note here that the links above are affiliate links to Amazon and iTunes, meaning that although your price per item will be the same, I’ll receive a percentage of the sales through them. I promise to use it wisely. Mostly.

12 comments on “Science Gifts 2014: General Books (and More) on Chemistry”

  1. John says:

    Is the long awaited Chemistry Book by Derek Lowe available for this year’s holliday season?

  2. Anonymous says:

    ” Elements Vault, which has some chemical samples in it (doubtless some of the more obtainable and less offensive elements!)”
    How about an advent calendar containing samples of the chemical elements?

  3. Semichemist says:

    One of your posts a while back mentioned Ignition! by John D. Clark, that was a phenomenal read.
    Open access PDF:

  4. Wavefunction says:

    Mark Miodownik’s “Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World” is a must-have on this year’s list. It just won the Royal Society’s Winton Prize and is an exemplary case of popular chemistry writing.
    Among other holiday reading titles I always recommend Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, arguably one of the greatest books ever written, as well as Horace Freeland Judson’s “The Eighth Day of Creation” which is the definitive history of molecular biology. Also pretty much anything by Freeman Dyson for a refreshing and poetic contrarian experience. And if your tastes run toward WW2 history, Rick Atkinson’s marvelous trilogy.
    Happy holiday reading!

  5. UndergradMinion says:

    It’s not a chemistry book, but I think I should mention Randall Munroe’s book “what if?”
    Everyone who enjoys some science geekiness will love this. (Althoug I skipped through the german edition and it struck me as pretty much a summary of the online what ifs…)

  6. SolidStateChem says:

    I would like to suggest Robert Hazen’s “The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor”. A book that I read as an undergraduate and which single handedly got me interested in solid state chemistry and doing a PhD. Upon rereading it later, I realised it gives a pretty realistic description of the highs and lows of doing real research.”The Diamond Makers” and “Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins” by the same author are also pretty good read.

  7. Steven says:

    I received Uncle Tungsten as a gift last year and it’s an absolute joy to read. I’d highly recommend it as well.

  8. Steven says:

    I received Uncle Tungsten as a gift last year and it’s an absolute joy to read. I’d highly recommend it as well.

  9. nmr.wars says:

    Wanted to get the Elements Jigsaw Puzzle for my daughter, unfortunately not available in Europe…

  10. Eric says:

    I’d also recommend “Napolean’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History”. It’s a fantastic look at simple molecules that we often take for granted, and the huge impact they have had on history and modern society.

  11. Slurpy says:

    Three recommendations:
    The New Science of Strong Materials, or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor by J.E. Gordon.
    Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, also by Gordon.
    Doktor Kaboom!’s “Try This At Home” DVD.
    And another recommendation for Uncle Tungsten. Napoleon’s Buttons never caught me, unfortunately, I only made it about 1/3 of the way through, for some reason.

  12. chemdiary says:

    I have been reading The World’s Greatest Fix by G.J. Leigh and it’s great so far.

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