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Book Recommendations

Chemistry-Themed Books, 2019

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. Update: I certainly need to mention the new Superheavy, on the transuranic elements. 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”. He now has a similar follow-up, How To, which continues the mayhem (!)

A reader pointed out in the comments to this post that John Clark’s (in)famous Ignition! is back in print, courtesy of Rutgers University Press. This is quite a read for anyone who knows some chemistry, as it’s a first-hand look at the early days of rocket propellant research and features a great number of experiments that no one should ever contemplate doing ever again. Your eyebrow-raising muscles will get a workout.

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 Handbook has 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. . .)

24 comments on “Chemistry-Themed Books, 2019”

  1. luysii says:

    It is likely that chemists have heard of quantum computing and its (hopefully soon) implications for theoretical chemistry. While not strictly chemical, I strongly recommend “Quantum Computing for Everyone” by Chris Bernhardt. It will take you step by step from quantum mechanics (which chemists already have been exposed to) to how the various algorithms work (or don’t). The math is just linear algebra, nothing more (no Schrodinger equation). In addition, it is incredibly clear and well written. For more details please see —

    Since all chemists use computers, I also recommend the (very creepy) “Sandworm” by Andy Greenberg. You won’t like it — but you should read it as you may already have malware on your computer, just waiting to be activated.

  2. XKCD fan says:

    Randal Monroe’s “How To” is along the lines of “How not to do it”. Self-proclaimed as “the world’s least useful self-help book.” Disclaimer: I don’t have it yet, but I do want it.

  3. BBQ lover says:

    “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling” has a bunch of scientific discussions and experiments specifically on barbecueing. A co-author is a physicist and food-scientist. As a chemist and aspiring barbecuer I love it.

  4. anon says:

    You should get kickbacks for these.

    1. aninomis says:

      He does, I think. It’s through the Amazon affiliate links program

  5. MP says:

    Vigorous second for Uncle Tungsten. My favorite Sacks book.

  6. Scott says:

    Still waiting for you to write up an illustrated coffee-table edition of Things I Won’t Work With, Derek!

    1. metaphysician says:

      Agreed. Definitely would be a day one purchase here.

    2. Jan says:

      I am waiting for this one eagerly.

  7. Phil says:

    Could you start a separate line of “Non-chemistry books Derek recommends” – I’ve read this blog for years now and every time you recommend a general reading title I buy it – this year “All the customer’s yachts” and “Adventures in the screen trade” which always end up with my buying related titles. It strikes me you have great taste in general non-fiction, ie. the same as mine, but I’ve never heard of them being a Brit. Obviously the TIWWW would be a shoo-in.

  8. anon says:

    Matthew Hartings “Chemistry in Your Kitchen” is no longer “forthcoming.” I’ve owned a copy since April. It’s pretty good.

  9. chemjobber says:

    Another plug for Matt Hartings’ book “Chemistry in Your Kitchen” – very entertaining.

  10. Klagenfurt says:

    Uh, who on Earth is gonna read all this?

  11. Jon says:

    “The Elements” jigsaw puzzle is truly evil if you get one side wrong at the outset. You wind up trying all perfectly black pieces in perfectly black spaces and at the end there’s one that doesn’t fit. Ask me how I know…

  12. Neal says:

    I’m glad to see you included Randell’s book, as his “Pressure Cooker” What-if? was what introduced me to your blog!

    I can also second his “How To” book as being worth the money.

    1. metaphysician says:

      Don’t forget the Thing Explainer!

  13. MA says:

    You’ve referenced John Clark’s Ignition a few times in posts here and there. It’s back in press, link in name.

  14. Norrie Russell says:

    Bill Bryson’s latest offering “The Body, a guide for occupants” is a scintillating and humorous read. In his brilliant, bestselling “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, Bill Bryson set off to explore the universe and the science of everything in it. In The Body, he turns his gaze inwards, to try to understand the extraordinary contraption that is us. As he guides us around the human body to discover how it functions, what can go wrong and its remarkable ability to heal itself, what emerges is that we are infinitely more complex, wondrous and mysterious than any of us might have suspected.

  15. loupgarous says:

    Isaac Asimov’s Atom takes you from Democritus (and even before) to quarks in an expansive history of particle theory. My wife brought home a paperback copy from a church rummage sale, and I devoured it.

    I generally find Asimov’s nonfiction style orotund at times, but in Atom what you get is an engaging read on an (at times) difficult topic for the nonspecialist. I gave a copy to my grandson, who has developed a strong bent toward history for history’s sake.

    Another good Christmas gift (solidly related to chemistry because of the starring role of chemists Hahn, Strassmann, Seaborg, and others therein ) is Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which is excellent science history and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for history. It’s a densely-researched but highly enjoyable read full of insights into the personalities of early radiochemistry and nuclear physics.

    (Rhodes’ follow-on to that book, Dark Sun, the Making of the Hydrogen Bomb is even more densely-researched, but suffers from an acute case of political axe-grinding, so is not nearly so enjoyable as The Making of the Atomic Bomb – emphatically not a good gift book for most people, although a great reference for anyone seeking to understand how thermonuclear weapons work.)

  16. R Gould-Saltman says:

    The references to “home” chem experiments and “Uncle Tungsten” brought back fond memories of SciAm’s “Amateur Scientist”, which apparently succumbed, at around century’s end, to editorial and commercial demands, and not as I had suspected, to liability fears. (“KItchen Gas chromatography? Build an argon laser in your garage? What could possibly go wrong?!” )
    Sacks notes, in “Uncle”, that the stuff he “played” with as a child, and which I played with in the 1960’s, would probably get a modern-day kid removed from his parents by various government agencies.
    The complete run of “Amateur Scientist” is apparently available on CD-ROM a now…

    1. loupgarous says:

      The pitchblende in the 1960s A.C. Gilbert chemistry set I owned as a kid would prompt a visit from the state radiation safety cops now. The more politically-correct set Mom got me later… well, the first thing I did with it Christmas day was clear my bedroom of pesky relatives by making hydrogen sulfide (heat wax and sulfur over the thoughtfully-provided methanol lamp… and stand back!). If I’d known more toxicology, I might have done that one outside.

  17. Bublogta says:

    thanks for share it 🙂

  18. Rich Rostrom says:

    “the Haber-Bosch process which … was of great use to the Third Reich …”

    ITYM “the Second Reich”. The great impact of Haber-Bosch on history was that it enabled Imperial Germany to fight WW I for four years despite being cut off from nitrate imports by the British blockade. (Nitrates were essential to manufacturing explosives as well as fertilizer.)

    By the time of WW II, Haber-Bosch was almost 30 years old. While it was valuable, so were a lot of other well-established chemical and other industrial processes.

  19. Rich Rostrom says:

    “the Haber-Bosch process which … was of great use to the Third Reich …”

    ITYM “the Second Reich”. The great impact of Haber-Bosch on history was that it enabled Imperial Germany to fight WW I for four years despite being cut off from nitrate imports by the British blockade. (Nitrates were essential to manufacturing explosives as well as fertilizer.)

    By the time of WW II, Haber-Bosch was almost 30 years old. While it was valuable, so were a lot of other well-established chemical and other industrial processes.

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