Skip to main content

The Elements of Murder – John Emsley ****

This darkly framed book is subtitled “a history of poison”, which on its own is a bit misleading, as it’s actually a history of elements that have been used as poisons, omitting many poisons that aren’t based on pure elements and some highly poisonous elements (such as plutonium) that haven’t been used as such (unless you count the TV show, Heart of Darkness).
In niggle mode, I was slightly surprised to be told that molten antimony has the unique property of expanding as it solidifies – the same is, of course, true of molten ice.
However, that shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is a very readable and intriguing plunge into the history of our relationship with these darkly dangerous chemicals.
John Emsley is at his best when he is plunging with gusto into a historical tale of poisoning and intrigue – for example the romantic if gruesome story of the lengthy (and eventually successful) attempts to poison Sir Thomas Overbury in the early 1600s, not for some Machiavellian political end but because he was interfering with the marital intentions of Frances, the daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, and she was not a woman to be trifled with.
Sometimes a little less effective are the details of the poisons themselves and how they work, which can get a little repetitive, but Emsley brings us back to the stories with enough regularity that there’s always a little more you’d like to read.
It may seem that the detail of murder stories isn’t exactly in the best interests of popular science – but books like this have to be readable, and the inclusion of these stories makes this an even more effective book than still interesting but occasionally a little worthy study of the effects of arsenic, Venomous Earth.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…