Skip to main content

Molecules - Theodore Gray ***

I have been flip-flopping like a confused politician over whether to give this book three or four stars. Part of me wants to give it three, because I really can't see the point of coffee table books. Apart from anything else, I haven't got a coffee table. As far as I can see such books are just designed for decoration, too big to really read, just to be flipped through occasionally. Admittedly, this is at the small end of such volumes, but it is decidedly hard on the wrists if you try to read it, and I think it has to count as one.

But then I switch round and am tempted to like it much more. It is full colour, glossy pages all the way, and some of the illustrations are very good. Rather than simply list a whole load of chemical compounds and why they are interesting, in parts of the book Theodore Gray really makes things come alive by linking together a set of the page spreads. For instance there's a reaction via sulfuric acid leading to ether (no, I'm not being American, the Royal Society of Chemistry insists on sulfur rather than sulphur, as my spellchecker wistfully wants it still to be, these days). But rather than just show the sequence of molecules, Gray gives it to us three times, first with the rather beautiful alchemical names like 'oil of vitriol' and 'spirit of wine', then with the common names and finally the modern systematic names.

There are other good sequences, like a section on soaps. But here is where I flop back again to my final three star rating. In the end the overall effect still was a little bit dull. There are rather a lot of chemical structures (inevitably), which though done with pretty graphics, look dim and uninspiring on the arty, but in the end off-putting black background on which each page is based. And in the end, the book has no continuity, no arc, nothing to make it readable as a continuing narrative. It's a collection of facts. Sometimes interesting facts - but not what makes for good popular science. It might make a good school book, though. And it's certainly a worthwhile effort - a handsome and pictorially impressive presentation.

Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…