Elemental Uffizi

Molecules at an Exhibition
June 5, 1998

Allow an experienced chemist with a talent for communication to take an ample portion of chemistry and blend it with a helping of general science, flavour with a background of historical fact, anecdotes and personal knowledge, and finally garnish with a sprinkling of humour. The result is this outstanding general science publication, Molecules at an Exhibition by John Emsley.

The title provides a clue to the book's novel format. The reader takes the role of a visitor to an exhibition of word portraits of elements, chemicals and materials, which are beautifully composed by Emsley using his ability to paint with the English language.

The exhibition has eight galleries (chapters) consisting of collections of loosely connected portraits which cover subjects such as chemicals found in the home, those present in our diets, molecules in the environment, fuel materials, beneficial drugs, chemicals that have been abused and elements that can kill.

The format allows the casual reader to browse at random throughout the galleries losing nothing in not having read the preceding pages. Similarly the more dedicated reader will find equal pleasure in passing through all of the galleries while being able to revisit those portraits of particular interest further to digest the wealth of information supplied.

The book is written in an entertaining and humorous style. Who could fail to be intrigued by portraits of chemicals with titles such as "plastic dickies and exploding balls" and "smoke a cig or lick a frog"?

The exceedingly well-researched portraits provide historical perspectives, general scientific information and often an overview of a chemical's environmental impact. Many of the portraits reveal to the reader the positive role that modern chemicals, drugs and materials have upon our everyday lives.

Obviously useful molecules such as penicillin are present in the galleries. In addition, others that at first glance might not be expected to have any beneficial applications are included, for example sodium azide, which is both highly toxic and explosive, is revealed to be a life-saver, too. The book is well balanced: it also includes those chemicals that are harmful to ourselves and to the environment.

One of the galleries is reserved for "strictly private" viewing only (which will undoubtedly improve its popularity with casual readers) and displays portraits of some of the commonly abused chemicals, such as ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and nicotine. The final gallery, "elements from hell", comprises portraits of toxic heavy metals and radioactive elements including cadmium, lead and plutonium and includes molecules such as sarin, which the Aum cult in Japan made notorious.

Emsley has made a particular effort throughout the book to address some of the scare stories that have appeared in the popular media in recent years. Anyone who has read the stories about "gender-bending" phthalates, the link between aluminium and Alzheimer's disease, pollution-causing detergents or cot deaths being the result of antimony poisoning should read this book for a reasoned analysis of the scientific facts that have often been forgotten in the hysteria created by sensational headlines. The effects of over-reacting to preliminary or poorly researched scientific data are also tackled. Emsley reports, for example, that a process that used the solvent dichloromethane (DCM) was successfully being developed to turn abattoir waste into useful BSE-free animal feed; however, during this work DCM was wrongly accused of damaging the earth's ozone layer and of causing an increased risk of cancer in those people exposed to it. A solvent-free method was therefore adopted for general use, which probably allowed the BSE-causing agent to survive the process and to enter the food chain.

Emsley also poses moral questions that he leaves for the reader to consider. For example, common salt is used to keep streets clear of snow and ice in winter even though it is known to kill hundreds of roadside saplings and mature trees each year. A more environmentally friendly but more expensive alternative exists. Should we continue to use the economically cheap option and as a result pay the high environmental price?

Molecules at an Exhibition is a fine example of popular science writing at its best. It is educational, interesting, may prove inspirational and therefore deserves to find a very wide readership. The non-scientific public will find that this book provides them with an entertaining and enlightening introduction to the roles that chemistry and science play in our everyday lives. Scientists from all fields will also find it a very enjoyable read. Science teachers, lecturers, students and anyone looking for a source of general information on a number of common materials and chemicals will find that Molecules at an Exhibition may also be used as a reference book; the index and bibliography are included and will prove to be a useful starting point for a more detailed data search elsewhere.

Amid the deserved praise there are, however, three minor criticisms. A number of typographical errors, scattered throughout the book, have escaped the proof-reading process, and the inclusion of some Internet resource addresses in the bibliography would have been valuable.

More importantly, there are no chemical formulae or molecular drawings in the volume. Emsley addresses this in his introduction, stating that such illustrations have been deliberately excluded. Although he does an admirable job in avoiding much of the "scientific language that can be one of the most effective barriers to understanding", a few illustrations would surely have complemented and assisted the reader in visualising his word portraits.

Molecules at an Exhibition is a credit to Emsley, whose previous book, the Consumer's Good Chemical Guide, won the 1995 Rhone-Poulenc science book prize for making science accessible and interesting. It will enable readers to startle and amaze their friends with their new-found knowledge of chemistry and science. Would you like to know how Hitler might have won the second world war? Or if it is possible to grow alternatives to fossil fuels? Which chemical produces the worst smell in the world? What caused the death of Mozart? How addictive is chocolate? How have the ingredients of Coca-Cola evolved? Read this outstanding book and discover the answers to these and many other questions.

Paul Birkett is an EPSRC advanced research fellow, Fullerene Science Centre, University of Sussex.

Molecules at an Exhibition: Portraits of Intriguing Materials in Everyday Life

Author - John Emsley
ISBN - 0 19 850266 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 250

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