Sugaring a bitter pill

Braving the Elements
February 9, 1996

In 1929 a bright young chemist, 31-year-old Wallace Carothers, was given a new laboratory on the banks of the Brandywine River, in Delaware, and allowed to do fundamental research. There he discovered nylon, a polymer that was to generate new industries and affect all our lives. But three weeks after it was patented, in 1937, he committed suicide by drinking cyanide solution, leaving behind, not only life of fame, fortune and possibly a Nobel prize, but a wife and six-month-old daughter.

Given this remarkable combination of great discovery and human tragedy, why is the story not part of the canon of popular science? It is neglected because chemists find it hard to communicate with the public, even when there is a fascinating story to tell. Some see this as the reason why chemistry is such an unloved and lonely science. Any book that tries to mend this state of affairs is welcome. If it has lots of good stories to tell then it is doubly welcome. If it tells them well, it is triply welcome. Harry Gray, John Simon and William Trogler relate the Carothers tale in a chapter devoted to various products of the chemicals industry we all take for granted, such as PVC, polyurethane, fibreglass and ceramics.

At first glance this appears to be a textbook for a one-semester course in chemistry at an American university, aimed at students for whom the bitter pill of chemistry must be heavily sugared. The authors of such texts generally start by telling you that chemistry is not difficult and can be fun, and then go on to prove it is hard work and boring. On the other hand the book's title hints that you may struggle, but then start reading, and that chemistry can be entertaining.

It begins with the traditional chapter on the periodic table, followed by one on the radioactive elements and one on chemical bonding, relating the subject to the real world where possible. Chapter four, "Newsworthy molecules", deals with fragrances, medicines, drugs and explosives. Disguised under the conventional heading of "Chemical reactivity", chapter five is full of interesting data about baking, indigestion and decaying books.

The book continues in this vein, with the exception of chapter six "Wall Street chemistry", which promises a heady mixture of chemistry and high finance. It starts well, with a brief discussion of the importance of the chemicals industry, and a table of the leading 30 chemical companies and their sales figures, but then peters out, to discuss the raw materials of the chemicals industry, focusing only on their chemistry and uses.

The upbeat tempo continues in the remaining chapters, which cover biochemistry (including proteins, enzymes, DNA, hormones, vitamins), photochemistry (colour, vision, sun-tan lotions, photography), atmospheric chemistry (CFCs, ozone, global warming, smog, acid rain) and ends with chemistry and cancer (natural toxins, smoking, pesticides, chemotherapy). There is a useful glossary, a hundred suggestions for further reading, and a superb index.

Experience suggests this book will fail to reach the audience that would most benefit: the non-chemist. In theory any educated person could spend many happy hours browsing through this delightful book; in practice few will. Which is sad because here is a clear guide to many of the perplexing issues of our day that involve chemicals, and when the media message is generally distorted by the environmentalist lobby.

Although chemists are blamed for the chemicals that are said to blight our lives and our planet, we are rarely asked for our opinions on such issues as food additives, atmospheric pollution, asbestos, dioxins, carbon dioxide, drugs and fertilisers. All the more reason then to seek out this book.

John Emsley is science writer in residence, Imperial College, London, and the winner of the 1995 Rhone Poulenc Science Book Prize for his Consumer's Good Chemical Guide.

Braving the Elements

Author - Harry Gray, John Simon and William Trogler
ISBN - 0 935702 34 2
Publisher - University Science Books
Price - £18.95
Pages - 418

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