The Case of the Poisonous Socks: Tales from Chemistry

December 15, 2011

As I conduct my laboratory experiments every day, pushing the boundaries of science ever forwards, I must confess I don't give much thought to the scientific history that came before "my time". However, behind each of the tools of my trade there is a story and a scientist. Reading The Case of the Poisonous Socks has given me insight into some fascinating stories from the 19th and 20th centuries that form the basis of the field of chemistry today.

The author, William Brock, is a well-established science historian; in this book, he has assembled a revised collection of essays aiming to introduce a general audience to some curious and interesting stories from the history of chemistry. The essays are arranged into themes, encompassing chemistry for the future, chemical societies, notable chemists, women in chemistry, chemical literature and chemists who were famous for "other things".

The book is named after its first essay, and perhaps misleadingly so, as mystery and poison are not commonplace in the subsequent narratives. Nevertheless, on the whole I found the tales intriguing and absorbing. For example, H2O, CO2 and all the chemical symbols that come so naturally, the existence of which I've never even questioned, were devised by a Swedish chemist, Jöns Berzelius, in 1813 (and thank goodness he did, because the atomic hieroglyphics used before then were atrocious). Fritz Haber was the tragic German chemist who revolutionised agriculture with artificial fertilisers and pesticides, but who also instigated and encouraged the use of chemical warfare in the trenches of the First World War (believing it would bring about a rapid conclusion to the conflict). Kikunae Ikeda was the Japanese chemist who isolated the fifth taste, umami, and showed it to be monosodium glutamate. Justus von Liebig was the man predominantly responsible for developing the modern teaching laboratory, turning what was typically a poorly ventilated back room into the facility we would recognise today, with fume hoods, individual workstations, sinks and Bunsen burners. These tales and many more are enjoyable and enlightening, and often made me chuckle, sometimes to myself and sometimes out loud.

The book's structure, while admirable in its intention, necessarily means that the essays can appear a bit piecemeal. If it is read conventionally, this jumping backwards and forwards through time can get a little confusing. To add to this, frequent (but non-chronological) references to apparently multiple chemical societies that were in existence, being disbanded or being renamed throughout the 19th century become bewildering. As with some historical novels, it would have helped enormously to have a timeline of the major events and societies for constant referral, in order to easily place each tale in its appropriate context.

Throughout, Brock's writing style is more that of a science historian than a popular science writer. Consequently, sifting through the (often unnecessary) historical detail to tease out the essence of the story being told can be hard work at times. Combined with some occasions where chemical knowledge is assumed, this may make for difficult reading for a lay audience (although it will not be inaccessible if you can remember your school science lessons). Nevertheless, anyone with more than a passing interest in chemistry should find it thoroughly enjoyable and perhaps will come away, as I did, remembering that sometimes things can be learned in science by looking to the past, as well as to the future.

The Case of the Poisonous Socks: Tales from Chemistry

By William H. Brock. Royal Society of Chemistry. 362pp, £19.99.ISBN 9781849733243. Published 12 September 2011

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