Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's 1996 Picks of the Month

This file last modified 2/15/07

Selections for December, 1996:

" Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century", by Stephen Fenichell, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1996 (ISBN 0-88730-732-9, $25.00).

The dustcover for this book promises it to be an anti-chemistry diatribe, but I found the book itself, with the exception of a chapter near the end ("The Seat of the Plague") to be relatively even-handed in its treatment of the subject. It is full of interesting anecdotes about the history of polymers and their overwhelming impact on mankind. Is it possible to imagine the "modern" world without them? Any thoughtful person will concede that the plastics have had both positive and negative effects, and this book describes both. In my reading, the positive impacts far outweigh the negative. "Plastic" is not a chemistry book; Readers of Hal's Picks will probably already know the chemistry. Fenichell specializes in social commentary. "Plastics" provides history, social context, and opinion.

"Atmospheric Dust and Acid Rain", by Lars O. Hedin and Gene E. Likens, Scientific American, December, 1996, pp 88-92

The problem of acid rain has become almost a cliche in the teaching of environmental chemistry topics. Its causes and conseqences are by now quite well-understood, and I for one didn't expect to find anything written on the subject to be as surprising and as provocative as this article, that claims that our efforts to control the effects of acid precipitation are being partially undermined by the coincidental control of atmospheric dust and other particles in the air. This idea makes an interesting counterpoint to the EPA's recently-announced intention to consider reducing the allowable standard concentrations of both tropospheric ozone and small particles in the atmospheres of major US cities. Scientific American puts some articles and features on their Web page, but they didn't choose this one.

Selection for November, 1996:

"What If You Could Unscramble an Egg?", by Robert Ehrlich, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1996 (ISBN 0-8135-2254-4, $25.95).

Robert Ehrlich teaches physics at George Mason University. This is the third book by him that I have read recently. The other two, "Turning the World Inside Out And 174 Other Simple Physics Demonstrations" (Princeton University Press, 1990, $16.95-paper) and "The Cosmological Milkshake: A Semi-Serious Look at the Size of Things" (Rutgers University Press, 1994, $30.00-cloth, $14.95-paper) are also recommended. Ehrlich's sense of humor and his willingness to speculate about science make this book both a treasure trove of practical physics and an inspiration to teachers of science. Naturally, most of the subject matter is "physics", but one can hardly argue that speculation about, for example, the magnitudes of Planck's constant and the speed of light, or the question in the book title, is irrelevant to chemistry. You might want to disagree with his some of his answers, but I suspect he would encourage you to.

Selections for October, 1996:

"Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives", by Frank J. Sulloway, Pantheon Books, New York, 1996 (ISBN 0-679-44232-4, $30.00).

"Born to Rebel" provides quantitative data in support of a novel interpretation of the importance of birth order to personality development, evolution, and history. Many are comparing its insights to those of the author's hero, Charles Darwin. The notion that birth order is a very significant determinant of personality is not new, but Sulloway puts it in an entirely new and comprehensive context. This book will be a must for cocktail party conversation. I first learned about it from Robert S. Boyton's lengthy review in The New Yorker of October 7 ("The Birth of an Idea", p. 72).

"The Flight from Science and Reason", edited by Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, and Martin W. Lewis, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 775, 1996. Also available in paper from Johns Hopkins University Press for $19.95.

"The Flight from Science and Reason" is the proceedings of a conference by that name that was held in New York on May 31-June 2, 1995. I wish I could have been there! The nearly 600 pages of these proceedings are crammed with provocative ideas about the place of science in our society, with implications galore for teachers, from chemistry Nobelist Dudley Hershbach's leadoff essay, "Imaginary Gardens", to "Scientific Literacy" by James Trefil, to "Creationism, Ideology, and Science" by Eugenie C. Scott, to "Afrocentric Pseudoscience" by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, and dozens of others. Most of the stuff that the NYAS publishes is much too medical for my tastes, but every once in a while they come up with a real gem like this book. It happens just often enough for me to rationalize my membership. Nonmembers can purchase this volume for $95.00 in hardcover, or (presumably) at a lesser price in paper. Or try the library.

Selections for September, 1996:

"Chemists Learn to Preserve Historical Polymers While Probing Their Nature", by Stephen C. Stinson, Chemical and Engineering News, September 9, 1996, pp. 34-37

This news article in the ACS newsweekly, C&EN, reports the highlights of a symposium presented at the ACS Fall, 1996 national meeting in Orlando, Florida, on the topic of "polymers in museums". The article describes the chemistry associated with the deterioration of polymeric materials in museum collections, and also the role of polymers in the protection of other artifacts. Some plastics made in this century, especially those of cellulose nitrate, are especially prone to deterioration, and even threaten to destroy other objects stored nearby. On the other hand, polymers made 750 years ago have very successfully protected wooden printing blocks in a Korean museum. The printing blocks were coated with the concentrated sap of the Japanese varnish tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum, which is similar to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. No wonder the termites left it alone! There's lots more interesting chemistry in this article. Look it up. (C&EN is not available online.)

"A Moment on Earth - The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism", by Gregg Easterbrook, Penguin Books, New York, 1995 (ISBN 0-140-15451-5 in paper - $14.95 in US)

The state of the environment is widely assessed to be very poor and worsening, despite the contribution of chemists and other scientists to the understanding and the amelioration of mankind's influences. In this controversial book, Gregg Easterbrook argues that the environment of most of the Western world is improving and that there is no reason why the application of science and technology cannot lead to a future in which nature coexists with a larger and increasingly technologically-dependent population. In attempting to fashion a uniformly optimistic argument, I think that Mr. Easterbrook underestimates the significance of both anthropogenic atmospheric modification and the secondary effects of tropical forest destructiion. He also tends to view the environmental prospects of the Third World in a more favorable way that I think is justified. Nevertheless, I found his analysis of the national and international politics of the environment to be most interesting. If Easterbrook is Polyanna, perhaps we have had too many Cassandras.

Selections for August, 1996:

"Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001", by David S. McKay, Everett K. Gibson, Jr., Kathie L. Thomas-Keprta, Hojatollah Vali, Christopher S. Romanek, Simon J. Clemett, Xavier D. Chillier, Claude R. Maechling, and Richard N. Zare, Science 273, p. 924 (16 August, 1996)

How can little green men from Mars not be a "Pick of the Month"? This article has received a huge amount of notice in the popular press, and you've almost certainly heard about it by now. If you click on the highlighted word "Science" above, you can read the complete text of the paper for yourself, online. If you click here (while Science is still available online for free), you can read what Science's Richard A. Kerr wrote about the discovery, its skeptical reception, and its scientific implications. The possible impact (pardon the pun) of the announcement on the funding of extraterrestrial exploration are discussed by Andrew Lawler in the "News" section of the same issue. This work was supported by NASA, which includes commentary on their "breaking news" Web pages, but these may change soon. Do you (and your students) think that this evidence is sufficient to support the conclusion that life once existed elsewhere in our solar system? As you form your opinions, you might want also to consider"The Evolution of the Martian Climate", by Aaron P. Zent, in American Scientist 84 p. 442 (September-October 1996), which is also available in full-text online.

"Seven Experiments That Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science", by Rupert Sheldrake, Putnam Publishing Group, New York, 1995 (ISBN 1-57322-014 in paper).

I picked up this volume because its title suggested that it would encourage hands-on science activities that are essential to good teaching and effective learning. Unfortunately, I discovered on reading it that the author combines a deep antagonism for the scientific "establishment" with credulity for numerous fringe ideas. The first experiment that he suggests tests the hypothesis that your pet uses psychic powers to tell when you'll be home for dinner! Sheldrake frequently presents anecdotes as "evidence". The "do it yourself" promise of the title is broken for the reader who doesn't intend to begin raising homing pigeons or doesn't happen to work in a laboratory capable of measuring the physical constants (such as the speed of light) to nine significant figures. Far too few cautions about the pitfalls of psychic research are given (in chapters about the feeling of being stared at, or "feeling" the touch of a severed limb). Despite the nearly fatal flaws of the book, I liked a part of its message, that important science can still be done by amateurs. But be forewarned when your students ask you about "Seven Experiments ..."

Selection for July, 1996:

"Longitude", by Dava Sobel, Walker Publishing Company, New York, 1995 (available in paper).

This book is a nearly ideal choice for summer reading. It is small and short, it tells the fascinating, true story of John Harrison, who may have contributed more than any other individual to the establishment of the British Empire. Working alone, the self-taught Mr. Harrison built clocks that were capable of keeping time to within a few seconds per month, despite temperature changes and the rolling and pitching of a ship. By knowing the accurate time back in London and local time from observations of the sun, her Majesty's navigators could easily determine how far around the earth they had traveled. Harrison's tale is not solely a story of technology; equally interesting are the scientific alternatives to his amazing clocks, most of which involved astronomy - either observations of our moon or of Jupiter's moons. The pro-astronomy prejudices of the Board of Longitude, established by act of Parliament in 1714 to bestow a prize of 20,000 pounds on the first person to establish a practical means of establishing longitude, delayed Harrison's award for more than four decades. "Longitude" tends to slight the important technological details of his contributions. Interested readers might want to consult "Revolution in Time" by David S. Landes (Belnap/Harvard Press 1983) or "It's About Time", by Paul M. Chamberlain (Holland Press/Richard R. Smith Co. 1941 and 1964). A fine article about the modern way of navigation is "The Global Positioning System" by Thomas A. Herring in Scientific American, February 1996, p. 44.

Selections for June, 1996:

"My Turn: 'Making the Grade'", by Kurt Wiesenfeld, Newsweek, June 17, 1996, p. 16.

Professor Wiesenfeld teaches physics at Georgia Tech. He describes the onslaught of increasingly brazen students who, after the end of the semester, attempt to convince him to change grades they don't like to either a higher mark or to "incomplete". Sound familiar? Professor Wiesenfeld worries about the societal consequences of a generation of professionals who scraped through college on partial credit and wheedling.

"The Myth of Scientific Literacy", by Morris H. Shamos, Rutgers University Press (1995) ISBN 0-8135-2196-3 (cloth, $27.95)

If you are among the many high school and college chemistry teachers who have adopted the American Chemical Society's curricula, Chemistry in Context for college students or Chemistry in the Community (ChemCom) in secondary school, you will find that Morris Shamos will challenge the very basis of what you are trying to do, as well as the whole idea of "scientific literacy". Both Chemistry in Context and ChemCom are examples of the STS (Science-Technology-Society) approach to teaching, wherein the science necessary for a citizen to be "literate" is taught through current issues. Shamos says, "First of all, it is a mistake to think that STS can turn students on to science on to science as such (p. 147) and "STS seems to attract certain fringe groups of technology critics, neo-Luddites, anti-science cultures, and those who regard it as a convenient vehicle to lay many of the ills of modern civilization at the doorsteps of science and technology." (p. 148) He also has tough words for Project 2061 and the NSF's "Triad" program for elementary science. He does praise (an early version of) NSTA's Scope, Sequence, and Coordination efforts, but is skeptical of the National Science Education standards, which were nearing a final draft as he was writing. I don't agree with a great deal that Shamos says, but I do think, as he does, that the future of science education is worth arguing about. Shamos makes you think about what you are trying to accomplish, and whether it is possible to do it.

"Some Heretical Thoughts on What Our Students are Telling Us", by Roald Hoffman and Brian P. Coppola, in the Journal of College Science Teaching , pp. 390-394, May, 1996.

Reading the end-of-semester comments from their students, Nobelist Roald Hoffman and Brian Coppola have come to appreciate some often-painful truths. Their students tell them, "You don't have to understand everything in chemistry (or in this course) to earn a high grade, to operate as a successful human being in the world, or even to do creative work in the field". This is not what most of us enjoy hearing. Instead of "Your wonderful examples of chemistry in everyday life animated the subject for me", we often hear, if we listen, "I aced your exam by memorizing the formulas". The authors counsel us to celebrate the victories of our students, rather than lament their overall ignorance of science, and to accept the fact that their knowledge is likely to remain somewhat unconnected, rather than integrated and unifying. Yet, the authors advise us that "chemistry instruction at every level must be done in the context of a liberal arts education, fighting compartmentalization all the way and connecting chemistry to economics, literature, history, society, to culture". Couldn't have said it as well myself.

Selections for May, 1996:

"Schroedinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality: Solving the Quantum Mysteries", by John Gribbin, Little, Brown & Company (1995) ISBN 0-316--32838-3 (paper)

When I teach the quantum chemistry part of our physical chemistry sequence, I usually carve out one or two lectures to talk with my students about some of the wonderfully puzzling aspects of quantum measurements. I have often had students remark that this was their favorite part of the course, and I even had an alumnus (just finishing medical residency) recently come back to say that he intended to continue to study the implications of quantum theory throughout his lifetime. I think that perhaps the current trend to emphasize the applications of chemistry, chemistry in everyday life, and so forth, may lead some of us to give the purely intellectual aspects of our science less than their due. John Gribbin has become a leading popularizer of modern physics. His previous books include one that I greatly enjoyed, "In Search of Schroedinger's Cat", of which this is a sequel. Here, he describes some of the experiments that have been performed in dozens of laboratories around the world, all of which confirm the predictions of quantum mechanics, and most of which confound "common sense".

"The Enigmatic 'Battery of Baghdad'" by Gerhard Eggert in Skeptical Inquirer 20, pp. 31-34 (May-June 1996)

Did ancient Parthians know how to make electricity with batteries? An object discovered in 1936, during excavation of Khuyut Rabbou'a, near modern Baghdad, has raised speculation that they might indeed have. A strange vase-like object, with a copper liner and what appears may have been an asphalt-insulated iron electrode has been interpreted by some archaeologists as an ancient voltaic cell, some 1800 years prior to Galvani. Speculation is that these pre-Iraqis might have used these "cells" (strictly speaking, a "battery" must consist of more than one cell) for plating metals, which would imply that the artisans must have known considerably more about chemistry than they are usually given credit for. On the other hand, these objects could have had some other use, perhaps as a sexual symbol. Skeptical Inquirer is a magazine published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Many of their featured articles are available online, but not, unfortunately, including this one.

Selections for April, 1996:

"Digital Diffraction" by Brian Hayes in the Computing Science column of American Scientist 84, pp. 210-214 (May-June 1996)

I've always thought that optical transforms were a great model for the determination of crystal structures using X-ray diffraction, and I've used the ICE (Institute for Chemical Education) kit for this exercise many times. Brian Hayes, a former editor of American Scientist, has a description with many very cool illustrations of his experiments with computer-generated analogs of the same phenomena that the ICE kit and a laser pointer or a little HeNe laser will let you do in a classroom. He provides the source code he used for generating the figures, but it is in a language (Scheme) with which I am not familiar. On the other hand, it shouldn't be too difficult to make them using any of several more familiar computer languages. I also recommend one of the references in this paper, Atlas of Optical Transforms, by G. Harburn, C. A. Taylor, and T. R. Welberry, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, New York) 1975. Clicking on the hyperlink at the top of this item will provide you with the complete text and figures of the article. Very generous of Sigma Xi!

"Maintaining Diversity in Science - Women and Minorities '96" Science 264, pp. 1902-1921 (March 29, 1996).[This link will not be free after the end of 1996]

In the social sciences, 1995 may turn out to be (the figures aren't available yet) the year in which as many women earned Ph.D. degrees as men did. But in the physical sciences, the ratio is still about four to one. Women engineers are only about one seventh as numerous as their male counterparts, while women life scientists are quickly achieving numerical parity with men (about three women for each four men). U.S. minorities, especially blacks, still earn a tiny fraction of all science and engineering degrees, and little progress has been made in the last twenty years. In 1975, blacks earned 3.75% of technical Ph.D. degrees; in 1994, the number was just over 4.0%. With Affirmative Action under pressure on state and federal, political and legal fronts, Science magazine's annual examination of the state of women and minorities in science is timely.

Selections for March, 1996:

"James Dewar, His Flask and Other Achievements", by Robert J. Soulen, Jr., Physics Today, 49, 32, (March 1996)

The Dewar flasks that we use for storage of cryogenic fluids such as liquid nitrogen, oxygen, and helium, and which known outside the laboratory as "thermos bottles" were invented by James Dewar, who was the first person to liquefy hydrogen, and was nearly first in the nineteenth century races to liquefy all of the other gases. While the physicists would like to claim that his contribution of The Flask was physics, chemists point out that he was educated (at Edinburgh) as a chemist, and to his (literally) "nuts and bolts" early models for the structure of benzene, one of which is still known as "Dewar benzene". Not only was Dewar an outstanding physical chemist (the best of all possible combinations), but was also famous for his popular lectures at the Royal Institution, continuing the tradition of his great predecessor in that role, Michael Faraday. Robert Soulen's Physics Today article includes pages from Dewar's laboratory notebook, drawings of his benzene models, a painting of his Royal Institute lecture at which he demonstrated the liquefaction of hydrogen, and a wonderful photograph of the scientist in his laboratory, taken with film so slow that the subject had to hold a pose for several seconds while the shutter was open.

"A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper", by John Allen Paulos, Basic Books, (1995) ISBN 0-465--4362-3

John Allen Paulos is author of another book that you may have read or heard about, "Innumeracy", in which he describes the decline in the ability of Americans to perform simple mathematics, even arithmetic. In "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper", he provides some of the reasons why mathematics is important to everyday life. He uses items from daily newspapers and current magazines as "jumping off points" for thoughtful, short essays about applied mathematics. This book is only about 200 pages, and each topic is discussed in easy-to-digest, well-written articles of a few pages each. Busy teachers will find it easy to surf through the book, which can be read in any order. You will find health issues, technological risks, affirmative action, food, sports, and lots of other apparently non-mathematical subjects discussed from the perspective of a professional mathematician and engaging writer.

Selections for February, 1996:

"The National Science Education Standards", National Academy Press, Washington, DC. ISBN 0-309-05326-9

Well, the final version of the National Science Education Standards has finally arrived. If you are involved in curriculum planning for your school or district, or if you want to study the document in detail, you can buy a copy for $19.95 + 4.00 shipping from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Lockbox 285, Washington DC 20055 [1-800-624-6242]. If you are more peripherally involved, you may wish just to peruse the standards online. My own feeling is that these standards will impact the syllabi of chemistry and physics courses less than they will the curriculum that precedes these typically junior-senior level science electives. This is because the standards are intended to teach science to all students, the majority of whom are not currently enrolling in college preparatory courses like chemistry and physics. However, a majority of "chemistry" teachers also teach other science classes, and the standards are likely to affect them, and should improve and broaden the preparation of students who eventually do enroll in chemistry. Chemical topics are required by the standards in many of those non-"chemistry" courses, and many chemistry teachers will be involved in helping their colleagues to develop units that center on chemical topics.

The preface for the volume is a wonderful quotation from the late Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman:

"The world looks so different after learning science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into tree. [A]nd in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air, that came from the solid earth, instead.

These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others."

"Under Pressure" by David Diaz in the American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring, 1996, p. 52.

Mr. Diaz describes the construction of the Eads Bridge (that spans the Mississippi here in St. Louis), which was one of the first projects in which caisson disease ("the bends") was subjected to scientific investigation. Anyone who teaches about the gas laws will find this story to be full of anecdotes that will fire the imaginations of students. You probably already know that the symptoms result from dissolved atmospheric gases (especially nitrogen) coming out of the blood as the pressure is lowered. The variation in individual response to this stress helped to mask the cause from Eads and the physicians he employed to treat his workers, fourteen of whom died on the project. The work was done by candlelight at depths as much as 127 feet below the level of water in the river. Pressures of more than 55 psi above atmospheric were bled off in five or six minutes, until it was determined that this practice was part of the cause of the illnesses. Eads sometimes entertained members of the city's high society by treating them to tours of the caissons, where they discovered that it was very difficult to extinguish candles by blowing them out, and that it is impossible to whistle at pressures much above atmospheric.

Selections for January, 1996:

(This must be "science month" at the The New Yorker magazine!

"The Gravel Page", by John McPhee in The New Yorker, January 29, 1996, p. 44.

The forensic sciences have received a great deal of attention lately, partly as a result of the OJ trial, but in this lengthy piece, the fine writer, John McPhee, writes about the far less-familiar field of forensic geology. He describes how the murderer of Adoph Coors was convicted on the basis of mud found in the wheel well of his automobile, and how the location of the launch sites of Japanese balloons that bombed the western US during the second world war were identified by the composition of the bags of sand they used for ballast. A third story tells how a spoonful of dirt from the body of a dead man led to the solution of the murder of a DEA agent in Mexico. These are well-told stories that give just due to the science.

"Annals of Archaeology: All the King's Sons", by Douglas Preston in The New Yorker, January 22, 1996, p.44

After nearly a century of "modern" archaeology in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, it is surprising that any substantial finds remain to be uncovered, but archaeologist Kent R. Weeks discovered last year what appears to be a huge complex of tombs. Purported to be the most important archaeological find since the discovery of King Tut's tomb, the complex may be the burial place for fifty two of Ramess II's sons (no sperm deficiency in those days! - see below). The familial relationships may be proven using 3000 year-old DNA from the mummies. Douglas Preston takes us along as he and the scientific team explore rooms that have been closed for three millenia.

"Silent Sperm", by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker, January 15, 1996, p. 42.

In the novel "The Children of Men" by P. D. James, set in the year 2021, mankind is faced with extinction due to the worldwide sterility of human males. Is there a basis for fear that this is actually happening? Or is the reported decline in sperm counts, over the past half-century, even a fact? Given that most people think that overpopulation remains mankind's biggest challenge, the idea that limited fertility could also be a threat is contrarianism at its best. This very provocative article appealed to me as a teacher of science because it is packed with questions of science, not because they are resolved. First of all, how do we know that sperm counts have declined? If they have, does it make any difference since, ultimately, only one sperm is required for insemination? Are men's testes actually getting smaller, and what could possibly account for these apparently universal phenomena? For students old enough to discuss these questions without smirking (too much), "Silent Sperm" provides superb grist for the STS (Science-Technology-Society) mill. I found it to exhibit an anti-chemical bias, but that seems to be inevitable these days. Read it, even if just to find out what an orchidometer is, and about "The Mystery of the Finnish Testicles".

Hal's Current Selections

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