Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's 1997 Picks of the Month

This file last modified 2/15/07

Selection for December, 1997:

"Biocapitalism - What Price the Genetic Revolution?", by David Shenk, in Harper's Magazine, December, 1997, p. 37.

As humankind grabs control of its own genes, as well as those of the animals and plants with which we share Earth, a plethora of ethical questions must be faced - ignoring them for the time being does not mean they are avoided.  In this essay, David Shenk explores just a few of them, and the ones on which he focuses are almost exclusively those related to gene-based medicine and human reproduction.  We need not await the completion of the genome mapping project to glimpse a future in which the genetic traits of offspring are selected in advance by parents.  These choices will be made available first (and perhaps only) to those able to afford them.  Can the Jeffersonian ideal of "all men are created equal" survive a technology that explicitly loads the genetic dice?

Selections for November, 1997:

"Technology", a series of special reports on Technology in Education, in The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 1997.

This special supplement to the Wall Street Journal includes the following articles: "Hard Lessons - (what works and doesn't work)" by William M. Bulkeley, "Paying the Price - the costs of connecting our schools" by Rebecca Quick, "Those Who Can't - teaching the teachers" by Robert Cwiklik, "Creating a Community - a virtual world in Phoenix" by Lisa Bannon, "Kids Say the Darndest Things - free speech issues" by Ross Kerber, "Remember Homework? - good information and junk on the Internet" by Terzah Ewing, "The Model - technology in New Jersey" by Robin Frost, "Dewey Wins - 'new' teaching methods sound familiar" by Robert Cwiklik, "A New Way - computers changing teaching methods" by Lisa Bransten, "The Big Game - search for the 'killer app'" by Nick Wingfield, "The College Connection - Northwestern University's experience" by Alexia Vargas, "Cyberdegrees - distance learning" by Paul Cox, "Dash to the Degree - speeding graduate education" by Ralph King, "The Fast Track - researchers find the Internet too slow" by Jason Fry, and a debate - "Class Wars" by Robert Cwiklik.

"The Periodic Table and the Electron", by Eric R. Scerri, in American Scientist, November-December, 1997, p. 546.

Nearly everyone who teaches introductory chemistry courses, whether in secondary schools or in universities, makes the connection between the periodic table and electronic configurations.  Eric Scerri provides history and science that can make the discussion of that topic both more historically and scientifically accurate.  It is appropriate that this subject should receive renewed attention, because this year is the hundredth anniversary of J. J. Thompson's discovery of the electron.  The great physicist also had a strong interest in chemistry, and it was the discoverer of the electron himself who first proposed that arrangements of this new particle in atoms could explain their periodically recurring properties.  While recounting the history of electronic configuration theories and periodicity, Scerri emphasizes the limitations of electronic configurations in "explaining" periodicity and he also illustrates several alternative ways of showing the periodic table, each of which has an advantage over the conventional display.

Selections for October, 1997:

"The Dead Zone", by Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker, September 29, 1997, p. 52.

Did you know that the so-called "Spanish" influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more Americans in three months than the number who died in the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War - combined?  Most people don't.  Not only has the history of this particularly virulent virus been lost, but its biology also remains unknown, because the first viruses were not isolated until the 1930's.  In "The Dead Zone", Malcolm Gladwell describes a project intending to disinter the bodies of seven young Norwegian miners who have been buried eighty years in the permafrost of Norway, near the town of Longyearbyen.  The plan is to carefully obtain samples of either the virus itself or its RNA residue.  The article contains a lot of interesting history and science.

"Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time", by Michael Shermer, W. H. Freeman and Co., New York, 1997 (ISBN 0-7167-3090-1, $22.95)

Generally speaking, if you skipped every book with the word "weird" in the title, you wouldn't be missing much.  This is an exception.  Michael Shermer teaches the history of science at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, California and, as Editor of Skeptic Magazine, is a prominent and eloquent proponent of the skeptical viewpoint.  In this book, he provides a lively, humorous yet serious, and often personal commentary on many of the mass follies of our time.  Get your students to read this book.

Selection for September, 1997:

"The Limelight", by Denton Beal, in American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Fall, 1997, pp. 38-41.

Heat a ball of lime in a hydrogen-oxygen flame, and what do you get?  Limelight!  This very intense light source was used for lighting plays (hence the modern usage of the word), but it also was the source for the record distance, for a time, over which man-made light was observed.  In the late nineteenth century, a lime-light signal was observed between Antrim, Ireland and Ben Lomond, Scotland, a distance of ninety five miles.  Not only was lime-light used for signalling and in theatre, but it also played a role in the American civil war.  Union forces equipped ships and batteries with lime-lights, which were also called "Drummond lights", after their inventor, Lt. Thomas Drummond, of the Royal Engineers.  Mr. Beal does a very nice job with the history of the lime-light, but chemists might also want to read an article that the Journal of Chemical Education published on this historical technology, "A Reacquaintance with the Limelight", by M. B Hocking and M. L. Lambert, J. Chem. Educ. 64, 306-310 (1987).

Selection for August, 1997:

"Catalyst", a novel by Jennifer Ball. Faber and Faber, Boston and London, 1997 (ISBN 0-571-19915-1, $24.95, cloth)

It's not too late to do some recreational reading this summer. "Catalyst" is an enjoyable, light read, especially for chemists. How often do you find a novel that includes catalysis, NMR, mass spectrometry, TLC, some scientific misconduct, and a little sex? The main character of "Catalyst" delivers singing telegrams for a living, but her husband and friends are chemistry graduate students at a fictional New York City university. The situations are exaggerated for the sake of drama, but much of the ambiance of graduate school in science is captured in this novel, although the graduate advisor of the group is even more of a jerk than most of the ones I know. The science in the book largely plausible, except for the repetition of the misconception that old windowglass is thinner at the top than at the bottom because it has flowed over the years.

Selection for July, 1997:

"The Computer Delusion" by Todd Oppenheimer, in The Atlantic Monthly for July, 1997.

Most of the chemistry professors and teachers with whom I am acquainted are fairly pleased with the national trend toward putting more computers in school, college, and university classrooms. Some critics of this trend, including the author of this article in The Atlantic Monthly, remind us that the huge amount of resources being expended in this effort could also used elsewhere, and many of those alternatives have better-documented records of improving student performance than do computers. Oppenheimer makes some good points. I know of school districts that are putting millions into computers, while simultaneously starving their science programs.

Selection for June, 1997

"Explaining Science in the Classroom" by Jon Ogborn, Gunther Kress, Isabel Martins, and Kieran McGillicuddy. Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia, 1996 (ISBN 0-335-19719-1, $22.95, paper) [distributed in the US by Taylor and Francis, Bristol, PA].

I like almost everything about this book, except the title. I don't believe that teachers of science should be "explaining" science in their classrooms and, fortunately, the authors of "Explaining Science" don't, either. What their book does is to help science teachers develop the ability to lead a group of students, through discussion, to legitimate scientific reasoning, insights, and conclusions. I find that this is one of the most difficult things to teach a prospective teacher, and also one of the most valuable lessons one can learn. All four of these authors work at the Institute for Education, University of London, and their credentials would lead one to suspect that this might be a "theoretical" tome. Instead, one finds a very readable guide, full of transcripts of classroom discussions that really show you how to do it. If you want to become a better teacher, you'll like "Explaining Science".

Selections for May, 1997:

"The Thermal Warriors: Strategies for Insect Survival" by Berndt Heinrich. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996 (ISBN 0-674-88340-3, $27.00, cloth).

Bernd Heinrich is one of my favorite writers about nature, and especially insects. I discovered his "Bumblebee Economics" (Harvard University Press paperback) a number of years ago, and used it in a course for non-science majors that I taught in our Honors College. Since then, I have also read his "Ravens in Winter" (Vintage Books paperback) and "A Year in the Maine Woods" (Addison Wesley paperback), but his books about the thermodynamic considerations in the competition between insects for energy are the ones that chemistry teachers will most easily be able to use.

"Our Machines, Ourselves: About computers, chess, clones, and human anxiety", a forum including James Bailey, David Gelertner, Jaron Lanier, Charles Siebert, and Jack Hitt in a wide-ranging discussion of what it means to be human in world of machines. Harper's Magazine, May, 1997, pp. 45-54.

The rematch between world chess champion Garry Kasparov and IBM's "Deep Blue" (and a team of programmers) provides the focus for a discussion of the meaning of intelligence, humanity, and consciousness. The conversation involves a Harper's editor (Hitt), the author of "After Thought: The Computer Challenge to Human Intelligence" (Bailey), a Yale Professor of computer science (Gelertner), a computer scientist-artist (Lanier), and a poet and journalist (Siebert). I also recommend that you look at the IBM Web site that reports developments at the match, that began May 3.

Selections for April, 1997:

"When Hazy Skies are Rising", in "The Amateur Scientist" column of Shawn Carlson, Scientific American, May, 1997, pp. 106-107

If you have students looking for an interesting science project, the May Scientific American has a nice one. A sun photometer can be used to determine the amount of haze in the atmosphere, and this article describes one that can be built in a couple of hours for less than $20 (although you also need to have a voltmeter). One of the neat things about this instrument is that it exploits the fact that ordinary light-emitting diodes (LED's) can be used in the reverse mode, as detectors of a narrow band of the visible spectrum. There is a very well- designed Web page at that supplements the SA article, and is intended to facilitate collection by amateurs of data for a regional, national, or global database. On the other hand, the published link for the "Society of Amateur Scientists" was disappointing when I visited it. Only two of the "hot" items had been added in the last year!

"River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life", by Richard Dawkins, Basic Books (Science Masters Series), New York, 1996 (ISBN 0-465-06990-8, $10.00 (paper)

The "river" to which Dawkins refers in the title of this little (172 page) book is the river of digital genetic information that connects us to our human ancestors and to the rest of life on our planet. I find this metaphor to be an extremely provocative one, and I suspect that it would appeal to many of our computer-addicted students. "River Out of Eden" clearly depicts how mitochondrial DNA links all of us to our common African ancestor, "Lucy". More significantly, it describes the proof that we are all much more closely related to one another than we ordinarily think to be the case. If you are a fan of Dawkins, you will find here echoes of his other books, "The Selfish Gene" (Oxford University Press, 1990) and my favorite, "The Blind Watchmaker" (W. W. Norton, 1988). His "Climbing Mount Improbable" (W. W. Norton, 1996) came out at about the same time as this book, which is part of Basic Books' Science Masters Series.

Selection for March, 1997:

"Teaching Chemistry Embedded in History: Reflections on C. K. Ingold's Influence as Historian and Educator", by Theodor Benfey Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, No. 19, 19-24, 1996.

The Bulletin for the History of Chemistry is the official publication of the American Chemical Society's Division for the History of Chemistry. The most recent issue is dedicated to the contributions of C. K. Ingold, one of the founders of physical organic chemistry. It records the proceedings of a symposium at the ACS meeting in Chicago in 1993. I encourage teachers who want to enrich their own courses with historical materials to consider joining the Division. The cost is only fifteen dollars for ACS members in North America, and twenty dollars for North American non-members. The Bulletin comes with membership. There is also a Listserv on the History of Chemistry, that you can join by sending the message: "SUBSCRIBE CHEM-HIST" to

Selections for February, 1997:

"Enantiomeric Excesses in Meteoritic Amino Acids", by J. R. Cronin and S. Pizzarello Science, 275, 951-954, February 14, 1997.

The origin of the molecular "handedness" that pervades earth's biology has been an evolutionary puzzle. Given that right and left-handed amino acids have equal energies, why do only the left-handed ones participate in biosynthesis? One hypothesis is that life started from templates that arose from extraterrestrial sources, such as meteors. GC/MS analysis of the Murchison meteorite shows that it displays an excess of left-handed amino acids, in support of this idea. An important aspect of this research is that the excesses were found in amino acids that are not utilized in life on earth, so that it would seem unlikely that the enantiomeric excess was due to contamination. Science had a trial period in which they allowed non-subscribers to read the journal online, but that offer is no longer available. I believe that you will be able to read the summary in the hyperlink above, after a free "registration" at the journal Web site.

"Observation of Interference Between Two Bose Condensates", by M. R. Andrews, C. G. Townsend, H.-J.Miesner, D. S. Durfee, D. M. Kurn, and W. Ketterle Science, 275, 637-41, January 31, 1997.

The very first of "Hal's Picks", back in 1995, was the announcement of the first experimental observation of a Bose-Einstein condensate. This can be considered as a new phase of matter, in which atoms in a cold cluster lose their separate identities, because their deBroglie wavelengths exceed the dimension of the group in which they find themselves. This month, researchers at MIT announce that they have observed interference between globs of these atoms that are allowed to leak in pulses out of the magnetic trap in which they are produced. Science calls this an "atom laser", because the wavepackets are coherent, as are the photons of a laser. The analogy with ordinary photon lasers is not complete, however, because there isn't any "amplification" in this system, the second letter in the acronym "laser". I loved the quote from one of the research team, Keith Burnett, in the accompanying news article, "It's not just a little crappy demonstration but a big, juicy interference pattern", when referring to the fringes that are reproduced on the week's magazine cover.

Selection for January, 1997:

"The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark", by Carl Sagan, Random House, New York, 1996 (ISBN 394-53512-X, $25.45, cloth; available now in paper from a book club and to be published in paper by Ballantine Books in March, 1997, ISBN 0-345-40946-9, $14.00).

Science lost one of its most eloquent and persuasive spokesmen with the death last month of Carl Sagan. While he was best known as an astronomer and planetary scientist, The Demon-Haunted World should remind us that his interests were far broader than that. Here, he addresses at greater length some questions of pseudoscience that he briefly discussed in Sunday Parade magazine articles. But he also writes about many others, including aliens and UFO's, witchcraft, spoofing and the cold war, hallucinations, and the nature of scientific evidence and proof. I think that teachers will especially find Chapter 12, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" to be a handbook for dealing with irrational student beliefs in pseudoscience. Chapters 19 and 20, "No Such Thing as a Dumb Question" and "House on Fire" deal specifically with the state of science education in the U. S. Every teacher of science should read them.

Hal's Current Selections

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1995

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