Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's 1998 Picks of the Month


This file last modified 2/15/07

Selection for December, 1998:

"Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge", by Edward O. Wilson. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998, 0-679-45077-7 (cloth);0-965-058305 (paper), $26.00(cloth)

As soon as I heard about "Consilience", I figured it would likely be a "Pick of the Month", but I delayed buying it until it became available as a paperback through a book club (I buy just about all the books that appear in this column). This, the most recent book by the renowned Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson, was worth waiting for. It is a confirmation by a perceptive and insightful scientist that the application of reason to the physical world will create an increasingly unified view of the universe. Further, Wilson argues that the rational methods similar to those that have been so successful in the physical and biological sciences will also be applicable to social issues, humanities, and even art. In essense, he is saying that the promise of Enlightenment is finally at hand. "Consilience" is like a long luncheon conversation with a luminary of 20th-century science. You will enjoy the experience. (Wilson's scientific autobiography was a Pick in November, 1995).

Selection for November, 1998:

"What Remains to be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race", by John Maddox. The Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, 1998, 0-684-82292-X, $26.00

A year ago, a book entitled "The End of Science" by John Horgan claimed that there was nothing of significance left for science to uncover. It was not a "Hal's Pick" because I thought it was seriously mistaken, echoing the smug predictions of a century ago, just before the revolutions of quantum mechanics and relativity blew the lid off of classical science. Now John Maddox, for twenty three years the editor of Nature, has published a refutation of Horgan's thesis. Maddox organizes his thoughts into three categories: Matter, Life, and Our World. In each of ten chapters, he describes what he sees to be the outstanding problems and the likely means by which they might be attacked. I particularly enjoyed the clarity of his descriptions of the current status of the science involved - not surprising, considering his responsibilities at Nature. The future will likely prove his predictions wrong, but I don't think it will disprove his larger point, that science has an promising future. This should be an inspirational book for students of science.

Selection for October, 1998:

"The Radioactive Boy Scout: When a Teenager Attempts to Build a Breeder Reactor", by Ken Silverstein. Harper's Magazine, November 1998, p. 59

In this "Report", Ken Silverstein relates the case of David Hahn (apparently not related to Otto) whose quest for an Atomic Energy merit badge escalated into an attempt to build a working model of a breeder reactor. According to Mr. Silverstein, this suburban Detroit teenager was able to acquire enough radioactive material to create a device whose growing (!) radioactivity was detectable "five doors away" with a homemade Geiger counter and to turn his neighborhood into a mini-Superfund site. Silverstein says that Hahn did his project combining aluminium and beryllium foil with (1) Americium-241 from a hundred or so smoke detectors (2) a "quarter trunkload" of pitchblende (sic) from the shores of Lake Huron (3) a few samples of "black ore" - either pitchblende or uranium dioxide (4) thorium-232 extracted from "thousands" of gas lantern mantles (5) a vial of radium paint used for clock dials (6) tritium extracted from several "glow-in-the-dark" gun and bow sights. I am very skeptical of this account. What do you think?

Selection for September, 1998:

"Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen", by Clifford A. Pickover. Plenum Trade, New York and London, 1998 (0-306-45784-9, $28.95)

Some of the most incendiary minds of science have also verged on pathology; a few of them clearly have been mentally ill. Cliff Pickover describes the quirks and eccentric behaviors of some of these people, including Nikola Tesla (Chapter 1!), Oliver Heaviside, Richard Kirwan, Henry Cavendish, Francis Galton, and Theodore Kaczynski, among others. "Strange Brains ..." also includes discussion of some of the disorders that these people suffered: obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and others. This is a fascinating book that will enrich my teaching about the contributions of these strange men with their (sometimes) wonderful ideas. Check out Dr. Pickover's Web page (above) to see the contributions of a true polymath.

Selections for August, 1998:

"The Revealing Role of Pressure in the Condensed Matter Sciences", by Russell J. Hemley and Neil W. Ashcroft in Physics Today August 1998, p. 26.

Physical chemists will recognize just about everything in this article as natural extensions of subject matter that we teach in our classes, an excellent example of the fact that there are no divisions between materials science, physics, and chemistry. The same quantum phenomena that work under familiar conditions also explain the behavior of molecules that have had their bonds shortened by the application of hundreds of GPa. One of the most interesting of the new structures is a form of ice that has lost the distinction between the hydrogen-bonded and the covalently-bonded atoms. There is lots more chemistry in this article, that is definitely worth reading.

"Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century", by Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham. Chemical Heritage Society and the American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., 1998 (0-8412-3522-8, $34.95)

Until relatively recently, chemistry was a career from which women were discouraged or excluded entirely. Therefore, in sieving through history for evidence of their contributions, Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham have had to dig very deeply indeed. For that reason, most of the names in this book (Laura Linton, Jane Marcet, Rachel Lloyd, for example) will be unfamiliar. It is amazing to me that the authors have been able to uncover so many stories of women who struggled to do science, despite the obstacles. They do an excellent job not only with the biographies, but also of describing the historical context in which they worked.

Selections for July, 1998:

"Is Combustion of Plastics Desirable?", by Bruce Piasecki, David Rainey, and Kevin Fletcher in American Scientist July-August 1998, p. 364.

Amongst the components of the refuse of modern societies, the one that potentially could supply the largest amount of energy on combustion is plastics (which are, of course, processed petroleum). So why are there not more efforts to convert this resource to energy, instead of putting nearly all of it into landfills? One of the main environmental concerns about doing that has been that chlorine in some of the waste, and especially polyvinyl chloride, could produce dioxin when burned. Environmental scientists Piasecki, Rainey, and Fletcher examine the best available data on this question and determine that the prospects for trash-to-energy are better than is widely perceived.

"Molecules at an Exhibition: Portraits of Intriguing Materials in Everyday Life", by John Emsley. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, and Melbourne, 1998 (0-19-850266-4, $25.00)

John Emsley writes about chemistry for the lay person, but manages to bring to light facts and anecdotes that will delight chemists and chemical educators. What is "the worst smell in the world"? - and how is it used to protect us? What radioactive element is used in smoke detectors? What's the secret of Coca Cola? What chemical turns men on? Teachers of chemistry will find the names on many of the bottles in their storerooms in the fine Index in "Molecules at an Exhibition". This is a fun book to read!

Selection for June, 1998:

"To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology", by Keith J. Laidler. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, and Melbourne, 1998 (0-19-0850056-4, $50.00)

The modern world is filled with wondrous products of science. Physical chemist Keith Laidler describes the history of many of the most important ones, and the familiar names with which they are associated: Watt and thermodynamics, Daguerre and photography, Faraday and electric power, Maxwell and radio, Thompson and electronics, Bragg and crystallography, Planck and Einstein for quantum mechanics and relativity. Naturally, Laidler describes the contributions (and the controversies) involving the other great names of science as well. This is a terrific book for those of us who teach and learn chemistry, especially of the physical variety. It includes a great deal of history that is familiar to those who have done some reading in the area, but almost anyone would find interesting new facts and perspectives.

Selection for May, 1998:

"Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative", by Edward R. Tufte. Graphics Press, Cheshire, Connecticut, 1997 (0-9613921-2-6, $45.00)

This is the third volume in a series by Edward Tufte (the others are "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information", and "Envisioning Information"). All three are beautifully crafted books that are a delight to read and to handle. The most recent one brings the reader's attention to the use of graphics, narrative, and numbers to convey motion, process, mechanism, cause and effect. In order to exemplify his thinking, Tufte uses a very wide range of subjects, from the explanation of magic tricks to the coloring of bathymetric maps. One chapter is devoted almost entirely to an argument that the Shuttle Challenger disaster could have been avoided, had the appropriate statistical data about the relationship between o-ring failures and temperature at launch been presented in a clearer fashion. Tufte's design of a computer kiosk for an art museum contains wisdom that should be useful to anyone constructing Web interfaces.

Selection for April, 1998:

"Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents", by Ellen Ullman. City Lights Books , San Francisco, 1997 (0-87286-332-8, $12.95 paper)

Ellen Ullman is a middle-aged female software engineer. Those adjectives usually don't describe a single person. As a philosophical and forthright spokesman for a segment of the society most often characterized by its lack of social and verbal abilities, she is also singular in that way. "Close to the Machine" describes a subculture of technically able but socially backward "techies" who write the code that runs computers. As interesting as is her description of the relationships of people to technology, even more fascinating to me is the culture in which she and her company struggle from one project to another. She writes: "Everyone agrees: be a knowledge worker or be left behind. Technical people, consultants, contract programmers: we are going first. We fly down and down, closer to the virtualized life, and where we go the world is following. Companies are shedding employees then regaining the use of their labor as "contingent workers": as on-call workers, temporaries, workers provided by contract firms, and independent contractors." We are seeing aspects of the same phenomenon in chemistry.

Selections for March, 1998:

"Why Shake Your Fever Thermometer? -and More", by H. Richard Crane in The Physics Teacher March, 1998, p. 142

If you have ever wondered (as I have) how a fever thermometer actually works (but have never felt good enough while you were wondering to do any investigation) then you should look at this article in "How Things Work", a feature of The Physics Teacher edited by H. Richard Crane of the Physics Department of University of Michigan. Not only does he explain how these common thermometers "hold" the maximum temperature, but also why the mercury column has to be so small that you need the built-in cylindrical lens to read it.

"The Island of the Colorblind, by Oliver Sacks. Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 1997 (0-375-70073-0 , $13.00 paperback released 1/98)

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is author of two previous recent best-selling books, "Awakenings" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", both of which dealt with his specialty, pathologies of the human brain. In "Island of the Colorblind", Sacks takes us traveling to the islands and atolls of the Pacific: Guam, Rota, Pohnpei, and Pingelap. With him and through his perceptive eyes we are introduced to two (or three, perhaps) rare diseases. I won't spoil the story by telling you more, but I will say that one of the things I liked most about this book was that this fine writer asked plenty of questions that are not (yet) answered. One of them is whether a natural product of one or more of the genus cycad is responsible for a debilitating and often fatal disease of the peoples of those islands.

Selection for February, 1998:

"Chemical Achievers: The Human Face of the Chemical Sciences, by Mary Ellen Bowden. Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, PA 1997 (0-941901-13-0, $20.00; $10.00 for high school teachers)

"Chemical Achievers" is a book intended to encourage the incorporation of the history of chemistry into the regular chemical curriculum by bringing to life the people responsible for the discovery or invention of chemical ideas and products. Each person and his or her contribution is described in a page or two of text, accompanied by pictures of him or her and sometimes a drawing or photograph of an apparatus. The photographs are large enough to reproduce well as handouts or overheads, and the book is spiral-bound to facilitate such copying, which is encouraged in the Forward and denied by standard copyright notice on the back of the title page. The whole volume can be read in less than an hour, and it is an hour enjoyably and well-spent.

Selection for January, 1998:

"Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing", by Henry Petroski. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1996 (ISBN 0-674-46367-6, $24.95)

In "Invention by Design", Henry Petroski (Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University) describes the creative process by which objects as ubiquitous and as familiar as paper clips, aluminum soda cans, zippers, and "lead" pencils have arisen. In so doing, he invites the reader into the human activity of engineering. The invitation is made explicit with a short essay near the end of each chapter, in which he poses open-ended problems remaining to be solved. About half of the book discusses massive design problems: airliners, bridges, skyscrapers, water resources and waste disposal. This book would be an excellent choice for your students who are considering careers in engineering, without being quite sure what engineers do. Unfortunately, Petroski sticks with mechanical, civil, architectural, and aeronautical engineering, and does not deal with chemical engineering in this volume, so your students will have find out about that elsewhere.

Hal's Current Selections

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1997, 1996, 1995

Indices to Hal's Picks


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