Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's 1999 Picks of the Month

This file last modified 2/15/07

Selection for December, 1999:

Fermat's Enigma "Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem", by Simon Singh, Anchor Books, 1997, ISBN 0-385-49342-2 (paper); 0-8027-1331-9 (cloth), $12.00 (paper); $23.00 (cloth).

In about 1637, a French mathematical genius named Pierre de Fermat wrote in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica by Pythagorus, that he could prove that there were no solutions to the simple variation on Pythagorus' Theorem, az + bz = cz when a, b, and c are integers and z is larger than two.  In over three hundred fifty years since then, the greatest mathematicians attempted to prove or disprove this little conjecture (or even to prove that no proof is possible).  Students of science will recognize many of the famous names involved in the quest to solve "Fermat's Last Theorem", including Euler, Gauss, Lagrange, Cauchy, and Hilbert.  Fewer will be aware that one of the most fruitful attacks on the problem was made by a woman named Sophie Germain, who concealed her gender in order to achieve credibility for her work.  The recent solution of the puzzle by Andrew Wiles was the impetus for the PBS Nova program, "The Proof", which is based on Singh's work.  If a book about an equation sounds pretty dry to you, this one is not!  Singh has written a wonderful, engaging chronicle that brings together a huge fraction of the history of mathematics, and illustrates beautifully the utility of pure research.  This is one of the best science books I've read this year.

Selection for November, 1999:

"100 (or so) Books that Shaped a Century of Science", by Philip and Phylis Morrison in American Scientist, November-December 1999, p. 542.

Of course it is unreasonable to put together a list of the 100 most important books of the century. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun for a scientific bibliophile like me to think and argue about what ought to be on such a list. I think that the Morrisons may have given a few of the good books a status of excellence they probably don't deserve, but I was also delighted to see that some of my favorites (Gamov's "One Two Three ... Infinity" and Monod's "Chance and Necessity") are included. On the other hand, I would have put in Eigen and Winkler's "The Laws of the Game" and Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, and Bach". The book list is accompanied by an article "Forced to Choose" (p. 545), in which a number of notable authors (including Roald Hoffman, John McPhee, E. O. Wilson, Berndt Heinrich, Kurt Vonnegut, and Carl Djerassi) express their opinions.

Selection for October, 1999:

"Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything", by James Gleick, Pantheon Books, an imprint of Random House, 1999, ISBN 0-679-40837-1, $24.00.

I bought "Faster" because of talent the author had shown for rendering extremely complicated science for the interested layperson. "Chaos", published in 1987 was a wonderful book, and Gleick's next one, "Genius: The Life and Times of Richard Feynman", also won a National Book Award. (I haven't read that one, however.) "Faster" is a good book, but was nevertheless something of a disappointment. It consists of more than thirty (unnumbered) chapters that can be read in any order, since there is little connection between them. Each deals with a separate aspect of the quest for speed in our lives, from television programming that has eliminated virtually all pauses, to cellular telephones, to instant "meals". In each case, Gleick comments on how the human desire for fast communication, instantaneous gratification and intolerance for "wasted" time, combined with electronic devices that can provide what we demand has led to the acceleration of "just about everything". The perspective is more often that of a sociologist than that of a physical scientist. One of the chapters most interesting to me was about tall buildings. Did you know that the limit to the height of modern buildings is no longer structural, but is the elevator system required to service the upper floors?

Selections for September, 1999:

"The Sun in the Church", by J. L. Heilbron in The Sciences September/October 1999, p. 29

In "The Sun in the Church", J. L. Heilbron describes the practical problem that faced the Church, in determining when Easter should be celebrated (the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox) and how it supported research to resolve that matter (and also the problem of a church year that didn't match the solar one) without quite conceding that the earth orbits the sun. In the 1570's, Egnatio Danti began the work that would be culminated nearly 100 years later by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, in which the cathedral San Petronio was turned into a kind of solar observatory by knocking a hole in the roof and laying a precise meridian line into the floor. Ultimately, of course, the project compiled overwhelming evidence that Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler were correct. Heilbron does an outstanding job of describing the scientific challenges and their resolution.

"The Heretic's Daughter" by Dava Sobel in The New Yorker, September 13, 1999, p. 52

Dava Sobel describes the correspondence to Galileo Galilei from his daughter, Virginia, who was a nun in the Convent of San Matteo, near Florence. Virginia, who took the religious name Maria Celeste, was a kind of apothecary in her convent, and she did her best to provide elixirs and pills to protect Galileo from the plague, along with weekly letters of news and encouragement. She was Galileo's favorite child (of three) and her support was very important to him as he challenged the church to which she had pledged herself. Her father, despite his opposition to the church's position on astronomy that led to the condemnation of his books and his house arrest for the last years of his life, remained a faithful Catholic to the end. The devotion of Maria Celeste to her father shines through these messages, and one can imagine the letters that Galileo must have been writing. The letters do not as much address the swirling scientific controversy as they do the personal lives of daughter and father in a turbulent time.

Selection for August, 1999:

"The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition", by Caroline Alexander, Alfred A Knopf 1999, 0-375-40403-1, $29.95 and "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, 2nd Edition", Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc., New York, 1999, 0-786-70621-X, $12.95 (paper)

This year's exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History of artifacts from the 1915 scientific expedition to Antarctica led by Sir Ernest Shackleton has been accompanied by the publication of Caroline Alexander's book, which includes the documenting photographs of Frank Hurley (some of which can be seen on the Museum's Web site). This well-written and beautifully-produced volume tells a story of hardship, courage, and ultimate triumph that is hard to top. Their ship, The Endurance, was trapped and eventually crushed by ice, marooning the men. When the ice eventually broke up during the following spring, three small lifeboats were sailed two hundred miles to Elephant Island. The ultimate rescue was accomplished only after Shackleton had navigated by stars and sextant the largest of the lifeboats 800 miles through frigid and stormy waters to South Georgia Island. I had read Alfred Lansing's book in its first edition several years ago, and found his storytelling to be somehow even more gripping than the illustrated new accounting, but that may have been because I didn't know the whole story in advance. A modern reader cannot help but be struck by the technological differences between that time and this. A great story!

Selection for July, 1999:

"How to Predict Everything", by Timothy Ferris The New Yorker, July 12, 1999, p. 35

Physicist J. Richard Gott of Princeton published a provocative article in Nature back in 1993, that described a simple method for the estimation of the likely lifetime of "things" on the basis solely of the length of their existence to date. Using the hypothesis that a current measurement is chosen from a random time sequence, one can use statistical methods to estimate the 95% confidence limits for its total period of existence. Journalist Timothy Ferris spent time interviewing the scientist, and explains his central idea in a way that most people can understand. Gott has applied the method to Broadway plays, restaurants, and species, including homo sapiens, with provocative results. He argues that his calculations give an additional justification for the colonization by human beings of other planets in our solar system! I think that the examples he chooses to use are ones in which a Poisson process is likely, and that he avoids cases where there are systematic mechanisms that would cause it not to work. For example, his method would predict that a person of age 100 would be likely to live to 110 or 120. Nevertheless, this is still an interesting article that shows how statistics can be creatively applied to "real life".

Selection for June, 1999:

"Polarized Starlight and the Handedness of Life", by Stuart Clark American Scientist, July-August, 1999, p. 336

One of the mysteries of life is why organisms on our planet uses L-amino acids exclusively, when their mirror images have the same chemical stability. Back in February, 1997, "Hal's Pick" was an article from Science about the enantiomeric excesses in the amino acids of the Murchison meteorite, and the theory that the preference for left-handed amino acids that pervades life on earth arose from such an extraterrestrial template. Interesting as that article was, the attribution of the preference to meteorites just pushes the question back one level. The next logical thing to ask is, "How could meteorites have been depleted in one or enriched in the other isomer?" Stuart Clark and his colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire have found circularly polarized light (that could preferentially photolyze one isomer type) in the star-forming regions of some galaxies. They believe that it is the result of the scattering of unpolarized light by particles that have been aligned by the magnetic field of a nearby star. The amount of circular polarization in parts of the Orion nebula has been measured at almost 20%!

Selection for May, 1999:

"Traces of the Past: Unraveling the Secrets of Archaeology Through Chemistry", by Joseph B. Lambert, Perseus Books, Reading, Massachusetts, 1998 (0-7382-0027-1) $18.00 (paper)

The reach of analytical chemistry is amazing even to chemists! Joseph Lambert, a Professor of analytical chemistry at Northwestern University describes in this fascinating book how chemistry is used to study stone, glass, pottery, organic materials, metals, and human remains. This book has been listed on the Resource Shelf for about a year, under the Forensic Chemistry category, and was reviewed by Mary Virginia Orna in the Journal, so I need not say much more here, except that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. There probably isn't enough chemical detail in it for it to be used as a chemical text, but it could certainly inspire a young person considering what he or she might want to do with a degree in chemistry.

Selections for April, 1999:

"Labnotes: Experiments in Chemistry and Jazz.", a memoir by Don Asher, in Harper's Magazine, May, 1999, p. 61

Jazz pianist Don Asher earned a baccalaureate degree in chemistry from Cornell University before finding a career in jazz and writing. In this memoir, he describes episodes from his years at Cornell and two of the most unpleasant jobs in chemistry that one could could imagine: synthesizing aryl sulfonates from benzyl mercaptan and monitoring the contents of vats of seaweed in a processing plant. The pressures of these unappetizing positions while avoiding service in the Korean War eventually led to a nervous breakdown. I wouldn't use this piece as a recruiting brochure for chemistry, but his descriptions of chemical reactions definitely ring true, and his affection for the science is obvious. Happily for us all, Mr. Asher surrendered to the jazz siren that had been tugging at his sleeve through these years, and Cornell obviously taught him something about writing as well as chemistry.

"Profile: The Lord of the Flies.", by Jonathan Weiner, in The New Yorker, April 5, 1999, p. 44

Seymour Benzer sounds like a biologist to whom I would enjoy talking about science. He came to his present research interests after a good start to a career in physics, and after avoiding biology courses at Brooklyn College because they were too much like natural history and with too little deductive science. Now 77 and still an active researcher, Benzer can look back on a career in which he has made giant strides through an aggessively reductionist approach to the connections between the genes of Drosophila (fruit flies) and their behavior. His results are enlivening the debate between those who are willing to consider the likelihood that human behavior is largely determined by genetics (such as E. O. Wilson) and those (such as Richard Lewontin) who are skeptical of such connections. Benzer's recent discovery of "Methuselah", a mutant fly that can live up to a hundred days (about forty days longer than normal) has brought this "unsung hero" of molecular biology to public attention.

Selection for March, 1999:

"The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and the Theory of Everything", by John Gribbin, Little, Brown and Company: Boston, New York and London, 1998, 0-316-32975-4, $23.00

For most of us chemists, our knowledge of the universe is pretty good from the atomic level upward, but when students ask us (as they sometimes do) about what it is that holds the nucleus together, or what a "string" is, or about quarks, leptons, and any of the other particles that are not electrons, protons, or neutrons, we begin to mumble. "The Search for Superstrings..." is a good solution to our problem. It is brief (less than 200 pages), and most of us can skip some of the first chapter (Quantum Physics for Beginners). Gribbon writes well. He skips complexities where he can, and mathematics altogether. I think his best book is the first one of his that I read, "In Search of Schroedinger's Cat", which has been updated as "Schroedinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality", but this one is also recommended.

Selection for February, 1999:

"A Biography of Distinguished Scientist Gilbert Newton Lewis", by Edward S. Lewis, The Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter [Box 450, Lewiston, NY 14092-0450], 1998, 0-7734-8284-9, $69.95

An excellent argument can be made, that G. N. Lewis is the most outstanding American scientist not to have won a Nobel Prize. In fact, the "American" adjective could be removed from that statement. Lewis contributed very significantly both to thermodynamics (the famous Pitzer and Brewer revision of Lewis and Randall's "Thermodynamics" was the text from which I learned thermo), and to quantum chemistry, where he was the first to realize that chemical bonds ordinarily are formed by pairs of electrons. In this short biography by the chemist son of the pioneer, the professional and personal life of an extraordinary researcher, writer, and leader is chronicled. Edward Lewis writes clearly, without the drama that a professional writer would have given this story, but with the love and the personal touches that only a member of the family could provide, about life and science on the west coast, where G. N. Lewis built the chemistry department at University of California-Berkeley from obscurity to amongst the best in the world.

Selection for January, 1999:

"Science and the Perils of a Parable (The Talk of the Town)", by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, January 11, 1999, p. 23.

It is unusual to find responsible journalism about science, and especially commentary that contradicts the current negative view of chemistry in the popular culture. Malcolm Gladwell addresses the poor science that is the crux of the very popular John Travolta movie, "A Civil Action". The whole premise of the movie and the Jonathan Harr best-seller on which it is based is that trichloroethylene is a potent human carcinogen. In the book and movie, evil chemical companies are dumping it and other toxics into the water supply of a town. In fact, the connection between TCE and cancer is complex and ambiguous (as are many things in science). Ambiguity is not often tolerated by movie producers and pulp novelists, who want their bad guys to be easily identifiable. The second topic dealt with in this Commentary is the breast implant controversy that forced four manufacturers to pay 4.25 billion dollars to settle a class action, and Dow Corning into bankruptcy. In this case, the best available research showed no scientific basis for the claims. What a pleasure it is to find at least one article where chemistry treated is in an even-handed and fair manner.

 P. S. In the January 25 issue, an exchange of letters between Tracy Kidder and Malcolm Gladwell is published. There Mr. Gladwell acknowledges that, in Jonathan Harr's book, the connection between TCE and cancer is "less than conclusive". As usual, the book is probably better than the movie.

Hal's Current Selections

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995

Indices to Hal's Picks

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