Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's 2001 Picks of the Month

This file last modified 2/15/07

Selections for December, 2001:

"Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few of Them Might Even be True" by Robert Ehrlich, Princeton University Press 2001, 244 pp., 0-691-07001-6 $24.95

One of the goals of a course I teach in our Honors College is to provide non-science majors with the tools they need to differentiate authentic science from material that has merely been provided a "scientific" dressing. Physicist Robert Ehrlich has provided nine case studies that are ideal for this purpose. Do more guns in the hands of citizens decrease crime? Is AIDS really caused by HIV? Is sun exposure harmful or beneficial? Are low doses of (nuclear) radiation beneficial? Does our solar system have two suns? Do "fossil" fuels really come from abiogenic origins? Is time travel possible? Is the Big Bang a myth? Are there faster-than-light particles? Ehrlich takes a serious and analytical look at each of these questions, and (unfortunately, I think) states his answer at the end of each chapter. The important thing is, of course, not the conclusion but the quest for it.

Selections for November, 2001:

"Why Disposable Diapers are like Microchips" by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker November 26, 2001, p. 74

Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. This article is very much in the spirit of the books by Henry Petroski, who has written about the engineering hidden in ordinary objects such as paperclips and pencils. Gladwell explains the chemical developments that have made disposable diapers smaller, cheaper, more effective, and less environmentally damaging - a history that parallels that of the microchip. The article appears on Gladwell's Web pages, hyperlinked from here.

" The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus" by John Emsley John Wiley 2000, 327 pp., 0-471-39455-6 $24.95

No, phosphorus did not jump to a new position in the periodic table - it is still element number 15. However, it was the thirteenth element to be discovered, and the isolation (by destructive distillation of large volumes of human urine!) of this strange substance, that seemed to glow with the essense of life, had alchemists convinced that they were close to discovering the ultimate secrets of nature. Gifted science writer John Emsley does a great job of telling the story of phosphorus, and its role in matches, warfare, poisonings, agriculture, pollution, insecticides, among others. Fourteen chapters are filled with stories and anecdotes that bring alive the history and the chemistry of this element. The author of "Molecules at an Exhibition" and "The Elements" has put together another book that is really a delight.

Selection for October, 2001:

"Naturally Dangerous: Surprising Facts about Food, Health, and the Environment" by James P. Collman University Science Books 2001, 270 pp., 1-891389-09-2 $29.00

Professor James Collman of Stanford University has provided an excellent resource for all of us who try to help our students and the general public to discriminate between valid science and the bogus "scientific" claims that pervade television, the Internet, the grocery store, and especially the "health food" store. Collman points out that "organic" food (as opposed to what?) is not necessarily better than the alternatives, and that "natural" does not imply "safe". He takes a largely positive position on genetic modification of food, and clearly explains how he arrives at it. Describing both food and drugs, and environmental problems such as stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming from the standpoint of a chemist, he provides writes clearly and persuasively. He didn't quite persuade me that the international concensus against global warming is likely an overreaction, but he sounds like a fellow with whom you can reason.

Selection for September, 2001:

"Drugstore Athlete" by Malcolm Gladwell The New Yorker September 10, 2001 p. 52

For a long time, it could be said that with some validity that drugs could not help athletes perform better. That is no longer the case. It is increasingly difficult to assure that amateur athletes, even high school athletes, are not training and competing with the aid of testosterone and its precursors, or erythropoetin. Malcolm Gladwell has written a very informative account of how athletes and their trainers avoid detection by agencies attempting to maintain the integrity of sport. Chemists are involved on all sides of this question. Athletes, fans, and chemistry students will find this piece informative. You can read this whole article online by clicking on the title above.

Selection for August, 2001:

" Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball" by Trevor H. Levere The Johns Hopkins University Press 2001 228 pp., 0-8018-6609-X (cloth), 0-8018-6610-3 (paper) $42.50 cloth, $17.95 paper

I've been reading a lot lately about alchemy, and was therefore delighted to find a new book on the history of chemistry (that includes some on alchemy), just published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Trevor Levere takes on the impossible task of chronicling the developments in chemistry from its beginning to the present, in only a little over 200 pages. While he certainly fails to provide uniform coverage over that period of time (the details become pretty sketchy about 100 years ago!), this book is more readable than many of the more encyclopedic approaches. It is intended as an introduction to the history of chemistry. As such, it replows ground already harvested by others. I see very little original in it, but it might well serve its intended purpose. The last chapter ("Where Now, and Where Next? New Frontiers) is a too-succinct (17 pages) view of the current state of chemistry and its future.

Selections for July, 2001:

"The Mosquito Killer" by Malcolm Gladwell The New Yorker July 2, 2001 p. 42

What do you think of when someone mentions DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane)? Chances are that your mind immediately goes to the damage the use of this chemical has done to bird populations, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", and the effort to ban or control its use. There is another side to the story, however, and Malcolm Gladwell argues that DDT may have saved more human lives than any other chemical discovery of the twentieth century. Malaria remains a major public health problem in the tropics, and the story of this chemical is excellent grist for a chemistry course dealing with Science, Technology, Society (STS) issues.

"Nitric Oxide and the Control of Firefly Flashing". Barry A. Trimmer, June R. Aprille, David M. Dudzinski, Christopher J. Lagace, Sara M. Lewis, Thomas Michel, Sanjive Qazi, and Ricardo M. Zayas Science 2001 292: 2486-2488

As a physical chemist, I was amazed when it was discovered that the diatomic free radical, nitric oxide (NO) was intimately involved in the transmission of neurological information in mammals. Now a group led by Barry Trimmer at Tufts University has demonstrated that it is the key that turns on bioluminescence in fireflies. If you put fireflies in atmospheres that contain 70 ppm NO, you can make them stop flashing and begin to glow continuously. Not only does this paper illuminate (pun intended) some interesting biochemistry, but it also is a good example of how a scientific idea is developed through a sequence of experiments. A related story about the finding was written by Elizabeth Pennisi on pp. 2413-1414. Free Science registration allows you to read the abstract, but subscription is required for the full article.

Selection for June, 2001:

" Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture" by Ross King Walker and Company 2000. 194 pp. 0-8027-1366-1 $24.00

"Brunelleschi's Dome" is an excellent example of technology in an historical context. The author, Ross King, focuses on one of the great achievements of medieval technology, the construction of the dome of the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence, Italy. The man whose design won the competition for the construction of the monument that still defines the city was a goldsmith and clockmaker named Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi not only proposed to build this huge and high dome without the support of an internal "centering" structure, but also invented numerous devices to hoist materials to the construction locus and to reinforce the structure without the "flying buttresses" that characterized other structures of the time. King does an outstanding job of putting the architect in the context of his time. Readers interested in reading more about the technology of the Renaissance may wish to look up "Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions" (MIT Press 1970) and "Mariano Toccola and His Book De Ingeneis" (MIT Press 1972). Both books are by Frank D. Prager and Gustina Scaglia.

Selections for May, 2001:

"The Shaken-Soda Syndrome" by David Kagan in The Physics Teacher 2001 39/(5) p. 290

Try this! Take two identical cans of soda (or some other beverage). Roll then down a slight incline to confirm that they roll at about the same speed. What do you think will happen if you shake up one can and roll them again? Make a prediction. Then try it. Have your students do it. Develop hypotheses and test them. This is a terrific experiment that anyone can do. What is the best explanation? You can get and read The Physics Teacher or (better) you can come to your own conclusions. David Kagan of California State University-Chico has done a great service to the science education community by describing this intriguing phenomenon.

"Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir" by Jerry Linenger. McGraw-Hill 2000, 258 pp., 0-07-137230-X, $14.95 (paper)

The word "Surviving" should probably be underlined in the title of this first-hand account by an American astro/cosmonaut of his experiences aboard Mir. There is precious little science in this book, but a great deal about living at the mercy of technology and Russian bureaucracy. Even though the reader knows that the author does ultimately survive, there is nevertheless suspense that builds up during Jerry Linenger's telling of his story. One cannot help but wonder at the sanity (or the naivety) of the several Americans who succeeded him on Mir. His description of the adaptation to life with gravity should give considerable pause to those anxious to send people to Mars. (See Hal's Picks of 2/00).

Selection for April, 2001:

" One Two Three...Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science" by George Gamow. Dover Publications 1961, 352 pp., 0-486-25664-2, $9.95 (paper)

I first read "One Two Three... Infinity" when I was twelve years old (it was the edition published in 1946!) and it had a strong influence in my decision to pursue science as a career. In re-reading this Dover reprint, it is remarkable how much of the text and the illustrations by the author have stayed with me through the years, and even more amazing how fresh it is after five decades. In the Preface, Gamow laments that he has written a book unintentionally too difficult for children to understand. To my young mind, that was a big part of my fascination with it: the challenge to comprehend the big but strange ideas he describes so lucidly. Gamow picks subjects from physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology in this extraordinary book. Buy several copies and give them to potential young scientists, but keep one for yourself. Dover's priceless but low-priced catalog of science and mathematics reprints recently came on-line.

Selection for March, 2001:

" Impact Event at the Permian-Triassic Boundary: Evidence from Extraterrestrial Noble Gases in Fullerenes" by Luann Becker, Robert J. Poreda, Andrew G. Hunt, Theodore Bunch, and Michael Rampino. Science v. 291 p. 1530-1533, February 23, 2001

It has been twenty years since Luis Alvarez suggested that the dinosaurs were extinguished by a meteor impact that killed much of the life on earth. His evidence was in a thin layer of iridium-rich soil that corresponded with the extinction, and the fact that iridium is much more abundant in some meteors than it is on earth. Now there is chemical evidence that an even more violent collision with an exterrestrial object occured at the end of the Permian, about 250 million years ago. This time the evidence is in the form of buckyballs that enclose helium or argon atoms. It turns out that carbonaceous meteors are rich in fullerenes and that one can tell that the noble gases entrapped are from outer space because their isotope distributions are different from those found on earth. An explanatory article, "Whiff of Gas Points to Impact Mass Extinction" by Richard A. Kerr appears on pages 1469-1470 of the same issue.

Selections for February, 2001:

"Artful Dodgers: Virtuosos of Art Forgery Meet the Masters of Scientific Detection", by Walter C. McCrone, The Sciences January/February, 2001, p. 32.

Master microscopist Walter McCrone describes his work in detecting forged paintings and authenticating lost works of master artists. McCrone is a chemist, but the techniques used for the detection of a clever forgery include all the tools of modern science, including microscopy, carbon dating, spectroscopy, measurement of index of refraction, dendrochronology, fluorescence, X-ray absorption, all combined with a thorough understanding of the technologies of art through history. McCrone is also author of "Judgement Day for the Shroud of Turin", published last year by Prometheus Books.

" Hidden Evidence: Forty true crimes and how forensic science helped solve them", by David Owen, Firefly Books, 2000 240 pp., 1-552-09483-9 $24.95 (paper)

Even readers who already know something about forensic science are likely to learn from "Hidden Evidence" about historic cases that have been solved by science. Unfortunately, there are so few details provided in the book that the most interesting questions often remain unanswered. The book is full of pictures (I suspect that the illustrations were chosen before any narrative was written), and no references are provided. It might be of use to a student inspired by the TV program "Crime Scene Investigators" to consider a career in forensic chemistry.

Selections for January, 2001:

"Why McDonald's Fries Taste So Good", by Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic Monthly, January, 2001, p. 50.

Most students of chemistry are unaware of opportunities and challenges in the flavors and fragrances industry. In fact, few of us realize how much the processed food we eat is "enhanced" by additives. Eric Schlosser does an excellent job in this article of explaining the difference between so-called "natural" and "artificial" flavors and colors, and describing the 1.4 billion dollar per year industry that introduces 10,000 new processed-food products every year in the United States. Did you know that methyl anthranilate, discovered by accident, is the chief flavoring agent in grape Kool-Aid, or that one of the compounds isolated from bell peppers can be detected at 0.02 ppb? This article is an excerpt from the book, "Fast Food Nation".

" The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History", by Stephen Jay Gould, Harmony Books (part of Random House), 2000, 0-609-80755-2 $15.00 (paper)

I find it surprising that this is the first book by Stephen Jay Gould to have been selected as a "Hal's Pick", since I own and have enjoyed reading many of them. I have had the pleasure of meeting and hearing Professor Gould speak several times and I wish I could write as well as he speaks extemporaneously. "The Lying Stones of Marrakech" is a collection of recent columns from Gould's feature in Natural History; the title essay is about the fake fossils from Morocco that are flooding the market in the United States. As a paleontologist, Gould has a strong interest in fossils, and he takes the opportunity to discuss other important fossil deceptions that have occured in the past. Of particular interest to chemists (at least to this one) was "The Proof of Lavoisier's Plates", describing the contributions of the famous founding father of our science to the early history of geology.

Hal's Picks this year

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995

Indices to Hal's Picks

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