Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's Picks in 2003

Hal Harris


This file last modified 2/15/07

Selection for December, 2003:

Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps "Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time” by Peter Galison, W. W. Norton, 2003 0-393-32604-7 (paper); 0-393-02001-0 (cloth), 388 pp., $14.95 (paper);$23.95 (cloth)

When I bought this book, I didn't realize how complementary to my Pick for March it would turn out to be. I thought that Poincare's "maps" referred to were his geometric depictions of deterministic chaotic systems, which he was first to discover, and the book was going to be largely about mathematics. Instead, it turned out to a history of the very concrete problems of synchronizing clocks for the benefit of both science and commerce (especially railroads) around the turn of the 20th century. It included some political (as well as practical) considerations, such as the location of the Prime Meridian and whether days should start at noon or midnight. Peter Galison does an excellent job of showing that Einstein's idea that motion and time are inherently relativistic did not spring full-blown from the mind of one man, but was the culmination of concepts that many - especially Poincare, but also Lorentz and Mach, were wrestling with. This very readable book is also a resource for those who wish to dig deeper, with about 30 pages of notes and 15 pages of references. I did not realize until I read this book, that Lorentz' formula predicting that objects in motion are contracted in the direction the are moving, predated Einstein's special relativity.

Selection for November, 2003:

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles "That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles: 62 All-New Commentaries on the Fascinating Chemistry of Everyday Life” by Joe Schwarcz, ECW Press, 2002 1-55022-520-0, 273 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Joe Schwarcz's books are irresistible for "Hal's Picks" because they constitute just the kind of morsels that I look for - the connections between what we teach in chemistry courses and the world in which our students (and we) live. My only surprise in this book was that Prof. Schwarcz was able to come up with so many additional high-quality essays. One would think that his previous two compilations (which were Hal's Picks in May and July of this year) would have gotten him to near the bottom of the barrel, but there is no sign of a letup here. This compilation is heavy on health issues (which are the chemistry topics of greatest interest to students, in my experience). It includes 35 essays totalling 163 pages on those subjects. As usual, he brings chemical sense to topics such as the claim that mercury amalgams in dental fillings are a health hazard and the much more complex issues surrounding genetically modified foods. The other three sections of "That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles" are devoted to Everyday Science, Looking Back (history of science), and Poppycock (frauds and pseudoscience).

Selection for October, 2003:

PowerPoint "Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood” by Oliver Sacks, Vintage Books, a division of Random House 2002 (paper edition) 0-375-70404-3, 337 pp. $14.00 (paper)

I was finally impelled to read "Uncle Tungsten", which had been recommended by innumerable chemist friends, because of the opportunity to meet the author at the ACS meeting in New York last month. Oliver Sacks is a few years older than I am, but his "Memoir of a Chemical Boyhood" brought back my own memories of youthful chemistry experiments and fascination with the power of science. Sacks writes about wartime London, while I grew up on the US West coast, but it is remarkable how many interests, books and experiences we shared. I hope I am not the last chemist to discover this wonderful book, which describes a boyhood in science experiences that is unimaginable to a child today. Sacks is also author of "Awakenings", "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat", and "The Island of the Colorblind", which was a Hal's Pick in March, 1998.

Selection for September, 2003:

PowerPoint“The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” by Edward R. Tufte, Graphics Press LLC Cheshire, CT 2003 0-9613921-5-0 23 pp. $7.00 (paper)

It's about time that somebody should write this book, and there is no better "somebody" for the job than Edward Tufte, author of thoughtful and beautiful books about the presentation of scientific data (see Hal's Picks for August, 1998 and JCE 1999 76(5) 169). This essay-booklet will resonate if you have been insulted by the paucity of content in the typical PowerPoint presentation. The program has the capability to "automatically" turn informative data tables into meaningless low-resolution graphs not resembling what one would consider standard for scientific presentations, and the layout templates in the program "organize" the slides into a few ideas with a few words, accompanied by sappy clipart. We seem to have acquiesced to this dumbing-down of seminar presentations, and students often get the idea that colored borders, lines of text that "fly in" from off-screen, and a unified "look" can make up for a lack of evidence and integrity. You have to see the PowerPoint rendering of the Gettysburg Address!

Selection for August, 2003:

The Science of Harry Potter“The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works” by Roger Highfield, Penguin Books New York 2002 0-14-200355-7 322 pp. $14.00 (paper)

Who doesn't like Harry Potter? I suppose there must be some such person, but it is hard to criticize a book series that has youngsters eager to gobble up 700 pages, even if they were not as creative and entertaining as they are. If you have read some or all of the books, I'm sure that you noticed all the science they contain. No? Me neither. These are not science books - in fact, they are about as nonscientific as you can get. Yet Roger Highfield claims to have written his own 300 plus pages on the subject. Mr. Highfield is trying (successfully, I might add - I contributed my own fourteen bucks) to cash in on Pottermania. The relationship between his book and the original is extremely tenuous, and I found his excursions to be interesting but not very relevant to his promise to tell "how magic really works". The magic of Harry Potter does not require scientific explanation.

Selections for July, 2003:

“Bottled Twaddle: Is Bottled Water Tapped Out?” by Michael Shermer, in Scientific American July, 2003, p 33.

Why would someone spend more for a quart of water than a gallon of gasoline? Perhaps you would pay even more if you were dying of thirst and the only available water was in the hands of an evil extortionist. But why do so, if there is abundant, safe, tasty, and cheap water provided by a public utility? Americans squander about seven billion dollars per year on water in bottles that is largely no more pure or safe than the water in their taps. From the viewpoint of a chemist, this industry makes little sense, and Skeptic Michael Shermer points out its illogic in this one-page article in Scientific American. He does not mention the environmental impact of those millions of plastic bottles, few of which are recycled. Anybody want to buy some gourmet air?

The Genie in the Bottle“The Genie in the Bottle: 67 all-new commentaries on the fascinating chemistry of ordinary life” by Joe Schwarcz, Henry Holt & Co. (Owl Books) New York 2002 0-8050-7138-5 320 pp. $16.00 (paper)

Joe Schwarcz's second collection of essays (see my pick for May for the first) about chemistry in everyday life begins with a Preface in which he confronts a door-to-door salesman of water filters with some basic information about the chemistry of water treatment. It nicely complements the Michael Shermer's comments about bottled water, above. Schwarcz continues with sections on the chemistry of health, food, history, a miscellany ("Chemistry Here, There, and Everywhere"), and some examples of pseudoscience. Because of my interest in that last topic, I ended up reading this book backwards. It doesn't make any difference - Schwarcz does an outstanding job of explaining chemistry to a lay audience, and the chapters can be read in any order. "The Genie in the Bottle" was reviewed by Jeff Kovac in Journal of Chemical Education 2002 79(3) 316.

Selection for June, 2003:

“Fun with Physics: The woman leading the hunt for nature's most elusive particles” by K. C. Cole, in The New Yorker June 2, 2003, p 48.

Janet Conrad received the 2001 Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award for outstanding contribution to physics by a young woman. In this New Yorker story, K. C. Cole describes the lengths to which experimental physicists must go in order to detect and study the properties of neutrinos, which barely interact with any other matter. One would get the impression from the article that Conrad is doing most of the science by herself; in fact, she is one of the leaders of a large team of scientists from many institutions who are trying to determine whether there is a fourth variety of neutrino in addition to the known three. They are using a huge vat of mineral oil (Cole persists in calling it baby oil), surrounded by phototubes that detect Cerenkov and scintillation radiation that results from collisions between neutrinos produced from the Fermilab proton accelerator and atoms in the detector. A related Japanese experiment, in which a water-filled detector was used, recently had a catastrophic accident, in which seven thousand phototubes were destroyed. There is a very informative Web site about the Fermilab experiment that includes a video tour of the experiment. Prof. Conrad has been instrumental in encouraging and bringing many more women into graduate school in particle physics. Half of the graduate students in her home department at Columbia University are now women.

Selection for May, 2003:

Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful 
Pigs“Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs: 67 Digestible commentaries on the fascinating chemistry of ordinary life” by Joe Schwarcz, W. H. Freeman New York 2002 0-7167-4600-X $14.95 (paper)

Joe Schwarcz is Director of McGill University's Office for Chemistry and Society. He hosts a weekly radio call-in radio show in Montreal and also writes a column about chemistry in everyday life for the Washington Post. The essays in this book are collected largely from his radio show, and they are exactly in the spirit of "Hal's Picks". These short (a few pages each) discussions of the chemistry that everyone experiences daily are entertaining reading, and provide the kind of connections that make chemistry fun to teach and to learn. Did you know that only about 25% percent of the population produces methane in their flatulence, or that Brazil nuts are an excellent source of dietary selenium? Dr. Schwarcz has several selections in the book about pseudoscience, from supposed hair-growing concoctions to Laundry Disks and homeopathy. Apparently it was felt that formulas and chemical structures would make the book less accessible to the general public; there are places where they would enhance the discussion. I also wish that the book had references to the chemical literature. "Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs" was reviewed by Jay Labinger in Journal of Chemical Education 2000 76 834.

Selection for April, 2003:

Measuring America “Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy” by Andro Linklater, Walker & Co. New York 2002 0-8027-1396-3 $26.00

Until I read "Measuring America", I was only vaguely aware of the importance of surveying to the economic and political history of the United States. Like most students, I had read that George Washington was a surveyor, but I did not know that he earned more income in that occupation than he did as President, or that his estate on the Potomac was a direct result of his work as a surveyor. The ownership of a continent could not become legal until it was clear what was owned, and that task depended on agreement upon a system by which the measurements were to be made. Contemporary with the French meridian survey (see last month's Pick), Thomas Jefferson devised his own version of a "metric system", based on the length of an iron rod that swings with a one-second period. The system had thoroughly decimal relationships for length, area, volume (one decimal ounce to be the mass of one cubic inch of rainwater, and the inch to be one-tenth of a decimal foot, which was based on the length of the iron rod. Science and technology are not the real focus of "Measuring America" but, as the book makes clear, commerce has always depended on a reliable system of measurement.

Selection for March, 2003:

Measure of all Things “The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World” by Ken Alder, The Free Press (Simon and Schuster) New York 2002 0-7432-1675-X $27.00

In 1792, the French Academy of Sciences appointed two respected scientists to survey a north-south meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona, for the purpose of determining the size (and shape) of the earth. Why is this important? Because it would establish an international basis for the meter, foundation of the metric system. It was expected that the work would be finished in about a year, but the expeditions, led by Pierre Francois Andre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, which were carried out amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, outlasted both the Academy and the monarchy. Ken Alder has located the lost correspondence between these two, and has discovered the surprising fact that Méchain’s guilt over the possibility of a critical error in a measurement near the southern end of the meridian led him to agonizing self-doubt that brought him close to what we would call a nervous breakdown and almost prevented his completion of the project (about seven years later than first expected).

Selection for February, 2003:

Acid Tongues "Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers: Eight Scientific Rivalries that Changed the World" by Michael White, Perennial (an imprint of Harper Collins) 2001 0-380-80613-4(paper) $14.95; 0-380-97754-0(cloth) $26.00

Many people have difficulty understanding the motivation of scientists for precedence and the recognition it brings. While there are monetary incentives for some of the protagonists in "Acid Tongues", it is more often pride and the acceptance of one's ideas that drove the rivalries of Newton vs. Leibniz, Edison vs. Tesla, Crick and Watson vs. Pauling vs. Franklin and Wilkins. Sometimes these men (there is only one woman profiled, Rosalind Franklin) of great intellect acted in the most petty and immature fashion. Chemists will enjoy the Lavoisier-Priestly history, and the battle between Gates' Windows and Ellison's Oracle may not have seen its last skirmish. Michael White not only tells some of the most interesting history in science, but also reminds us that great science is done by human beings, with most of the same faults as the rest of us. My favorite quote from the book appears on the first page, and it is from Winston Churchill - "In science you don't need to be polite, you only have to be right".

Selection for January, 2003:

"Generation of a Bacterium with a 21 Amino Acid Genetic Code" by Ryan A. Mehl, J. Christopher Anderson, Stephen W. Santoro, Lei Wang, Andrew b. Martin, David S. King, David M. Horn, and Peter G. Schultz Journal of the American Chemical Society 2003 125 935 and the digest, "Reinventing Biology" by Stu Borman in Chemical and Engineering News 2003 81(3) [January 20, 2003] p. 7.

Even those of us whose whose biochemistry is a little shaky are likely to know that there are twenty amino acids that form the building blocks of proteins in life on earth. Now even that simple factoid is no longer absolutely true. A group of scientists headed by Peter G. Schultz of the Scripps Research Institute have created a new form of E. coli that uses (and makes) p-aminophenylalanine as well as the usual twenty. This feat was accomplished by changing the organism's DNA and RNA. The trick of making organisms produce non-natural proteins had been done many times before, but this is the first instance in which a modified organism has also been made to incorporate the new amino acid into its own structure. Now the group will be trying to determine why life didn't do this before; why did nature stop with twenty amino acids, and why this particular twenty?


Hal's Current Picks

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2004, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995

Indices to Hal's Picks


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