Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's Picks in 2004

Hal Harris

This file last modified 2/15/07

Selection for December, 2004:

Dr. Joe "Dr. Joe & What You Didn't Know: 177 Fascinating Questions & Answers About the Chemistry of Everyday Life" by Joe Schwarcz EWC Press Press 2003 1-55022-577-4 241 pp. $14.95US, $17.95Can

Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, and he also hosts a popular radio show in Canada, in which he answers questions about science he has posed to his listeners. "Dr. Joe and What You Didn't Know" is the fourth in a series of books in which his answers are compiled. (The previous three have also been Hal's Picks.) Professor Schwarcz found that, at the time this book was being compiled, the quality of the answers his listeners were providing indicated that they had suddenly become more science-literate. This coincided with the availability of Internet search engines such as Google. Of course, he was asking his questions of the collective wisdom of the Internet, rather than his listeners. Consequently, he began to construct the questions in a way not conducive to Google searches. For example, he might ask "What common metal was once more valuable than gold?", rather than "Why did aluminum fall a hundred times in value during the 19th century?" His books are very attractive to me, both as a chemist interested in science in everyday life and as a teacher of chemistry. Like Hal's Picks, Professor Schwarcz does not limit himself exclusively to chemical topics, but his little essays consistently bring the insights of a chemist to the question at hand, and he does not hesitate to get into the chemical details of an answer that are necessary for a proper explanation. I still wish that he would include a few molecular structures in his books, and I ought to compile my own list of essays that would enhance the courses I teach, so that I would not neglect to bring them up when they fit.

Selection for November, 2004:

The Einstein File "The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist" by Fred Jerome St. Martin's Press 2002 0-312-28856-5 358 pp. $27.95

Most people would be surprised to learn that, by the time of his death in 1955, the FBI had compiled a file of more than fourteen hundred pages on the world's most famous and most revered scientist, Albert Einstein. Now often viewed as a kindly, disengaged, and possibly absent-minded professor, Einstein was actually passionate about certain political causes and skillful in using his favorable public image to further them. He was a bane of 1924-1972 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose agency systematically compiled derogatory material about Einstein from before his 1930's visits to the US, and culminating in a vicious "get Einstein" campaign from 1950 on. The trigger for Hoover's wrath was Einstein's interview on an Eleanor Roosevelt radio program, in which he stated his opposition to the US development of a hydrogen bomb. (Einstein had earlier opposed the use of atomic weapons against Japan, although he had urged FDR to develop them.) The FBI file on Einstein is now available on the Web, at, but it is difficult to read intelligently, partly because of the numerous expurgations but even more because of the lack of context. Fred Jerome of the Gene Media Forum of the Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University has done an excellent service in providing the historical background for a shameful example of how secret government surveillance and propaganda can infringe the civil rights of citizens and immigrants, and distort public policy.

Selection for October, 2004:

The Book Nobody Read "The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus" by Owen Gingerich Walker & Co. 2004 0-8027-1415-3 303 pp. $25.00

In his surprise 1959 bestseller about Kepler, The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler claimed that Nicolaus Copernicus' book, De Revolutionibus had very little influence on the other astronomers of his time because it was little-read. While Koestler was a captivating and persuasive writer, his history and his science (as in The Case of the Midwife Toad) was often suspect. When astrophysicist and science historian Owen Gingerich happened upon a copy of De Revolutionibus that was richly annotated in the hand of a Copernicus contemporary, he began to wonder whether Koestler's claim could be erroneous. Thus began his quest to locate every extant copy of the first and second editions of the famous book, this so that he could study the marginalia written by their owners - people like Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Would you believe that he located over six hundred copies that have survived the four hundred fifty years since its first publication? Gingerich tells us the personal story of how he compiled his exhaustive "census" of the book that many would claim began the scientific revolution. It is a great story of science, history, and books. It starts in a courtroom, where Gingerich testifies in a case involving a stolen copy of De Revolutionibus and meanders through libraries, museums, and book dealers throughout the world. As a (very) amateur book collector, I thought I knew something about the subject, but Chapter 13, "Sophisticated Ladies" was very informative to me. This is a wonderful book, which is scheduled for release by Penguin in paperback early in 2005. I recommend it in any kind of cover.

Selection for September, 2004:

Robert Hooke "The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London" by Lisa Jardine Harper Collins Publishers 2004 0-06--53897-X 422 pp. $27.95

Robert Hooke's name is familiar to most of us only because of "Hooke's Law", f = - kx, which describes the potential for a harmonic oscillator. I became aware of some of the other contributions of this remarkable man by reading one of Lisa Jardine's previous books, "Ingenious Pursuits", which was my pick for May, 2000. When I saw her more extensive biography of Hooke, I was eager to read more. Hooke was involved in most of the scientific, technological, and public issues of the London of his time. As Curator of Experiments for the newly-founded Royal Society, he was expected to come up with a new experiment for each monthly meeting of the organization. These were not simple "demonstrations" of known principles, but experiments at the forefront of science, and most of them required the invention and construction of new instruments. By all acounts, Hooke was an absolute genius at this. More incredible is that he was able to meet this obligation at the same time as he worked as an assistant to Robert Boyle, and with Christopher Wren to supervise the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Because the reconstruction included the widening of many streets, there were innumerable conflicts over property rights. Hooke manager to keep all of these things going, and to also design several important public buildings. Hooke also had the ability to offend. Isaac Newton got so angry with him over the theory of gravity, that he had Hooke's name removed from the minutes of the Royal Society and campaigned against his receiving credit for his scientific contributions.

Selection for August, 2004:

Einstein's Cook "What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained" by Robert L. Wolke W. W. Norton 2002 0-393-01183-6 350 pp. $25.95

Many have pointed out the similarity between the science of chemistry and the art of cooking. I'm sure that there is a lot of truth in that; some of the best amateur chefs I know are professional chemists. I don't happen to know any professional chefs who are amateur chemists, but Robert Wolke comes pretty close to that. He is Professor Emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, but also a syndicated food columnist. "What Einstein Told His Cook" contains nothing I could find about general or special relativity, gravity, the photoelectric effect, or Brownian motion. Could it be that the publisher was trying to cash in on Einstein's name recognition? Heavens! - must be the first time that's happened! This is a cookbook that will appeal to those who want to know how microwave ovens work, or how to cook an egg on an SUV. The focus of this question-and-answer book is at least as much on the food as the science, and the recipes look pretty good (I didn't cook any of them). For the person perhaps more interested in the science than the food, there is another recent (2001) book in this genre, "The Science of Cooking" by Peter Barham, and the first that I know of, the 1981 book "The Cookbook Decoder", by Arthur E. Grosser, that was given to me by a great chemist-cook and colleague, Professor Jane Miller.

Selections for July, 2004:

Debunked! "Debunked!: ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience" by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch, translated by Bart K. Holland Johns Hopkins University Press 2004 0-8018-7867-5 136 pp. $25.00

Readers of Hal's Picks will know that I have a strong interest in pseudosciences and believe that teachers should address our students' beliefs in them. When I ran across "Debunked!" by Nobel laureate Georges Charpak well-known skeptic Henri Broch, I bought a copy. I'm not sure that it is worth as much as the nearly $.20 per page that it sells for (the publisher claims it has 168 pages, but my copy has only 140, even if you count the front and back covers as four of them. There is not very much here that is new to me. Authors do spend a number of their pages describing the investigation of the "mystery" of the sarcophagus at Arles-sur-Tech, which is not widely known outside of France. They also do a good job of demonstrating the role of statistics in examining the claims that phenomena are so highly unlikely that they "must" be due to paranormal causes. One nice little factoid in the book is related to the famous NASA photo of "earthrise" as seen by the Apollo astronauts on the moon. Earth does not "rise" (or even appear to rise) when viewed from the moon. Think about it.

Science July 16, 2004 "The Fate of Industrial Carbon Dioxide" by Taro Takahashi, Science 2004 305(5682) July 16, 2004, p. 352

About half of the carbon dioxide from anthropogenic sources since the beginning of the industrial revolution is no longer in the atmosphere. For a long time, it has been recognized that the oceans have been absorbing the gas, and this is often viewed positively by environmentalists, because the impact on global warming would otherwise be much larger. However, this issue of Science contains a "Perspective" by Takahashi and two related research reports, "Impact of Anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 System in the Oceans", by R. A. Feely et al. and "The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2", by C. L. Sabine et al. that indicate that the consequent increases in the concentrations of carbonate species and decreases in the pH of the oceans may adversely affect life there, both plankton like the one shown on the cover, and corals. This subject is rife with grist for chemistry courses, from density to complex equilibria. Anyone can read the abstracts of these papers, and subscribers can read the whole articles online. One more thing to worry about...

Selection for June, 2004:

Fabric of the Cosmos "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality" by Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf 2004 0-375-41288-3 565 pp. $28.95

This is a terrific book. I thoroughly enjoyed every page written by distinguished string theorist Brian Greene, who also wrote the book and Nova TV series, "The Elegant Universe", which is available in paperback. Some of the string theory in "The Fabric of the Cosmos" is repetitive of the content of the earlier book. This guy not only knows his stuff, but he also explains very difficult physics using examples and analogies that are inventive and humorous (for example, characters and situations from "The Simpsons" pop up in several different contexts). Do not get the idea that "The Fabric of the Cosmos" deals only with arcane particle phenomena that are completely irrelevant to everyday life, or that it oversimplifies to the level of cartoons. On the contrary, Professor Greene elevates the reader's thinking to the ultimate nature of reality. Over the past couple of years, I have read a number of books that purport to bring relativity, quantum mechanics, and cosmology to the non-physicist, but this is the one that I enjoyed the most. The only thing I would criticize about it is that the black-and-white illustrations (and there aren't a lot of them) don't seem to have been reproduced very well.

Selection for May, 2004:

Galileo's Finger "Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science" by Peter Atkins, Oxford University Press 2003 0-19-860664-8 380 pp. $30.00

What would you say are the greatest scientific ideas that mankind has discovered? Most of us chemists would say that the notion that matter consists of atoms would have to be one of them, and physical chemist Peter Atkins does not disappoint us on that score. He also treads ground familiar to us when he describes entropy and energy, and evolution and DNA. However, even his remarks about these topics are worth reading, because he demonstrates how important scientific ideas can be explained to an interested layperson. One of the other subjects in his "Top Ten" list sounds as if it might be a topic in a chemistry course, but he brings a broader perspective to "Symmetry" than that, including the gauge symmetries of forces and particles. Another of the great ideas of science has to be the quantum theory (Chapter Seven), for which Symmetry makes a nice introduction. Atkins finishes with two excellent chapters on Cosmology and Spacetime, and what I thought was the most surprising choice, a chapter on Arithmetic: The Limits of Reason. Teachers of chemistry and other sciences will likely have their horizons extended by Galileo's Finger. A longer review of this book will appear soon in the printed Journal of Chemical Education.

Selection for April, 2004:

The Height Gap "The Height Gap" by Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker April 5, 2004 p. 38

A widely-held misconception is that people, in general, are getting taller. Another one is that Americans are the tallest people in the world. A handful of anthropologists led by John Komlos, a professor at the University of Munich, is using the average heights of people as a unique historical and contemporary index of health and nutrition. Among the insights this research has provided are that people in A.D. 800 probably lived better (or at least ate better) than those in 1700, and that the average slave in the American south was nearly as well-fed in adulthood as white farmers in the north, although children were malnourished until they were old enough to work. Height measurements also provide clues to the nutrition of population sub-groups in contemporary societies; Komlos has studied Americans by race, gender, income, and education, and at whites alone, blacks alone, people with advanced degrees, and those in the highest income bracket. None of them are getting taller, in contrast to the Dutch, who can claim the "world's tallest" title. This article is (temporarily) available online, as is a forum for discussion of it.

Selection for March, 2004:

Isaac Newton School of Driving "The Isaac Newton School of Driving: Physics and Your Car" by Barry Parker, Johns Hopkins University Press 2003 0-8018-7417-3 250 pp. $26.95 (cloth)

Many teachers of science use the automobile to exemplify the principles they wish to teach, whether it be the mechanics of acceleration or angular momentum, gearing, or the aerodynamics of drag. The author, Barry Parker, uses common experience as a platform for excursions into these areas and also in to less-predictable ones, such as the thermodynamics of gasoline and diesel engines, suspension systems, and chaos. He is clearly an enthusiast for the automobile, and his interest in the aesthetics of classic cars and interest in racing is infectious. The book is not a text (thank goodness), but it contains examples of practical technology that would certainly enhance and extend many courses. He uses "American" units throughout (even the English have abandoned them), which means that the science student and teacher for whom the book is largely intended will have to deal with feet, pounds and slugs rather than the SI units in which he/she almost surely is learning. As one might guess from the title, "The Isaac Newton School of Driving" is written in a light-hearted manner that is successful and appealing.

Selections for February, 2004:

Eight Preposterous Propositions "Eight Preposterous Propositions: From the Genetics of Homosexuality to the Benefits of Global Warming" by Robert Ehrlich, Princeton University Press 2003 0-691-09999-5 360 pp. $27.95 (cloth)

This is a sequel to Ehrlich's "Nine Crazy Ideas in Science", which was my pick for December, 2001. I don't think it is as good as the first one, although it does have some great strengths; his discussion of the global warming issue is about as good as any, and he also has an especially good discussion of the efficacy of placebos. The other topics not mentioned in the subtitle are: "Is Complex Life in the Universe Very Rare?", "Are People Getting Smarter or Dumber?", (paraphrasing) Intelligent Design, Health Effects of High Cholesterol, and Psychokinesis. One of the strengths of "Eight Preposterous Propositions" is that Ehrlich provides good references, so you (or your students) can follow up on the argument in more detail if you wish.

Einstein Simplified "Einstein Simplified: Cartoons on Science" by Sidney Harris, Rutgers University Press 1999 0-8135-3386-4 150 pp. $12.95 (paper)

I am overdue in recognizing Sidney Harris (not a relative) in "Hal's Picks". His cartoons are always very funny, and he surely must do more of them about subjects in science than anyone. You have surely seen his work in American Scientist, Playboy, or the New Yorker. I have had his "What's So Funny About Science?" and "Einstein Atomized" on my shelf for many years, and "Einstein Simplified" is a newer (although not very new) favorite. Topics are spread over biology, physics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, and even a few on medicine, but there are not quite as many chemistry cartoons as physics or biology. I can't believe that we are less easy to make fun of.

Selection for January, 2004:

Ink Sandwiches "Ink Sandwiches, Electric Worms, and 37 Other Experiments for Saturday Science" by Neil A. Downie, Johns Hopkins University Press 2003 0-8018-7410-6(paper) $18.95; 0-8018-7409-2(cloth) $45.00

I am always looking for science/engineering projects that would be fun to do, and to encourage students to try. Neil Downie's first book, "Vacuum Bazookas, Electric Rainbow Jelly, and 27 Other Experiments for Saturday Science" was a Pick for March, 2002. His latest one has three electrochemical projects, "Red-Hot Batteries", "Unusually Cool Sunglasses", and the surprising "Wet Solar Cell" (the earlier one also had only a few that were explicitly chemical). However, there are plenty of other phenomena that are part of the chemistry curriculum, such as "Coulter's Bubbles", "Glacial Oscillations", and "Electronic Elastic". In this last one, it is shown that a rubber band becomes more opaque to the light of a green LED as it is stretched, contrary to what you might expect. The science in these projects is very nicely explained and the directions are good enough for their completion, although some improvisation and experimentation will be necessary. Of course, that's where much of the fun lies!

Hal's Current Picks

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995

Indices to Hal's Picks

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