Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's Picks in 2005

Hal Harris

This file last modified 2/15/07

Selection for December, 2005:

The China Study"The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted" by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, Benbella Books, 2005 417 pp., 1-932100-38-5 $19.96 [to be available in paper in spring, 2006]

If there is a subject more rife with bad science than that of human nutrition, I don't know what it would be. It seems that every year there is another fad diet, based on unproven theory and void of any semblance of scientific evidence. Of course, the reason that these schemes come along is because people want to live long and healthy lives, and my introductory chemistry students have lots of questions related to their own nutrition. "The China Study" is a book that I can recommend to them. It is based on a lifetime of research by Colin Campbell of Cornell University. He was head of an international group of researchers that studied the eating habits of people in different cultures and their health consequences. As the title implies, the largest and most convincing of these was a study of 6500 Chinese persons of both sexes, from 65 "counties" of China. The range of lifestyles was very large, from urban to rural, and their diets also represented a much larger range of foods than is found in American or European populations. Why is it that the incidence of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease is very high in our population and very low in countries that have far "poorer" diets? The "bottom line" of this thoroughly-documented study is essentially that animal protein is not good for us - even milk, "the perfect food". My students (and me!) may not relish the change to a vegetarian diet, but it is difficult to refute the mass of evidence in "The China Study".

Selection for November, 2005:

Elegant Solutions"Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry" by Philip Ball, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2005 212 pp., 0-85404-674-7 $39.95 [sold in the US by Springer]

Choose ten exemplary chemistry experiments. The synthesis of nylon? Bakelite, the first man-made polymer? The structure of DNA? The fixing of nitrogen? The discovery of buckyballs? Sorry, but none of those made the list of veteran science writer Philip Ball. Mr. Ball was looking for something other than mere importance. He was seeking "elegance", or "beauty" in the experiments he chose for this fascinating book. Some of his examples are not usually considered to be within the realm of chemistry, but that is fine with me. I have always thought that the goals of science education should not be restricted by artificial "disciplinary" boundaries. Mr. Ball's objective in Elegant Solutions is to identify experiments that are particularly inspiring, because they so clearly illuminate an important principle or represent a turning point in science. Louis Pasteur's "by hand" resolution of chiral tartaric acid is an example of the "elegance" criterion. Not only did the unlikable Mr. Pasteur painstakingly separate crystals that were mirror images of one another - he also provided insight into the meaning of his experiment. The isolation of radium by Marie Curie earned the Nobel in physics, but her work was almost all chemistry, and it is appropriate that her contribution be recognized in that light. Other supposed physics that made the list are Rutherford and Cavendish, but "alchemist" Jan Baptista van Helmont gets the leadoff essay, for his quantitative proof that plants are made of more than soil. A longer review of this book will appear soon in JCE.

Selection for October, 2005:

Cartoon Guide to Chemistry"The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry" by Larry Gonick and Craig Criddle, HarperResource, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2005 250 pp., 0-06-093677-0 $16.95 (paper)

My goal in Hal's Picks is to expand the chemistry curriculum, embracing science that is not usually included in chemistry courses. This month is an exception. The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry is about exactly the topics that traditionally appear in Introductory Chemistry courses. However, the irreverent attitude that cartoonist Larry Gonick and chemist Craig Criddle bring to the subject is likely to be more appealing to most of our students than the textbook we force them to purchase. The Cartoon Guide is not a book of jokes; it deals semi-seriously with the subject, but the ideas are presented and discussed by cartoon characters, the most persistent of which is an unnamed alchemical wizard who seems to have most of the answers. It is hard for me to judge how effectively one could learn chemistry "from scratch" using this irreverent approach, but I enjoyed reading these authors' explanations. For the most part, they seemed pretty accurate. There are no example problems, exercises, or homework in the book, although there are some tables of data in places where they would be helpful. It is not a textbook, I think that my students would enjoy reading it, and I have recommended it to them. A slightly longer review of this book appears in the December 2005 issue of JCE.

Selection for September, 2005:

Chance and Necessity"Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology" by Jacques Monod, Alfred A. Knopf 1971 199 pp. 394-46615-2 $6.95 (but out of print)

I seldom have chosen books as Hal's Picks that are not relatively recent (although there are precedents for this), but the current controversy over "Intelligent" Design brought vividly to mind the 1971 book, "Chance and Necessity" by Nobelist Jacques Monod. While I appreciate the arguments for evolution by people like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, Monod's reasoning appeals to me even more as a molecular scientist. I read "Chance and Necessity" when it was first published those thirty-some years ago, and it is a testament to the power of this book that it has stuck with me so strongly for so long. Monod looks at the biomolecular basis of genetics in search of evidence for any non-random processes, which would be required if some design were imposed on the processes of selection. He finds none. In fact, he can positively rule out the existence of such mechanisms. Modern biology tells us, according to Monod, " follows that chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution; this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition - or the hope - that on this score our position is likely ever to be revised. His conclusions are precisely those that are an athema to traditional believers. In his words, "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is knowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose." Find a copy this important book from your library or locate a used one.

Selection for August, 2005:

Art of the Catapult"The Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery" by William Gurstelle, Chicago Review Press 2004 172 pp. 1-55652-526-5 $14.95

William Gurstelle is author of another of Hal's Picks. He wrote "Backyard Ballistics" that I chose for March of 2002. He also wrote "Building Bots: Designing and Building Warrior Robots", but I haven't read that one. "Catapult" is definitely in the spirit of "build it yourself", that I like to encourage here and also in "The Cost-Effective Teacher" feature in the print Journal. Gurstelle is an engineer, and he brings an engineer's perspective to the book. As in "Backyard Ballistics, he provides the colorful of the machines that he describes, but he also tells the reader how to tie the necessary knots and how to work with PVC pipe, which is used for some of them. Both of these skills can be useful in other contexts, of course. Projects like these have become very popular in physics classes, partly as a consequence of the excellent Nova program on ancient artillery. These would be excellent father-son-or-daughter activities but youngsters and (especially) exuberant teenagers need adult supervision when these things fire tennis balls or water balloons. They can cause damage or injury. [Isn't that part of the fun?] Chapter 1 is on safety, but cautions are also sprinkled as necessary through the descriptions of the construction and operation of ten different machine models. Part of Chapter 7 shows how to make your own rope, in a manner similar to that used by our clever ancestors.

Selections for July, 2005:

Einstein 1905"Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness" by John S. Rigden, Harvard University Press 2005 192 pp. 0-674-01544-4 $21.95

This year marks a century since Albert Einstein published five of the most influential papers in the history of science, all submitted between March and September of 1905. That is the impetus for designating 2005 as the World Year of Physics, and corresponding programs of the Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers in this year. My friend John Rigden's short book focuses on the intellectual content of Einstein's 1905 work, including a description of the science in each of the papers in turn. The story is an astounding one. The March paper posited the idea of light as quantized, with energy proportional to the frequency. Often, this is called "the photoelectric effect paper", because that was the aspect that was cited in the resulting Nobel prize. A month later, the April paper provided an excellent estimate of the magnitude of Avogadro's number. In May he "predicted" Brownian Motion, with which Einstein had not been familiar, even though it had been observed at least a decade earlier. Special relativity was the subject of Einstein's June paper, and in September he extended those ideas to unify energy and mass. An Epilogue, which could just as well have been a chapter, describes some remaining highlights of Einstein's contributions: the General Theory of Relativity (1916), The Quantum Theory of Radiation (1917), Bose-Einstein Statistics (1924-25), and the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Hypothesis (1935). I think that most readers of "Hal's Picks" will enjoy this book; it emphasizes the amazing insight of the man, and describes the science in a manner that is accessible without being distorted.

AnnusMirabilis"Annus Mirabilis: 1905, Albert Einstein, and the Theory of Relativity" by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin, Chamberlain Bros (part of the Penguin Group) 2005 309 pp. 1-59609-144-4 $25.95

John and Mary Gribbin have written a book with a somewhat broader scope than Rigden's on the same topic. The first 138 pages of constitute a brief biography in three chapters: The First Twenty-Five Years, The Annus Mirabilis, and The Last Fifty Years. For someone who knows nothing about Einstein's life this is not a bad introduction, but I think that it is a subject worthy of far more than three chapters. Fortunately, there are numerous excellent Einstein biographies, especially those by Ronald Clark's "Einstein: The Life and Times", Benesh Hoffmann's "Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel", and "Einstein: A Life" by Denis Brian [who also has a new book, "The Unexpected Einstein", that I haven't read.] Einstein's life is further described in a DVD that is enclosed with "Annus Mirabilis". This is the Arts and Entertainment Channel biography (that sells separately for almost as much as this whole package). It is quite well-done, but glosses and simplifies this very complex person. The remaining 171 pages of "Annus Mirabilis" is an appendix of thirty two(!) chapters in which the authors try to develop the ideas of special and general relativity, beginning with Cartesian coordinate systems and ending with cosmology. I find it difficult to believe that many naive readers would work through this, but John Gribbin is known for the skill with which he writes about complex science. His "In Search of Schroedinger's Cat" is a classic, but I think the lengthy appendices will be of use mainly to those who already know quite a bit about about relativity.

Selection for June, 2005:

Fly in the Ointment"The Fly in the Ointment: 70 Fascinating Commentaries on the Science of Everyday Life" by Joe Schwarcz, ECW Press 2004 297 pp. 1-55022-621-5 $15.95

Joe Schwarcz has done it again. This host of a science call-in show in Montreal and Toronto has put together another collection of his commentaries on the science of everyday life. All four of his previous books have been "Hal's Picks", and you can find all of them in the Index. As usual, most of the science is chemistry. In this collection, he again devotes a lot of space to issues of health and nutrition, favorite topics of his listeners. He dispels some myths about dangers associated with cooking in Teflon pans, and does an especially good job of discussing the pros and cons of DDT and DDE, including his confession that his opinion of Rachel Carson and "Silent Spring" has undergone drastic reversal in light of evidence. Alzheimer's disease is still largely shrouded in medical mystery, and I appreciated his frank remarks about what is known, and what might be true about this scourge. His description of the advice given freely (and worth every penny) by the clerks in "health food" stores is a cautionary tale. Schwarcz mixes good story-telling, accurate science, some history, and a sympathetic yet skeptical attitude to guide his readers to understanding the scientific world around them.

Selections for May, 2005:

Mathematician at the Ballpark"A Mathematician at the Ballpark: Odds and Probabilities for Baseball Fans" by Ken Ross, The Pi Press 2004 190 pp. 0-13-147990-3 $19.95

Back in the 1960's, I was captivated by "Percentage Baseball" by Earnshaw Cook. Now long out of print and a collector's item, this book was a forerunner of the "science" of SABRmetrics (after the Society for American Baseball Research) that refers to the scientific (statistical) evaluation of the game. A couple of years ago, Michael Lewis' Money Ball, which chronicled the construction and success of the Oakland team based on these principles, was a best-seller; there are now thousands of amateur and professional SABRmetricians. I was hoping for more of that kind of thing from from "Mathematician at the Ballpark", but the author's focus is more on betting on baseball than its strategy. Nevertheless, this book could provide an impetus to a student to learn about statistics and probability. It is pretty heavy on theory, but the fact that it is applied to a game makes it much more palatable that your typical textbook (Ross has also written some of those). He describes a betting strategy that he devised, that takes into account the number of fans likely to be willing to wager on each side of a game, and he has the courage to disclose in the book that the approach was a money-loser in 2003, and he has posted the results of continuation of the experiment in 2004, when it lost even more. Nothing like experimental tests of hypotheses, is there?

Warming "The Climate of Man - I, II, and III" by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker April 25, page 56; May 2, page 64; May 9, page 52. $3.95 each issue.

It was not that many years ago that one could reasonably defer judgement about global warming. But the evidence that our planet's climate is changing at a pace that can only presage disaster is becoming so compelling that only the US executive branch can't see it. Even the Bush administration now acknowledges that there may be a problem, but not one that would require significant action. This essay in three installments by Elizabeth Kolbert (who also wrote the New Yorker "Ice Memory" story that was my Pick in January of 2002) begins with reports from the arctic, where some of the most dramatic evidence is found - in the shortening of the winter season, a dramatic decrease in ice cover of the ocean, and the rapid motion and melting of glaciers. The decrease in the amount of ice and snow makes the earth much more absorbent of the sun's energy, which causes more melting, which decreases the albido further, which melts more, in a continuous and possibly irreversible cycle. In part II, historical evidence for rapid climate change is combined with an explanation of how computer models of the atmosphere help us to understand long-term trends, and to predict what will happen in the future. Part III examines the practical and political implications of global warming. As the oceans rise, due both to increased melting and the thermal expansion of water, what will happen to the Netherlands, New Orleans, or the low-lying islands of the Maldives that came to our attention as a result of the recent Tsunami disaster?

Selection for April, 2005:

Collapse "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond, Viking Press 2005 575 pp. 0-670-03337-5 $29.95

Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in the last few years. It is an examination of the factors that have led societies to flourish and to gain ascendency over one another. It turns out that it is more often a combination of external variables, such as the availability of indigenous wheat or rice for cultivation, or the location of accessible ores, rather than the character of peoples that have caused the great swings of history. In this new book, Diamond examines how some societies have chosen to fail. The word "choose" in the subtitle is key to Diamond's thesis. He shows how one culture can die out due to "lack of resources" while another can continue indefinitely in the same environment. An excellent example is the Norse of Greenland, a society that attempted to establish an agrarian system based on hunting, farming, and the raising of cattle, using knowledge with which the same people had been successful in Norway. But Greenland's short growing season and the adherence to familiar ways caused the society to fail, while an adjacent Inuit culture survived in the same environment by making different decisions about the use of fish and by developing methods to hunt the abundant but elusive ringed seal. The subject of "Collapse" is very relevant to the science of the environment, and Diamond does a fine job of describing both historical and contemporary case studies. We know what the fates of the Maya, the Norse in Greenland, and the Easter Islanders were, but the stories of modern Eastern Africa, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and even the Bitteroot Valley of Montana are not ended. What will we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors?

Selection for March, 2005:

Science Friction "Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown" by Michael Shermer, Henry Holt and Co./Times Books 2005 336 pp. 0-8050-7708-1 $26.00

Several of Michael Shermer's writings have been Hal's Picks in the past. Back in October of 1997, I recommended his "Why People Believe Weird Things", Chapter Ten of which was "Confronting Creationists - Twenty Five Creationist Arguments, Twenty Five Evolutionist Answers". Since then, Shermer has published several additional excellent books and has become Scientific American's resident Skeptic. In 2005, Creationism has largely evolved into Intelligent Design, and Shermer provides new answers in Chapter 11 of "Science Friction". Most of us are ill-equipped to deal respectfully and intelligently with the religious beliefs of our students, 45% of whom (according to a 2001 Gallup poll) believe that the earth and its inhabitants were created in pretty much their present form about 10,000 years ago. It is nice to have Shermer (along with Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan, among others) providing counterpoints that rebut without confrontation. This collection of essays explores some of the controversial fringes of science. Parts reflect ideas that Robert Erlich has also explored (see Hal's Picks in December 2001 and February 2004). As usual, Shermer provides plenty of fresh ideas, as he discusses the virtues of skepticism, "spin-doctoring" in anthropology, chaos and complexity, the mutiny on the Bounty, and the place of science in the history of humankind. His book begins with a description of his own experiences (and success) posing as a psychic. I have come to expect both a lighthearted attitude and intellectual challenges from this author, and "Science Friction" does not disappoint.

Selection for February, 2005:

Blink "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown & Co. 2005 277 pp. 0-316-17232-4 $25.95

We teachers of science tend to assume that our students are largely rational - that they can be brought to understanding through a gradual accumulation of experiences that lead to conclusions about how the world works, and that nature can be led to disclose herself through a logical process. In "Blink", Malcolm Gladwell describes his inquiry into the opposite kind of thought - the importance conclusions drawn on the basis of little evidence. All of us make quick decisions on the basis of a glimpse or a handshake, a gesture or a facial expression, a phrase or a few notes of music. Sometimes life and death depend on an assessment by police, whose ability to make split-second judgements can be greatly enhanced through training. Gladwell also describes how the intentional limitation of knowledge can improve the quality of decisions, especially when the possibility of bias exists. Science calls these "blind" studies or "double-blind trials", but the same kind of approach has revolutionized the gender composition of symphony orchestras. This author has been a favorite of mine since "The Tipping Point" and especially because of his essays for the New Yorker. In "Blink", he brings to light some of the myriad of thoughts floating below the surface of our students' consciousnesses, and - more importantly - our own.

Selection for January, 2005:

The Snowflake "The Snowflake: Winter's Secret Beauty" text by Kenneth Libbrecht, photography by Patricia Rassmussen, Voyageur Press 2003 112 pp. 0-89658-630-8 $20.00

How do you know that no two snowflakes are exactly alike? Does it matter? For the scientist, the similarities between snowflakes are just an interesting, and probably much more important, than their differences. The author of the text in "The Snowflake" is Chairman of the Physics Department at Caltech. While he is involved in gravitational wave experiments and the development of tunable lasers for physics education, he also makes time to study snowflakes. With his photography collaborator Patricia Rassmussen, he has put together a beautiful book that intices the reader to join the fun of snowflake photography. The author's Web site,, not only explains how he grows "custom" snow crystals, but also how you can make your own pictures like his. These authors follow in the footsteps of the genius Wilson Bentley, who was first to photograph a single snowflake in 1865, and whose amazing pictures Snow Crystals are still in print from Dover Publications (I bought my copy "some time ago". The price on the cover is $3.25).

Hal's current picks

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995

Indices to Hal's Picks

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