Books in Scientia – The Unfinished Files

This is a post about a few of the books I started reading with the intention to review here, but I never finished.

Titles and authors

Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World by Nick Lane
Poisoned Planet by Julian Cribb
The Joy of Chemistry by Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf

How far did I get?

OtMtMtW: half way-ish, maybe just under

PP: about three-quarters of the way

TJoC: not quite halfway

Why didn’t I finish it?

OtMtMtW: It just didn’t hold my interest. The narrative component of the book was weak, and it had a very textbook-y feel about it a lot of the time.

PP:  There are too many false analogies, giant leaps of faith, baseless assertions and misinformation to make this book worthwhile. I wrote 2 pages of notes about all of the wrongness. I also managed to rack up a $180 library fine thanks to this book (long story) but that in no way clouded my judgement.

TJoC: This book was pitched at a level too far below my interest and expertise.

Any redeeming qualities?

OtMtMtW: It’s clearly taken a lot of research to write and the information appeared to be sound. It would be a good reference material or starting point from which to really deep-dive into any of the topics covered.

PP: The premise is interesting and seems like something worth writing a book on – why aren’t we doing a whole lot about looking into the effects of industrial chemicals and by-products?

TJoC: I think it would be great for someone with an interest in chemistry who had never done it above a high school level. There are a lot of decent experiments in there that can be done with household items. It was just too basic for someone with a chemistry degree and 10 years of professional chemistry experience.

Books in Scientia – The Science of Ice Cream

Title and author

The Science of Ice Cream by Chris Clarke

What’s it about?

Ice cream. In particular, the scientific aspects of the aforementioned frozen confection. A good title’s a descriptive title eh.

What are the good bits?

I learned a lot of new things about ice cream. The hands-down best thing I learned about was Dondurma, which is a Turkish ice cream that is chewy! The first chapter is an interesting history of modern ice cream. The detail included about the characterisation and properties of ice cream was both extensive and fascinating.

What are the not-so-good bits?

This book is not intended to assist the home cook and has little to offer in this area. It is very much focused on industrial scale ice cream production. There are a few try-this-at-home experiments in the back but they seemed at bit ‘meh’ to me (although I am a somewhat experienced home ice cream cook. In fact, I’ve renamed the ice cream I make at home to “nice cream” because it’s pretty effing good OK.

Also, not the fault of the book or author, but my chemophobia alarm sounded loudly when in the chapter discussing ingredients, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose was described as being longer routinely included in ice cream because of “it’s perception as a chemical”. This is after a long list of other chemical stabilisers including carageenans, pectin and xanthan. LARGE SIGH TO YOU ICE CREAM MANUFACTURERS.

What does it say on p89 line 11?

Tacos are a type of sandwich product consisting of a semi-circular shaped wafer that contains icecream and sauce (Figure 5.4b)


Who should read it?

People who would like to find out more about how ice cream is manufactured, and the macro and micro physical properties of different iced products. Those with a strong interest in rheology, microscopy and composite materials may also find much of the content quite satisfying.

How good is it?

It’s pretty good for a book with a decent amount of physics in it. I do like ice cream.

stars ice cream





3 round bottom flasks out of 5

Books in Scientia – Much Ado About (Practically) Nothing

Title and author

Much Ado About Practically Nothing by David Fisher

What’s it about?

Nobel gases, the group 18(VIII) elements. What you will not find in this book is any information on the most often quoted uses of noble gases, cooling and lighting. The author focuses on isotope geochemistry for dating of rocks, meteorites and whatnot.

What are the good bits?

I’m a little bit ashamed to say that even as a chemist (who should know better), I thought the noble gases were a teensy bit boring and this book might be too. It wasn’t! And it’s proper good, not just good because I thought it was going to be bad and then it wasn’t.

What are the not-so-good bits?

There are a couple of places where in my opinion, the author is overly critical on a personal level, of other scientists. It left me feeling a bit awkward and uncomfortable.

What does it say on p54 line 14?

I heard Bohr lecture once. Or rather I saw him lecture; I heard very little and understood absolutely nothing. His head was bowed and turned almost obsessively to the blackboard, on which he wrote tiny, barely legible mathematical symbols, and he whispered to the blackboard in a thick Danish accent.

My 3rd year thermodynamics lecturer must have seen Bohr lecture too, and modelled his lecturing style on the Dane…

Who should read it?

I’d recommend the reader to be literate in a little chemistry and/or physics or they may become lost in the science, which primarily deals with isotopes.

How good is it?

It’s good, a different perspective on an old topic and a worthwhile read if you happen to come across it.


stars much ado





3.5 mortar and pestles out of 5

Books in Scientia – Newton and the Counterfeiter


newtonTitle and author

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Tom Levenson

What’s it about?

The little known latter part of Isaac Newton’s career, when he was warden of the Royal Mint in London. Chiefly responsible for transforming the currency and eliminating coin clippers and counterfeiters, Newton goes after notorious ‘coyner’ William Chaloner (and – ***spoiler alert***- totally nails that mofo).

What are the good bits?

Levenson is a very effective storyteller, using evocative language and ye oldey timey wordseys to transport the reader back to late 17th/early 18th century London. It’s also nice to read something about Newton which does not have to do with apples or calculus (not that I have anything against either of those things… except calculus).

What are the not-so-good bits?

It can be difficult to tell with historical non-fiction which parts are true truth and which parts are creative license and I found myself wondering this along the way. Best to not think about it and just enjoy the ripper story.

What does it say on p220 line 27?

Chaloner had always brandished his skills as a weapon. His mastery of the theory and practice of coining was the foundation of published claims that he could better the Warden.”

Chaloner, you dastardly fellow. You can’t fool Newton. Your comeuppance will come up… ance.

Who should read it?

Those who would like to learn how to do the coyning and the clipping and then go back in a time machine and make loads and loads of dollahz in 17th century England.

How good is it?

It’s good indeed. I liked it and it wasn’t even about chemistry!

newton stars




4 watchglasses out of 5


Books in Scientia – Cathedrals of Science


Title and author

Cathedrals of Science by Patrick Coffey

What’s it about?

A history of modern chemistry spanning the late 1800s through to the 1940s. The focus is on the personalities of some of the influential chemists of the time, as well as their scientific achievements. The main ‘character’ is Gilbert Lewis, American physical chemist and arguably the best chemist to never win the Nobel Prize.

What are the good bits?

The last few pages are particularly gripping and almost murder mystery-esque. The exploration of the character and personal quirks of many of these chemists (especially Lewis) is quite engaging. It reminds us that these giants of modern chemistry, whose names we use every day, were real people with real flaws as well as brilliance.

What are the not-so-good bits?

I found the book a little hard to get into at first. Beginning with acids and bases, it’s not the most thrilling of chemistry topics to me and I didn’t really warm to Nernst and Arrhenius as the first chemists we come across in the narrative.

What does it say on p303 line 19?

On Lewis resigning from the National Academy of Sciences: “This petulant resignation must have discouraged many of his supporters, and the American Nobel nominations for Lewis fell off after 1934.” Yet another entry in the long list of reasons why Lewis never won the Nobel. Sounds like if he wasn’t such a copper nanotube things might have turned out differently for him.

Who should read it?

Those who want to find out more about the foundations of modern chemistry, with a focus on the personalities of people who contributed significantly to it.

How good is it?

Reasonably good, a worthwhile read.

3.5 bunsen burners out of 5

stars cathedrals

Books in Scientia – Periodic Kingdom

2014-02-11 23.50.55

Title and author

The Periodic Kingdom by Peter Atkins

What’s it about?

Good question… it’s about the periodic table. The book is written as though the periodic table is a continent, a new land to be discovered and explored. Atkins plays the role of the anthropologist, describing its trends and intricacies as a scholar who has lived amongst the native tribes, learned their way of life, their history and their governance, and is sharing this knowledge with the reader.

What are the good bits?

Atkins has a unique writing style (that simply infuriated me when battling through his enormous eponymous physical chemistry textbook) which is quite well suited to this interesting premise.

What are the not-so-good bits?

A couple of parts of the book are out of date, in particular mention of the elements joliotium and hahnium. Although the uncertainty surrounding the names of these elements is acknowledged in the text, other names ended up being chosen after the book was published. From what I could find on the all-knowing internets, there were no further editions after the 1995 original to update these details.

Atkins also referred to carbon as the ‘King of Mediocrity’ to which I raise a hearty objection. Or maybe he was being facetious…

What does it say on p147 line 8?

For this part of my reviews I usually choose a page at random, but for this book there was a particular quote from the epilog [sic… WTF is this by the way, isn’t Atkins British? He should know better] I wanted to use.

The real world is a jumble of awesome complexity and immeasurable charm. Even the inanimate, inorganic world of rocks and stone, rivers and ocean, air and wind is a boundless wonder. Add to that the ingredient of life and the wonder is multiplied almost beyond imagination. Yet all this wonder springs from about one hundred components that are strung together, mixed, compacted, and linked, as letters are linked to form a literature

FUCK. YEAH. Chemists, this is our “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Why isn’t this quote famous? The whole freaking world is made of elements. Just elements. That is it. And those elements are OURS. Why are people scared of them? They are amazing. The world is made of elements and they are amazing and it is amazing. The end.

Who should read it?

Despite its clear and easy to understand explanations of the trends of the periodic table, I doubt this would interest those without a chemistry background or a significant interest in the technicalities of the periodic table. I’d be interested to know who Atkins imagined the audience for this book would be.

How good is it?

It’s good, but slightly dated, and the style is something of an acquired taste I presume.

3 squeezy solvent wash bottles out of 5

kingdom stars

Books in Scientia – Molecules of Murder

molecules of murder

Title and author

Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases by John Emsley

What’s it about?

A number of case studies of murders carried out with natural and synthetic poisons. Major cases covered range from recent (Alexander Litvinenko, 2006), to well over a century old (Thomas Bartlett, 1886).

What are the good bits?

Many of the cases in this book will be familiar to readers, poisoning murders are quite rare so they often receive a lot of media coverage. However, Emsley covers the cases in a surprising level of detail, and I certainly learned new things even about the cases I’d read about before.

There is also a nice glossary with chemical terms and structures which I suspect would be very helpful for the non-chemist reader, though I confess I did not need to use this more than once or twice. Apart from the technical terms, the book is written in very clear language.

What are the not-so-good bits?

There’s nothing that’s not good about this book. It was interesting and informative, but it didn’t get me all fired up and passionate about chemistry like some other pop-chem books have.

What does it say on p193 line 19?

the consultant instructed that the blood and urine samples should be urgent sent for analysis…this was not carried out…and when the mistake was realised, they covered it up by saying that…the results had come back negative

Emsley recounts an error made by hospital staff in one of the murder cases. It brought to mind the case of Annie Dookhan, the chemist who was recently jailed for altering and falsifying forensic drug analyses. I wonder if any murders were missed or falsely confirmed due to her tampering?

Who should read it?

Those interested poisonings, toxicology or even crime fiction fans who might want a little foray into real crime.

How good is it?

Reasonably. Not the most exciting book you’ll ever read, despite the number of murders, but interesting and a worthwhile read nonetheless.

3.5 funnels out of 5

murder stars

Books in Scientia – Uncle Tungsten

Title and author

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

uncle tungsten

What’s it about?

Part memoir, part chemical history. Sacks takes the reader on a journey through chemical history and his own childhood, where he’s discovering and carefully nurturing a love for chemistry and the chemical elements. Spoiler alert – he ends up becoming a doctor and not a chemist – WUT.

What are the good bits?

I thought the memoir parts of the book were better than the parts about the history of the elements. Human stories eh? Apparently they’re engaging or something.

What are the not-so-good bits?

I don’t know if it counts as a ‘not-so-good’ bit, but there is a part close to the beginning about the Sacks family dog that really got to me, in a very not nice way. I think this is more a demonstration of the authors writing prowess that it affected me in such a way. And that I really love my dog.

I was also annoyed by the frequency and size of the footnotes, until I came to the part of the book where Sacks explains why he has such a fondness for footnotes. Then I forgave him.1

What does it say on p216 line 17?

I got a vertiginous, almost ecstatic satisfaction from seeing familiar terrestrial elements out in space, seeing what I had known only intellectually before, that the elements were not just terrestrial but cosmic, were indeed the building blocks of the universe

A wonderful example of Sacks exceptional writing style, describing his observation of spectral lines viewed through his uncle’s telescope/spectroscope.

Who should read it?

Anyone, everyone. People who like things.

How good is it?


tungsten stars1

4.5 mortar and pestles out of 5

1 Well I mostly forgave him, I continue to find footnotes quite infuriating. If it’s interesting or pertinent enough to include in the book at all, why not just have it in the main body of the text? When a footnote runs over the bottom half of two entire pages, I want to punch a kitten in the face. When I have to read a book running two bookmarks, one for the main text and one for the footnotes at the end (endnotes?), I want to punch two kittens in the face.

Books in Scientia – That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles

Title and author

That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles by Joe Schwarcz


What’s it about?

It’s a collection of short articles about various aspects of everyday chemistry all smooshed into a book with a picture of a biscuit on the front… mmm, cookie…

What are the good bits?

Ummm, well I didn’t know anything about the chemistry of airbags, so that section was mildly intriguing to me. Explosive sodium azide (NaN3) decomposes on ignition to form nitrogen gas which is used to inflate the bag – TOTES NIFTY.

What are the not-so-good bits?

Unfortunately, most of it. The book is bland and written in a very condescending tone. Every single story ends with an annoyingly glib statement like:

“It almost makes polenta sound appealing” (Y U HATE POLENTA JOE? THAT BE SOME DELICIOUS CORNMEAL)

“A walk in the sunshine is a much more pleasant prospect” (than being force-fed fish oil – duh.)

“And we know what terrorists are capable of” (Gee, that’s cheery Joe. Post 9/11 much?)

“Maybe I should go and make myself some mashed potatoes” (alrighty then)

What does it say on page 210, line 23?

“Maybe you can find more information about this on the World Wide Web” REALLY? INFORMATIONS ON THE INTERNETS? THANKS JOE!

This is yet another one of the drippy closing lines that I’m talking about.

Who should read it?

Those with an interest in chemistry, as applied to everyday life BUT have only about a primary school level education in science AND have never read a popular chemistry book before.

How good is it?

I’m giving this book 1 out of 5 bottles of pyrophoric reagent.

1 pyrophoric

Books in Scientia – Periodic Tales

This is the first instalment of Books in Scientia; short reviews of books I’ve recently read.  

periodic tales

Title and author

Periodic tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

What’s it about?

It is a personal and historical account of the discovery and practical applications of many of the chemical elements.

What are the good bits?

The most engaging parts of the book are where the author attempts to recreate some of the historical experiments which led to the discovery of new elements. The skill and perseverance of the historical chemists is made startlingly clear through the author’s failures. Because if you’re gonna try and extract phosphorus from collecting several hundred litres of your own wee, you kinda want it to work.

What are the not-so-good bits?

The pictures (there aren’t that many), are poor quality and may as well not have been included.

What does it say on page 181, line 5?

As early as the mid-eighteenth century fireworks were advertised as offering proper rainbow colours.” And who doesn’t love a book that contains fireworks?!

Who should read it?

Anyone with an interest in chemistry, history of the elements or popular science narratives.

How good is it?

I’m giving Periodic Tales 4.5 out of 5 test tubes.

4.5 test tubes