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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Better Living Through Chemistry

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, A Chemist in His Laboratory, 1734
Posted by Alana T.

It has been one hundred years since Marie Curie received her Nobel Prize in Chemistry (she, her husband Pierre and Antoine Becquerel also shared a Nobel in Physics awarded in 1903).  In that time, our knowledge of Chemistry has advanced considerably and changed nearly every aspect of our lives.  In recognition of the achievements of this branch of science, 2011 has been declared the International Year of Chemistry by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  This is a great time to visit the library and brush up on your knowledge.

Back in the day, I was a Biochem major.... and I didn't even like Chemistry!  I know more than I would like to admit about molecules, but I don't often enjoy reading about them.  Listed below are a few exceptions.  If you want to expand your knowledge, do a little research, or just understand how your toast browns, the following books are interesting reads.

Nature's Building Blocks: An A - Z Guide to the Elements by John Emsley.  The one chemistry class I enjoyed was Inorganic Chem; basically a romp through the periodic chart.  All the amazing details and quirky characteristics about every element, no math, and super fun lab experiments.  This book is that class on paper.  Lots of fun details about each element through history, it's uses, manufacture and so much more; no heavy duty brain action required here. 

Elements of Murder: A History of Poison by John Emsley.  Perhaps you've always wanted to write a murder mystery and need to do some research, or perhaps you want to check up on the accuracy of a recently read plot.  Either way, the info you need is here. 

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee.  The author of this tome is a food chemist, not someone interested in tasty recipes, but instead on how ingredients work together to create the foods we eat.  The book is arranged somewhat like a dictionary with everything you wanted to know about a wide range of ingredients.  Is there really a difference among all the types of flour on the market?  Will this have an affect on the cake you want to bake?  The answers are here.  If you are a serious foodie, this book is a must read.

The Radioactive Boy Scout:The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein.  I can't remember where I ran across a reference to this story, but I didn't believe it at the time.  I read the book, and all I can say is "Wow!"  David Hahn, a teenage boy scout from Illinois, took it upon himself to collect samples from every element in the periodic chart.  The problem is, many are rare and quite a few are radioactive.  None the less, David succeeded with (unknowing) help from a variety of government agencies.  His next step goal was to build a nuclear reactor and save the world's energy problems.  A worthy goal, but his techniques were incredibly dangerous.   Is this the story of a reckless teen with no respect for authority,  the tale of an educational system gone wrong, or a real-life example where a little knowledge can be too much of a good thing?  Read the book and decide for yourself.

Other books of interest (recommended by Booklist):
The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science by Brian Dennis

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks

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