9780198503798 / 0198503792

Molecules at an Exhibition


Publisher:Oxford University Press, USA



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About the book:

Reading Molecules at an Exhibition is like listening to a charmingly eccentric British chemistry professor lecture over lunch. In fact, that's just what John Emsley is, and he's expanded his "Molecule of the Month" column series in the Independent into this gallery of molecular portraits, organized into loose themes such as "Testing Your Metal" and "Elements from Hell." He informs us about his favorite molecules through droll anecdotes and basic chemistry. Throughout the book, Emsley exhibits a reverence for industrially useful chemicals that comes across as a grumpy rejoinder to chemo-phobes: "Quit griping.... A little plastic wrap won't hurt you!" Not that he ignores the dangers of some molecules; in fact, he gleefully reports the tiny doses of things such as the nerve gas sarin sufficient to kill you. Other compounds are the subject of Emsley's genuine admiration:

For those who still have to live in shacks of corrugated iron and plywood, a temporary answer is to spray the building with polyurethane, which makes them livable in [sic] by keeping out insects and the heat of the Sun, and making them soundproof.... Nor will the investment be wasted when people are rehoused: they can cut the polyurethane into panels with a knife and use it as insulation in their new new [sic] home.
While Molecules sometimes reads like a paean to the green revolution (which we now know has been responsible for bioaccumulation of carcinogenic pesticides in food webs and the appearance of chemical-resistant insect pests), Emsley does make a strong point for efficient recycling and reuse of the plastics and chemicals we produce in such staggering quantities. And one can forgive him his enthusiasm for technological developments in chemistry. After all, chemicals really are amazing, and it's rewardingly fun to find out how they fit into our diets, our biochemistry, and our daily lives, especially when the education is hidden in fact-filled essays suitable for party entertaining. --Therese Littleton

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