Book review

The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things

by Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf, 393 pages, paperback, $19.00 (2010). Prometheus Books: 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst NY 14228-2119. ISBN 978-1-59102-771-3.

In their Apologia to this paperback edition of the critically acclaimed sui generis book (Prometheus Books, 2005) that was selected by Choice magazine and the American Library Association as an “Outstanding Academic Title,” Cathy Cobb, Instructor of Calculus and Physics at Aiken Preparatory School and Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, and Monty L. Fetterolf, Professor of Chemistry at the University of South Carolina, proclaim, “We have attempted to write a fireside chemistry: a chemistry book for the armchair scholar, to be perused in the comfort of one’s own home and enlivened with straightforward demonstrations that can be carried out in the kitchen or garage. We have written this book because when we first started our chemistry studies, these were the types of books we loved. This book was written by chemists, but it is not written for chemists. It is written for the student we used to be and the scholars within us all. We hope the reader enjoys the following pages as much as we did the writing” (p. 13). In my opinion, they have admirably succeeded in attaining their goal.

This delightful and informative book, written in friendly, non-technical language, challenges the perception of chemistry as too difficult to be concerned with, proves that it can appeal to our intuition as well as logic, and introduces us to what the authors have aptly titled their effort — “The Joy of Chemistry.” In keeping 21with their hands-on experimental approach, they begin with “A Few Necessary Words on Safety” (3 pages), “Shopping List and Solutions” of ingredients used in the demonstrations, which were selected for ease of execution and relevance and can be purchased in a hardware or grocery store or online (6 pages), and “A Moment for Metric” (2 pages of approximate US/Metric conversions).

“The Joy of Chemistry” consists of two parts. Part 1 (18 sections, 222 pages) presents the fundamental principles of chemistry, while Part 2 (5 sections, 69 pages) surveys some of the specialized fields (organic, inorganic, analytical, and pharmaceutical chemistry as well as biochemistry) in which these principles are applied. Each section of Part 1 consists of a “Demonstration,” followed by a “Chapter” that discusses the principles involved in the demonstration (Pertinent quotations from non-scientific sources precede each “Demonstration” and “Chapter”), and a “For Example” that presents everyday applications of the principles, most of which are concerned with the unifying theme of the automobile (e.g., internal combustion engine, lubricants, soaps, surfactants, antifreeze, catalytic converters, paint, and fuel cells). Each section of Part 2 consists of a “Demonstration” and a “Chapter.”

Lively commentaries emphasize the fun and fascination of learning about chemistry, and essential concepts such as chemical bonding, thermodynamics, kinetics, photochemistry, electrochemistry, acid-base chemistry, and equilibrium are used to explain chemical reactions. This entertaining, modestly priced book is replete with numerous figures, equations and original, humorous artwork by Linda Muse. It concludes with an Appendix: Elements Listed by Name, Symbol and Atomic Number (20 pages), Endnotes and Credits (5 pages of selected references) and an extremely detailed Index (39 double-column pages) that facilitates locating of material.

In a two-page Epilogue the authors conclude the journey on which they have led the reader: “We have examined the structure and behavior of minute particles of matter, and we have seen how their microscopic properties multiply to form the world around us. We surveyed classical chemistry and demonstrated these lively reactions with ordinary materials. We have seen how chemistry relates to everyday experience, and we’ve developed an intuitive understanding of the essentials of chemistry by example and analogy. We’ve seen how principles and theory derived in the past have showered us with a wealth of technology and materials — and we have seen the challenges that lie ahead.… There is so much work to be done, and so many reasons to do it. The work is far from finished. And the joy never ends” (pages 337-338).

“The Joy of Chemistry” makes ideal reading for non-scientists interested in the scientific principles that govern our daily life as well as for chemistry teachers or students at the high school or introductory college level.

Ultimately, I think everybody has to realize that we all work on this because we like it and because we understand that we’re building a structure. And we each put in a little brick here and there, and if everybody puts in the right bricks and everybody works hard at it, you build a big structure of science, and it’s not so important who put the bricks in.

-Allen Bard

This was taken from an article called “10 Questions for Allen Bard, Father of Modern Electrochemistry”, by Erika Beras. The article was posted on November 6, 2014 on the Science Friday website.