Book review

book cover of The Right Chemistry, with an orange and a molecule on a blackboardThe Right Chemistry: 108 Enlightening, Nutritious, Health-Conscious and Occasionally Bizarre Inquiries into the Science of Everyday Life, by Joe Schwarcz, PhD, Doubleday Canada, 2012, xi + 290 pages, US$19.50/CAN$22.95. ISBN-978-0-385-67159-0

The Right Chemistry is not only the title of the book that I’m reviewing here but also the title of Dr. Joe’s weekly radio show and the weekly articles that he emails every Saturday (to get on his list mail Although this book is Dr. Joe’s 14th, it is the first to bear the title that he had pleaded for 15 years ago, when he wrote his first book. His publishers maintained that to include the word “chemistry” in a book’s title would be the “kiss of death.” Therefore his previous books dealing with chemistry bore titles such as The Fly in the Ointment (2004) and Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs (2001).

Hungarian-born Joseph A. Schwarcz, Director of McGill University’s Office of Science and Society in Montréal, Quebec, where he teaches courses on nutrition and the application of chemistry to everyday life, received his PhD in chemistry from McGill in 1973. In addition to his fame as an author, he is known by his weekly column in the Montréal Gazette, his weekly radio show in Montréal and Toronto and frequent segments on Discovery Channel Canada. An amateur magician, he often describes and explains how “supernatural feats” can be performed by ordinary means.

Dr. Joe is not an uncritical cheerleader for chemicals. He maintains that they’re not good or bad, not safe or dangerous, but that their effect depends on how they’re used. In his book’s preface, he states, “Here, I’d like to concentrate on the right chemistry for people. And the powers that be have agreed on the title I’ve long been craving, hopefully because, over the last few decades, I’ve had some success in making the point that the term chemical is not synonymous with toxin and that chemistry is not to be feared, it is to be understood. It is with a view towards providing such an understanding that I’ve crafted these questions and answers that I hope portray the amazingly broad scope of chemistry and emphasize the importance of getting that chemistry right.”

Once again as in previous books, Dr. Joe asks a series of interesting and provocative questions about items involved in everyday life and then provides enlightening answers ranging in length from a single paragraph to half a dozen pages or so. Here are the contents of the book’s 11 sections along with a smattering of his questions:

  1. First, the Past: What are “Prince Rupert’s Drops” and how are they connected to hockey? What laboratory technique derives its name from the Greek for “coloured writing”? What gas was discovered because of a Scottish physician’s interest in “magnesia alba”?
  2. Tricks of the Trade: Shake a can of Guinness and you’ll hear a widget rattling around inside. What is its purpose? What chemical makes self-cleaning windows possible? What do iodine, silver nitrate, ninhydrin and cyanoacrylate have in common? What novelty item has ammonium sulphide as its active ingredient?
  3. Creatures Great and Small: Why are cockroaches crazy? You can die just from picking this animal up. What is it? Nobody has ever successfully swatted a baby housefly. Why not? Why would someone want to purchase bobcat urine?
  4. Claptrap: What is the origin of the word claptrap? What is the importance of bio-based succinic acid? What is Pimat? What would you do with soursop?
  5. To Your Health: What smell comes from a solution of salt in water that has sat for a few hours? What supposed aphrodisiac is used by dermatologists to treat warts? Why did the motorist put pennies in his mouth when he saw flashing lights in the rear mirror? One of the symptoms of a severe overdose of Aspirin is hyperventilation. Why?
  6. Bites and Sips: What alcoholic beverage is referred to as “mother’s ruin”? What are cured meats cured with? What vegetable is grown in a way that prevents photosynthesis? Where would you find “brominated vegetable oil”? Why should you not eat polar bear liver? Should you put broccoli on a pizza before or after baking?
  7. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: What are cosmeceuticals? What are soap nuts?
  8. Weird and Wonderful: What happens to crystals of Epsom salt if you yell at them? Why did the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets not tarnish? What toy was banned in New York City in 1922 because of a concern over flammability? What chemical naturally present in male saliva has been found to be reduced when men sniff female tears?
  9. Chemicals for Better and for Worse: Why have baby bottles made of polycarbonate plastic been banned in Canada? What is the cause of both gilder’s palsy and “hatter’s shakes”? What is the link between paper cups, dental floss, early sound recordings and a Brazilian plant? Why should polyvinyl chloride (PVC) waste not be incinerated?
  10. Chemistry Up Close: What is the link between diamond, graphite and buckyballs? What element can be used both as an abrasive and as a lubricant? What comes next in the following sequence: milli, micro, nano, pico?
  11. How Green Was My Chemistry: What naturally occurring chemical is the best candidate for producing “green gasoline”? What common air pollutant has a climate-cooling effect?

Because almost everything in life involves chemical phenomena, this modestly priced book should be of interest to everyone. Another reason for its ubiquitous appeal is the fact that it deals with many “hot” topics that are currently dealt with on a daily basis in the media. Since it asks and answers questions of universal concern, it should be particularly useful for science teachers trying to excite an otherwise apathetic class in an ingenious way. It would make an ideal gift for students.