Book review

50 Ideas You Really Need To Know – Chemistry

by Hayley Birch, 2015,208 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-1-84866-667-2  £11.99

A book titled, ‘50 Idea you really need to know’ by Hayley Birch and chemistry equipment.The book series 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know covers a variety of subjects, and Hayley Birch has written the one involving chemistry. While decidedly British, it is easy to disregard the differences in idioms — the chemistry is the same on either side of "the pond".

Birch's rationale for writing her portion of the 50 Ideas series is that, in her opinion, chemistry gets a bad rap for having lots of rules, formulas and molecular structures which are not terribly exciting to the uninitiated. Her idea was to present the beauty, the importance and the breadth of chemistry without rules, structures or formulae. For the most part she is successful — although the occasional equation and formula do appear. Her goal is to excite the reader in the topic and then he or she can delve further into the science.

50 Ideas You Really Need to Know – Chemistry is presented in 50 chapters, each is four pages long with the same structure. Each:

  • starts with a short, interesting teaser about why the topic is important,
  • has a timeline of the history of advancement of the concept,
  • has one or two sidebars with additional related information and
  • ends with a condensed statement of the subject  — the Big Idea* for Ontario teachers.

In addition, embedded within each text of the chapter are quotations from famous scientists, often historical quotes that embellish the content.

Birch has chosen the 50 ideas cleverly and broadly. While a look at the index illustrates the breadth, on reading through each one, you will notice a thread linking the chapters. The initial grouping includes Atoms, Elements, Compounds and Bonding. Then she moves to energy which includes Equilibrium and Thermodynamics. Yes, I can hear you say "Thermodynamics, in four pages?" But the goal is to introduce the concept, pique the reader’s curiosity and show the relationship to energy. Birch accomplishes this well in four pages.

The next grouping can be referred to as reactions including Acids, Redox and Cracking. Then she moves into Chemical Syntheses including Chirality and Green Chemistry. The next grouping involves methods of discovering structures such as Crystallography and Spectra. The last three groupings are more modern in scope and involve micro, life and technological chemistry. Within the micro grouping topics include Self Assembly and Lab on a Chip while in the life grouping you will find Carbon, Water, Proteins and DNA. In the section on technology, topics include CFCs, Drugs, Graphene and Synthetic Biology. Much of the chemistry in these last three sections involves recent innovations and leading science.

There is a good deal of merit in this little book for the chemistry teacher. The chapters cover virtually anything that might be taught in senior chemistry courses and the timelines and historical quotations can improve the colour and texture of lessons. There is a large "did you know" factor that the teacher can exploit.

While not written for the chemical specialist, even the most experienced teacher can discover something new. By way of some examples, the sidebar in the Carbon chapter gives excellent structures — yes she did include some — for diamond and graphite; in addition, the chapter on composites has a sidebar on Kevlar to discuss amide polymers. In the chapter on Chemical Messengers, the sidebar shows the similarities between estrogen and testosterone. Finally, in the chapter on Drugs, the sidebar gives an account of how Viagara failed as a drug for high blood pressure and angina but had an unusual side effect for some patients. Virtually each chapter has something of interest to a teacher.

In addition, there are 50 opportunities for student research towards the Applications goal within the STSE (Science, Technology, Society, Environment) portion of chemistry courses. Birch has written each chapter to gently capture interest and curiosity, planting the seeds so student can then look further into the subject. Finally, for the chemistry teacher (or anyone for that matter), 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know – Chemistry would make an excellent gift for a family member, adult or child, or a graduation gift to a top student.

Reading 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know – Chemistry makes one feel proud of the science that is so capable of producing so much. It certainly answers the question "Why study Chemistry?"

*The concept of teaching “Big ideas” is part of the Ontario Curriculum. A big idea offers a conceptual framework allowing the learner to explore answers to the essential questions involving a unit of study.