Books to Note: Fall 2007

José Ramón Bertomeu-Sánchez and Agustí Nieto-Galan, editors, Chemistry, Medicine, and Crime: Mateu J. B. Orfila (1787–1853) and His Times. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2006. xxv + 306 pp. $52.

This volume provides a deep understanding of how and why forensic toxicology took root in the mid-19th century. The essays take as their starting point the life of Mateu Orfila, the Spanish-born French doctor generally regarded as the father of forensic chemistry. Orfila is best known for his application of the Marsh test for arsenic poisoning in the trial of Marie Lafarge. The publicity surrounding this trial, which resulted in the conviction of Lafarge for the murder of her husband, helped legitimize the emergent field of forensic toxicology and deterred other would-be arsenic poisoners. Casual readers may want to skip the lengthy treatments of experimental methods, philosophies, and classification near the beginning of the book; and though some may be put off by the inevitable discordance among chapters written by different authors, the various contributors have successfully drawn on historical literature to depict chemistry and toxicology of the time. The final chapter puts the development of a new generation of organic poisons into the context of the evolving philosophy and practice of organic chemistry, illustrating the role that toxicology and medicinal chemistry played in the emergence of this field. - Suzanne Bell

David Kaiser, editor, Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. vii + 426 pp. $45.

Although countless authors have explored the history of science education, the education of scientists has attracted far less attention. The 14 essays in this well-edited collection focus on the under-appreciated role of pedagogy in shaping scientists’ identities. At heart, many historians of science are interested in the fundamental question of how a student becomes a scientist. The contributors’ focus on engineering and the physical sciences does not limit the volume’s impact; instead, key experiences emerge from case studies that share much in common. Chemical Heritage’s readers will be particularly interested in the chapters on the Beilstein Handbuch, probe microscopy, French chemistry textbooks, and the introduction of molecular orbital theory, but the entire volume deserves a look.-Audra J. Wolfe

David Phillips and James Barber, editors, The Life and Scientific Legacy of George Porter. London: Imperial College Press, 2006. xi + 640 pp. Cloth, $108; paper, $59

The physical chemist George Porter (1920–2002) shared the 1967 Nobel Prize with R. G. W. Norrish and Manfred Eigen for their use of flash photolysis to study fast chemical reactions. Porter served as director of the Royal Institution and later as president of the Royal Society. His television lecture series The Laws of Disorder brought the world of scientific investigation to hundreds of thousands of viewers. His contributions helped us understand the mechanism of chemical reactions and made chemistry less formidable for a great number of people. The present volume reflects well Porter’s multifaceted career as scientist, science administrator, and popularizer of science through his original papers and commentaries and papers written by colleagues and pupils. It is a rich, informative, and enjoyable compilation, not only for physical chemists but also for anyone interested in the chemical and molecular sciences. -István Hargittai

Matt Ridley, Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. x + 213 pp. $19.95.

It is no small task to explain a life, let alone the secret of life, in a few hundred pages, but this slim book does more than that; it may have gotten to the soul of both. Ridley skillfully traces the separate paths of the history of modern biology and Francis Crick’s journey to greatness until the two threads met in 1953 with Crick’s and Watson’s discovery of DNA’s structure. Ridley brilliantly captures Crick’s thinking style: his love of debate; his insistence on written, not remembered, evidence; and his ability to visualize in three dimensions. The book also discusses the controversial and misunderstood aspects of Crick’s findings, including allegations of stolen data and conflicts with Rosalind Franklin and Richard Gregory. Rid ley’s story is succinct and flowing but is so full of names and places that it is occasionally difficult to keep track of the narrative; photographs and an index would have helped. Still, there is much to be learned about DNA, scientific pursuit, the creative soul of a man, and the secret of life. -Matthew Soniak