Books to Note: Spring 2010

Lucas John Mix. Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 331 pp. $29.95. 

From the humble electron to gargantuan Jupiter, from star stuff to Homo sapiens, Lucas John Mix works steadily through the big questions: “What is life, what does it mean, and what is our place in it all?” In his field guide to astrobiology Mix makes a central point: if scientists want to study life in space, they must be able to identify life and the environmental conditions in which it thrives. To do learn more about life in space, astrobiologists must study the only sample of life we have—that found on Earth. Readers with science backgrounds may find some chapters tedious and should be wary of occasional factual errors, but on the whole Mix’s simple explanations and conversational tone succeed in building an understandable view of a complex science. The book shines when Mix introduces his own careful thoughts on the subject. In the last chapter he wonders, do we really know what life is? Perhaps we can only identify its characteristics, much like we see symptoms of a disease before we know its cause. If true, astrobiologists might be looking for a limited set of life “symptoms” in space and miss life altogether. By the end it’s clear that the study of life in space raises compelling questions about life at home.–Margaret E. Wood

Mark Griep and Marjorie Mikasen. ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 340 pp. $49.95. 

Mark Griep and Marjorie Mikasen have tried something new by presenting a scientific—not sociological—analysis of chemistry’s role in films. They lay out twin theses in the introduction: namely that the movies can present either the light side or the dark side of chemistry and that there are five subdivisions of each. On the dark side the authors explore themes and archetypes like Jekyll and Hyde, chemical weapons, and addiction. The light side centers on inventors, forensics, drug discovery, and more. Under each of these headings Griep and Mikasen arbitrarily select a primary film to discuss in detail and then draw on one or more other films to support their arguments. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book details the authors’ attempts to “de-code” Robert Louis Stevenson’s vaguely stated formula whereby the kindly Dr. Jekyll is transformed into the bestial Mr. Hyde. While none of us will ever know what Stevenson was actually imagining when he described that “blood-red liquor,” Griep’s and Mikasen’s guesses are thought provoking. As to be expected in a book not written by film-studies professionals, there are some minor factual errors; but the science is sound, and this is a long-overdue salute to films that have used chemistry as more than a mere plot device.–Andrew Mangravite

Marco Beretta, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M. Principe, eds. The Accademia del Cimento and Its European Context. The Accademia del Cimento and Its European Context. Sagamore Beach, MA: Watson History Publishing, 2009. 270 pp. $49.95.

This volume of 15 collected essays is a stimulating contribution to the understanding of the Cimento academicians and the broader field of 17th-century natural philosophy. From its founding in 1657 by Leopoldo de’ Medici and Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici until its dissolution in 1667, the Accademia del Cimento was a premier scientific society that explicitly followed Galileo’s experimental, mathematical approach. Excavating primary sources outside the society’s official publications and brief lifetime, these authors move beyond older accounts of the Cimento as a cohesive institution dedicated to mere experimentation and observation or a domesticated appurtenance of courtly society. Here we encounter fluid alliances of collaboration and correspondence built by complex individuals pursuing contested and possibly heterodox philosophical programs. Members built specialized instruments and developed sophisticated theories to investigate astronomy, mechanics, air pressure, thermometry, minerals, botany, chemistry, and medicine. In addition to treatments of members’ investigations of the nature of light and air and the observation of Saturn, we find novel essays on a variety of topics, such as anatomy, chemistry, medicine, natural history, and interdisciplinary experimental method. For the persuasive revisions offered, the breadth of subjects covered, and the clarity and skill of the analysis, this book will be essential reading for future studies.–Evan Ragland

Elizabeth Grossman. Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009. 249 pp. $26.95.

In her latest book Elizabeth Grossman takes us along for a ride in Chasing Molecules, as the molecules travel across wind and water to some of the most remote places on Earth. The book mimics a travel diary for synthetic chemicals, tracing their routes from point of creation, to integration in the products of everyday life, to their ultimate demise. Drawing on interviews and reviews of some of the latest scientific literature, Grossman details how these chemicals have become a part of us in very intimate ways. But by moving too quickly through this vast sea of information, Grossman gives only a glimpse of the surface instead of pausing to dig a little deeper and show how complicated things really are.–Jody A. Roberts

Bernard Lightman. Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 545 pp. $45.

The British public’s growing interest in the latest scientific discoveries combined with the cheap products of steam printing produced a significant market for books on science in the second half of the 19th century. Satisfying this demand was a loose confederation of men (and increasing numbers of women) who communicated new ideas and research in print and public presentations. While some, like T. H. Huxley, are well known, most have seen their contributions forgotten—until now. In his extensive Victorian Popularizers of Science, Bernard Lightman collects 15 years of research on these figures, describing the cultural context for their contributions. He also illustrates the often uneasy dynamics between popularizers and practitioners of science who also wrote popular works. The text reveals parallels to modern concerns about educating the public on science and who is most capable of doing so—a question that has persisted since the Victorian era.–Jennifer Dionisio