David Fisher. Much Ado about (Practically) Nothing: The History of the Noble Gases. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 304 pp. $21.95.
David Fisher’s Much Ado about (Practically) Nothing has a simple goal: to show how the noble gases—the least reactive gases in the periodic table—have helped us understand the universe. The history Fisher describes reveals these gases’ roles in groundbreaking discoveries—from studying outer space and the creation of planets (helium and argon helped determine Earth’s age) to learning about our planet’s deep oceans and cancer (radon’s radioactive daughters). He keeps it short and sweet, narrating only important and interesting facts and stories, including his own research experiences with these elements. Fisher enjoys depicting the trials and errors of experimentation, which he finds to be the fun part of science. Fast-paced and humorous, the book keeps the reader’s attention, even during complicated passages. Balancing scientific technicalities and storytelling, readers with and without extensive scientific knowledge can enjoy Fisher’s book. –Crysta Jentile
Ellen Leopold. Under the Radar: Cancer and the Cold War. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009. xi 284 pp. $25.95.
Under the Radar examines the role that cold-war ideology played in both the treatment of cancer and the research into its causes. The book features a tripartite structure. It covers the rise of cobalt therapy, which grew out of a combination of American’s cold war–era obsession with national defense and medical-industrial-governmental research. It also documents government suppression and cover-up of the effects of atmospheric nuclear-weapons testing. Finally, it reveals the shifting of the burden by both government and industry of environmental hazards (including carcinogens) onto individual citizens. While I believe that there is some worth to Leopold’s argument that cold-war ideology influenced treatments for and perceptions of cancer, she provides sparse support for her claims, pushing her arguments well beyond what her sources can support and also generalizing based on insufficient proof. This book reads like an account of a conspiracy theory but requires more factual evidence to make its claims compelling. –David J. Caruso
Kool-Aid package, 1951
©2010 Chemical Heritage Foundation