Books to Note: Spring 2012

Book shelf.

Susan Freinkel. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 336 pp. $27.

The life of plastics may appear to some as opaque as Bakelite itself. As Susan Freinkel observes, “Although we talk about plastic as a thing, it doesn’t have the thingness, the kind of grounded organic identity, found in natural substances” (p. 31). Using her skills as a seasoned science journalist, Freinkel brings clarity to plastics’ development, use, and disposal. In Plastic: A Toxic Love Story she focuses on eight common objects, depicting the near-miracles plastics perform and warning of the material’s negative consequences. In chapters about combs, chairs, and Frisbees she recounts the inventions of the first plastics, like celluloid and Bakelite, which turned many luxury goods into mass-market products. Later Freinkel uses the intravenous bag to demonstrate the role that vinyl plays in modern medicine. The last few chapters, about disposable lighters, grocery bags, soda bottles, and credit cards, question whether the conveniences that these materials bring outweigh their costs. The culture of disposability and the ecological damage that such products engender are reasons, Freinkel suggests, to reform the plastics industry. Freinkel’s personable tone and her engagement with scientific studies encourage readers to reexamine their relationship to a material that has become “the skeleton, the connective tissue, and the slippery skin of modern life” (p. 6). —Jacqueline Boytim

Robert Kanigel. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 626 pp. $35.

Pirates come in many shapes and sizes. In Piracy, Adrian Johns traces this term from the brawny seafarer of old to the frail computer genius of today. His comprehensive history begins with the invention of the printing press and forms a context for contemporary debates about intellectual property.

In the 17th century natural philosophers argued about what constituted a new idea and who owned it. For example, the Royal Society’s journal created difficulties for bright newcomers like Isaac Newton, who squabbled with Robert Hooke over work on diffraction published under Hooke’s name. Their tiff reflected the then porous concept of authorship.

Johns draws heavily on primary sources, which range from piracy as debated in political upheavals to newspaper cartoons. The overwhelming amount of detail, though, can make following his connections difficult. But Johns’s book does make clear that defining and managing intellectual property—particularly how to assign and regulate it—has always been beset by problems. As the narrative moves into the 20th century, Johns explains how piracy shaped large corporations like AT&T, which accrued patents to ensure market dominance. Today’s information boom is different: Johns believes it can redefine intellectual property and create a new and fascinating pirate. —Ryan Carty


John Heilbron. Galileo. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 528 pp. $34.95.

John Heilbron’s masterful biography of Galileo is by no means a small book. Nor is it for those without seriousness of purpose, despite being part of a genre often thought of as history’s most popular and accessible. Heilbron sees his own scholarly contribution as placing Galileo “more firmly among the Florentine cultural institutions than others have” (p. vii), though the text is also quite technical. He discusses Galileo’s mathematics in great detail, as well as his physics, astronomy, and mechanical tinkering, historicizing all lest the reader mistakenly read the physics of today into Galileo’s work. But as Heilbron himself says, Galileo’s scientific competence was only that of the educated lay community of his own time and should be accessible to an interested lay audience of our own. And with some patience for graphs and diagrams and careful mathematical explanations, it is accessible. There is plenty in the book for those interested in social history and the humanities: Galileo’s character; his conflicts with the Jesuits, mathematicians, and philosophers; the risks he took; and his rhetoric. Galileo is a real commitment for a reader—500 pages of serious scholarship—but one that pays dividends in a story that is lucidly written and engaging. —Carin Berkowitz

Jeannette Brown. African American Women Chemists. New York: Oxford University Press: 2011. 264 pp. $35.

Former pharmaceutical chemist Jeannette Brown has undertaken the overwhelming task of writing about African American women chemists, a population long neglected by both the history of science and African American history. Brown’s book contains short biographies of over 20 women, all pioneers in the field. Many of the entries are based on oral-history interviews conducted by Brown and now housed at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. She begins in 1852 with the birth of Josephine Sillone Yates, the earliest of the book’s pioneering women, and finishes with the women still living and actively pursing their careers. In between, Brown touches on the many challenges and triumphs experienced by African American women and the larger African American community. Brown also adds her own biography, giving a very personal touch to this history. Brown explains how she ended up at Hunter College as a chemistry major and why she stayed in the pharmaceutical industry for her entire career instead of pursuing her initial interest in medicine. This book truly fills a historical void that would benefit from further research and should be seen as a starting point in this area, not the end point.—Hilary Domush