Books to Note: Summer 2012

Book shelf.

New books from the wide world of chemistry.

Istvan Hargittai. Drive and Curiosity: What Fuels the Passion for Science. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011. 338 pp. $26.           

Drive and Curiosity focuses on 16 scientists and their coworkers who exemplify the author’s thesis: that drive and curiosity fuel the passion for science. Each chapter’s main figure has made a significant contribution to scientific knowledge in the 20th century, and most have earned Nobel prizes, such as James Watson, Linus Pauling, and Frederick Sanger. Gertrude Elion and Rosalyn Yalow, both first-generation Americans and the only women highlighted in the book, aren’t as well-known but are no less important. The scientists’ areas of study include structure analysis, new materials, methodology, and nuclear physics. Largely drawn from personal interviews, each 15- to 20-page chapter is like a piece of candy. We get personal background information on each scientist, followed by the motivations that drove them into science, a history of their path to discovery, and some explanation of the methods and experiments that brought them distinction. The book is written for both nonscientists and scientists, with narratives that are engaging and compelling. For the science reader the book’s short chapters cannot supply enough detail to satisfy an inquiring mind, but all readers will find this a rewarding, informative read.—Terry Newirth

 

Aihwa Ong and Nancy N. Chen, Editors. Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 344 pp. $23.95.

This timely and important collection by science-studies scholars provides fascinating glimpses into the ambitious efforts of several Asian countries to deploy biotechnologies to both generate economic growth and provide biosecurity in this age of global science and technology. As editors Aihwa Ong and Nancy Chen note, an “uncanny surplus” in population not only provides these countries with lucrative business opportunities in agriculture and health-care industries but also magnifies the risks connected to pandemics and food shortages. Authors in this collection present ethnographic case studies on biotechnological responses by Asian countries to these opportunities and challenges, such as genetically modified foods in China, clinical trials in India, blood collection in Singapore and China, and stem-cell research in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Their analyses illustrate how Asian countries mobilize the biosciences not just for economic growth but also to assert their national identities and political ambitions in the postcolonial rise of the region. More important, instead of applying universalized Western bioethical principles, the authors try to situate the ethical reasoning and practices in the life sciences in the context of Asian postcolonial national politics and globalized economic life.—Doogab Yi

 

Michael Faraday. The Chemical History of a Candle. Introduction by Frank A. J. L. James; foreword by David Phillips. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 192 pp. $24.95.

Michael Faraday’s Chemical History of a Candle is one of the most enduringly successful works of popular science ever written. Since its publication in 1861 it has reappeared in countless editions in Britain and North America and has been translated into 16 languages. This latest edition comes with a helpful introduction by Frank James, professor of the history of science at the Royal Institution, where Faraday spent his working life. It also includes a facsimile of the notes that Faraday used in delivering the six Christmas holiday lectures for a juvenile audience, on which the book is based. The passage from lectures to printed page was not straightforward. Faraday feared that the “vivacity of speaking” would be lost, and it took the resolve of chemist William Crookes to secure Faraday’s agreement and then fashion a text from shorthand notes taken at the lectures by an assistant. The result is a masterpiece of simplicity. It starts with a familiar image, the burning of a candle, and moves on to describe the properties of the flame, the nature of combustion and respiration, the composition of water, the makeup of common gases, and much more. Simple, yes. But it is simplicity that comes from an effortless command of the art of communication.—Robert Fox

 

Anne-Marie Weidler Kubanek. Nothing Less Than an Adventure: Ellen Gleditsch and Her Life in Science. Okotoks, Alberta: Crossfield, 2010. 185 pp. $19.

Last year the world celebrated the centenary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Although Curie certainly deserves attention, many of her contemporaries have been virtually forgotten. Prominent among these female radiochemists is Ellen Gleditsch. Despite her research activity and major role as a scientist and humanist in Norway, her name is almost unknown, even in her homeland. To amend this neglect Anne-Marie Weidler Kubanek has written a highly readable biography that begins with Gleditsch’s early academic promise and draws on interviews with relatives and former students. Gleditsch worked at a pharmacy until 1903, when she landed a job as a lab assistant at the University of Kristiana in Oslo. Her life in chemistry began there, and a subsequent stint at the Curies’ laboratory convinced her to spend her life in science, specifically in the field of radiochemistry. Gleditsch made her name when she determined the half-life of radium. Mentors and a network of women scientists helped her survive in an environment that was often hostile to women. Eventually, in 1929, she was appointed a professor in Oslo despite considerable opposition. This book makes an ideal gift for young people, especially women, contemplating a career in science. It details the difficulties faced in making such a choice, even today.—George B. Kauffman