Books to Note: Fall 2013/Winter 2014
New books from the wide world of chemistry.
Daniel Freund. American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 240 pp. $40.
I read American Sunshine on an overcast and dreary day, a day that recalled the dismal conditions of America’s cities at the turn of the 20th century. Daniel Freund has turned to these cities made dark by clouds of industrial pollution and the shadows of skyscrapers to investigate how and why sunshine became a salable commodity. His discoveries bring together histories of advertising and tourism, public health and urban planning, school reform and scientific innovation. Because illnesses, such as tuberculosis and rickets, flourished in dark cities and receded in the sunlit countryside, physicians and reformers argued that sunshine was the missing element in modern urban life. Despite widespread agreement about the need for sunlight, solutions varied widely. Freund’s book covers a lot of ground, discussing architecture and sunlamps, sun-exposure regimens and special glass, nudists, beach vacations, castor oil, and vitamin D–enriched milk. There’s something here for everyone who loves the sun, and readers from all backgrounds will learn the great lengths to which Americans have gone in their attempts to let the sunshine—or at least UV rays and vitamin D—in. The sad irony is that the urban impoverished, whose ill health sparked these reforms, benefited little from them.—Melanie Kiechle
John Parascandola. King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012. 197 pp. $27.50.
In King of Poisons, John Parascandola explores the many uses of arsenic over the centuries. He organizes this exploration into five chapters, each placing the use (and misuse) of arsenic within a specific context: murder, literature, the workplace, the environment, and medicine. While references to ancient, medieval, early modern, and more recent practices are sprinkled throughout, the focus of the material he presents is really on the long 19th century, which historian James Whorton has called the “arsenic century.” When one considers the dizzying array of arsenical products on the market then, particularly in Great Britain and the United States—from wallpaper to ball gowns, patent medicines to children’s toys—it seems a minor miracle that Victorians weren’t dropping like the very flies they so casually poisoned with arsenic-laced flypaper.
Parascandola has researched widely in secondary sources to present this overview of arsenic’s history. He relies heavily on synopsis, providing little in the way of original analysis in this slender volume. However, King of Poisons is engagingly written and admirably suited as an introduction to the topic for the general reader.—Lee Berry
Philip Ball. Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 480 pp. $35.
Ask any teacher about curiosity, and he or she will likely laud the virtues of an inquisitive mind. Curiosity leads to discovery, which in turn produces learning. But curiosity was not always considered a virtue. The turning point in Western attitudes occurred in the 17th century, the period Philip Ball focuses on in Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything.
After a tip of his hat to 13th-century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, Ball begins with the big names of the 16th century and then parks himself in the 17th century. He traces the European development of experimental science through the works of the familiar and less familiar names of that period. At the center of Ball’s entertaining and thorough narrative is the Royal Society and how its membership gradually changed from wealthy dabblers seeking amusement to more serious investigators.
Of particular interest is how the development of the telescope and microscope altered the commonly held notion of the “facts” of nature. Careful observations, properly replicated, carried the day even in the face of satirical criticism, the most enduring of which is found in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I highly recommend Curiosity for anyone interested in science.—Bob Kenworthy
Eric Scerri. A Tale of Seven Elements. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 304 pp. $19.95.
The periodic table of elements appears orderly and self-evident to anyone unfamiliar with its history. Eric Scerri shatters this conceit by delving into the priority disputes and the social context behind the discovery of seven elements that helped solidify the periodic table’s authority.
In 1914 Henry Moseley determined that elements could be categorized by the number of protons each contained. Chemists quickly laid out a table that included every known element between hydrogen and uranium. Seven elements were conspicuously absent: protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine, and promethium. Scerri tackles the story of each of these elements in chronological order, demonstrating how nationalism, war shortages, and vanity played important roles in discovering and naming them. For example, Lise Meitner, who played a major part in discovering protactinium, was nearly denied the pitchblende she needed to confirm her discovery because of World War I export bans.
Nonchemists may find it difficult to keep track of a narrative interrupted frequently by dense explanations. Still, readers will enjoy the letters of sparring chemists in pursuit of credit as they insult and attempt to disprove each other’s work.—Jacob Roberts