Detail from The Alchemist, Mattheus van Helmont. Eddleman Collection, CHF Collections.
While settling into my new job at CHF and leaving to my wife the daunting task of selling our house in Massachusetts, I am living a Spartan, bachelor existence. In my Old City sublet you will find no television, stereo, or computer; in my free time I wander weathered cobblestones and read books about chemistry.
The view from my apartment covers Independence Park, historical markers, and old cemeteries. The buildings and streets, soft with faded advertisements, speak of other times and other inhabitants. In all this dreamlike history my science reading delivers a dose of reality. What could be more real than the atoms that make up all the stuff I see and touch and smell?
I’ve sought out books that combine the molecules and the monuments, fascinated by both. The first is Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson. The title of this delightful book relates to one theory about the demise of the French army as it invaded Russia during the winter of 1812. Apparently, the tin buttons on the French uniforms disintegrated in the cold weather (a phenomenon called “tin pest”), and the unfortunate army was literally caught in battle with their pants down. Each chapter of the book describes the development and evolution of a molecule which, the (chemist) authors convincingly put forth, changed the world. From tin to the taste sensation piperene, the book manages to make molecules writ large.
Another enjoyable read is Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Sacks. In this autobiography Dr. Sacks, the well-known neuroscientist, RadioLab guest, and author of classics like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, charmingly describes his boyish enthusiasm for chemistry and the periodic table while growing up in wartime London. Sacks’ parents were physicians and his uncles operated factories that manufactured tungsten filaments for light bulbs. Their passion for this durable metal inspired their young nephew to learn more about the elements and the fascinating, often explosive results when certain compounds were mixed together. CHF is a favorite stopping point for Dr. Sacks when he is in the area. Reading this book, you can see why.
Disconnecting from the digital world has been a semi-scientific experiment of sorts; I’ve found it to be very energizing. If you are interested in reading and wandering this summer I’ve listed a few other suggestions from the history of chemistry below. We hope to see you back at Periodic Tabloid, of course – let us know the experiment goes.
Mike Wronski is CHF’s new Director of Individual Giving. Other books on his summer reading list include:
- Double Helix by James Watson. A first person account of the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.
- Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Cathy Cobb. Includes fun family experiments you can do in the kitchen.
- Stuff: The Materials the World is Made Of by William Morrow. Breakthroughs in materials science from the Stone Age on.
- The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. The periodic table gets a human face.
- The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements by P.W. Atkins. A wonderful science travelogue.
- Cartoon Guide to Chemistry by Larry Gornick. Complex equations in cartoon format!
- Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. A gripping novel about pheromones, chemical concoctions and horror in 18th-century France.
- A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes was famous for his use of chemistry to solve crimes.
Summer Reading for Science Geeks [Wired Science]