Molecules at an Exhibition

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9780198503798: Molecules at an Exhibition

What ingredient in Coke can remove rust from chrome (it is also in all anti-rust paints)? What is the bitterest substance on earth? What is the worst smelling one?
In this entertaining and informative tour of chemistry, John Emsley answers these and many other curious questions as he illuminates the materials that make up our world. Here are dozens of lively articles that explore such well-known molecules as water, oxygen, glass, and iron, such highly versatile plastics as polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyurethane, even such "elements from hell" as Sarin (extremely lethal nerve gas) or thallium sulphate (a poison used by Iraqi security forces to eliminate the opposition). With no chemical formulas, equations, or molecular diagrams to baffle the non-expert, each piece blends history (who discovered it and how), science, and anecdote, with many intriguing facts added to the mix. Readers discover that an ingredient in chocolate--PEA, which is similar in size and shape to the illegal drug Ecstasy--may trigger the release of dopamine in the brain; that the worst smell in the world comes from methyl mercaptan; that a bee in the Amazon actually collects DDT (it uses it as a sex attractant!); and that the Apollo program did not lead to the discovery of Teflon (Teflon was discovered in 1938, and the non-stick frying pan was designed in the 1950s).
"The world of chemistry has never been made as entertaining," writes Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann. Indeed, this book will fascinate everyone curious about the chemicals in the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, and the air we breathe.

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Review:

Reading Molecules at an Exhibition is like listening to a charmingly eccentric British chemistry professor lecture over lunch. In fact, that's just what John Emsley is, and he's expanded his "Molecule of the Month" column series in the Independent into this gallery of molecular portraits, organized into loose themes such as "Testing Your Metal" and "Elements from Hell." He informs us about his favorite molecules through droll anecdotes and basic chemistry. Throughout the book, Emsley exhibits a reverence for industrially useful chemicals that comes across as a grumpy rejoinder to chemo-phobes: "Quit griping.... A little plastic wrap won't hurt you!" Not that he ignores the dangers of some molecules; in fact, he gleefully reports the tiny doses of things such as the nerve gas sarin sufficient to kill you. Other compounds are the subject of Emsley's genuine admiration:

For those who still have to live in shacks of corrugated iron and plywood, a temporary answer is to spray the building with polyurethane, which makes them livable in [sic] by keeping out insects and the heat of the Sun, and making them soundproof.... Nor will the investment be wasted when people are rehoused: they can cut the polyurethane into panels with a knife and use it as insulation in their new new [sic] home.
While Molecules sometimes reads like a paean to the green revolution (which we now know has been responsible for bioaccumulation of carcinogenic pesticides in food webs and the appearance of chemical-resistant insect pests), Emsley does make a strong point for efficient recycling and reuse of the plastics and chemicals we produce in such staggering quantities. And one can forgive him his enthusiasm for technological developments in chemistry. After all, chemicals really are amazing, and it's rewardingly fun to find out how they fit into our diets, our biochemistry, and our daily lives, especially when the education is hidden in fact-filled essays suitable for party entertaining. --Therese Littleton

About the Author:


John Emsley is Science Writer in Residence at the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine. A regular broadcaster on scientific topics, Emsley wrote the "Molecule of the Month" column for The Independent from 1990 to 1996. He lives in London.

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