Non-Fiction Reviews

The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things

(2005/2010) Cathy Cobb & Monty L. Fetterolf, Prometheus Books, US$19, trdpbk, ISBN 978-1-591-02771-3


If you are a fan of science and have kids then this book is absolutely brilliant and just what you did not know you needed. Actually it first came out in 2005 and so this is a new edition though I am not sure if it has been revised: the references are still all pre-2005. The press release says that it is being published the autumn (fall) of 2009 but the masthead page copyright date is 2010: so I am not sure where all that leaves us but I mention it for completeness' sake.

Now there are text books and there are text books, and let's face it they can be rather boring as a casual read even if they are incredibly useful and exciting on an academic and intellectual level. What Cobb and Fetterloff have done with The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things is to take a rather different approach and one that I admire.

Essentially this book explores chemistry by being a manual for a series of chemistry experiments that you can conduct at home combined with being a normal text book. The experiments range from simple witch water (static electricity charged spoon bending a stream of water) to multi-layer liquids (immiscibility) and along the way there are a few bangs and fizzes.

Any reasonably intelligent adult who wants to come to grips with chemistry can use this book to become acquainted with the basics. But beware, if you are a stranger to science (is anyone who regularly visits this site?) you will have to face terms such as 'electronegativity' and 'chiral' not to mention come to grips with the periodic table. However if you are a scientist and you want to impart a sound but basic understanding of chemistry to your offspring then this is where The Joy of Chemistry really scores.

Kids and education systems vary the world over but I would hazard that this would be good for a parent with a 12 – 13 your old child. There are 23 principal chapters (excluding introductions, safety sections and various appendices) and so it should be possible for a parent to read through, and then work through, one chapter every other day throughout the summer holidays with your daughter or son. A shopping list and safety guidance is provided and, though most of the experiments can be done in the kitchen, some may find a back garden (or 'yard' as they say in the rebel colonies) handy to have.

My one criticism – if this is a criticism – is that this book's core idea -- accessing science through home practicals -- is too neat to be left to the chemists. Why should they have all the fun? As an environmental scientist I revel in the synergies between chemistry, biology and physics let alone astronomy. What I would like to see is a title called The Joy of Science encouraging youngsters and parents to go on lawn micro-safaris, or to measure the size of the Earth on midsummer's day in your garden (yard), or the speed of sound, or see the ecological effect of land management by looking at neighbours' front lawns… you follow my drift.

Of course as an SF enthusiast it is a great shame that the Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf don't tell us how to make a mini-fusion plant, pocket black hole, model antigravity drive, longevity serum… and such. But hey, who knows, perhaps future editions in a few centuries time?

Jonathan Cowie

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