on 23 May 2000
Although there has been an explosion (no pun intended) of popular science books in the last few years, there have been precious few about chemistry, this book goes some way to correcting the shortfall.
In a little over 300 pages, John Emsley gives a comprehensive history of phosphorus, from its discovery by alchemists searching for ways of turning base metals into gold, to a bang-up-to-date section on its many uses as food additives and in drugs.
The style is readable with a minimal use of unnecessary scientific notation. It painlessly introduces some complex organic and inorganic chemistry and will appeal to chemistry students by supplementing some of the dry academic texts out there.
The book really succeeds by showing how phosphorus has been a catalyst for change in wider society. It powered the agricultural revolution of the 18th Century, the match workers of 19th Century London brought about the modern trade union movement and the chemistry of phosphorus was essential to the development of chemical warfare in the 20th Century.
The book tails off a little towards the end, with some of the later chapters being very thin. Perhaps the author was less interested in the present uses of phosphorus than its history, but they could have been longer. And the final chapter is redundant. The author says he does not believe in spontaneous human combustion and then writes a great deal about how it might happen.
Apart from the last chapter, this is an almost perfect book, I wish I had had it when studying Chemistry A-Level.
on 16 April 2001
Who would think that a book about a single element could be so fascinating? From the history of its discovery in alchemy, the birth of chemistry, uses in matches, nerve gases (explaining how they work!), fertilizers - it's all here, written in an extremely entertaining, approachable way. My only very minor gripe is that author tends to say "as we shall see in chapter 7" a lot. A message for Mr Emsley should he read this: please get to work on similar books for all the other elements. There's a fair number to get through, but you can rely on me to buy each one.
on 13 July 2005
John Emsley seems to have a gift for making chemistry fascinating to the non-chemist. I picked this book up because I'd enjoyed his "Molecules at an Exhibition" so much. Here he concentrates on the history of a single element and it is, as he says, shocking. From mystics and mad men to modern industrialists, phosphorus has scorched a perilous path to the present. It's taken a long time to fully understand its virtues and vices, during which time countless people have been burned or poisoned by it (deliberately and unwittingly). It was first discovered by alchemists who imagined it would help them to make a "philosopher's stone". They were a secretive lot so it took a long time before it became generally known that they got it from a smelly and unpleasant process involving boiled urine. Once the secret was out, more scientifically minded fellows found vastly more efficient and less stinky methods of preparing the element. It turned out not to be so rare and hard to find as was first thought, once they knew what to look for and how to look for it. Varying amounts of it were found in all sorts of materials, from mineral sources to bird droppings, and traces of it could be found in almost anything that had been alive. The best early source was bone and after the initial frivolous uses the alchemists found for it, it was used for a range of other dodgy and hazardous purposes. It was believed to have medicinal virtues and was used in medicine for a surprisingly long time considering its toxicity - perhaps because the people it failed to cure didn't live to complain about their doctors' quackery. Emsley points out some of the connections between phosphorus and familiar historical events, such as the rise of trade unions. Workers in the match industry were paid appallingly low wages for scandalously long hours of work and suffered the most horrendous industrial disease imaginable: "phossy jaw", which reduced the sufferer's jaw bone to suppurating slime. Annie Besant and the Salvation Army tried to improve the lives of match workers by helping the workers to get their protests heard and the Sally Army even went so far as starting its own match factory to show how it could be done profitably and humanely. Unfortunately they couldn't compete with their more ruthless rivals. He draws attention to the differences between phosphorus and phosphate and also organophosphorus compounds and organophosphate compounds. These days, they all tend to be lumped together and viewed with suspicion. The relationship between nerve gases and insecticides are often cited as evidence of the health and environmental dangers of organophosphates. And yet DNA, the very stuff without which we wouldn't be here to complain about organophosphates, is itself an organophosphate. And so on. The book is packed with extraordinary tales and intriguing facts.
It's a long time since I left school and as far as I can remember, chemistry was extremely boring - and incomprehensible. Clearly, I'm no scientist, but I found this book both engrossing and easy to understand. John Emsley has switched me on to the fascination of chemistry, years after the mind-numbing tedium of chemistry classes. Anyone who was (or still is being) turned off chemistry by dull classes, should read this. If only Emsley's books had been available when I was at school! I would recommend the book to anyone who enjoys history of science, popular science or interesting non-fiction generally.
In this well-researched and very readable book, Mr.Emsley describes the initial discovery of elemental phosphorus by alchemists with an initial production of ounces per year from urine! at an exorbitant cost, to WWII production of thousands of tons per month.
Of course, it was immediately put to use as a medicine - something that powerful MUST be good for what ails you... fortunately only the rich could afford to be poisoned that way!
The perils of working with raw phosphorus (eg, while making lucifers) gradually became obvious and are graphically described, as well as some horrific accidents while transporting the stuff.
Products such as pesticides, incendiaries, smoke screens and nerve gas show its aggressive uses, while other chapters show the benefits of fertilizers, preservatives and detergents.
On a side-track, phosphorus's involvement in spontaneous human combustion is investigated - also explaining will o'wisps and graveyard apparitions.
Immensely readable and crammed full of facts and figures, I recommend this as a welcome addition to any amateur science historian's library. *****
on 19 August 2005
Here you have most of all what has made phosphorous a part of our history. From the destoyed life of the match making girls, via the bombing of Hamburg and industrial accidents, to some of all the need we have for phosphorous...
Well, yes; It could to have been written more about phosphorous in semiconductors, perhaps about silicate-like aluminium-phosphorous catalysts and potential problems with phosphorous in aluminium metal or in alloys.. What I missed was a bit more of the appendixes: With a small advanced appendix for the chemists/physicists that explained the phosphorous light of phospourous with approriate quantum mechanics and diagrams; the structure of this rare Hittorf's phosphorous etc. But the most important thing isn't to get The Perfect Book. The important thing is just to get books that are so well written and well researched as this book - at all. - A perfect book as a gift for somebody with a little interest in chemistry or history, or a treat for oneself.
on 10 January 2003
I found this to be one of the more interesting science books to read and there is much here to amuse and inform throughout.
However, parts of it are stronger than others. I would ask the author why he chose not to include a very important modern application of the element. Possibly its most important application is in semiconductors. It is a popular dopant in silicon transistors for example. Moreover, it is a key element in the compound semiconductor alloys which give us the laser diode so important for CD/DVD etc., and is the basis of our fibre optic networks.
If I were him I would junk the weak section on spontaneous combustion and replace it with a chapter (or two) on semiconductors. Let's hope he can do this for the revised edition in a year or so's time...