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5.0 out of 5 stars A perfectly written gem of popular chemistry., 7 May 2013
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This review is from: From Stars to Stalagmites:How Everything Connects: How Chemistry Connects Everything (Kindle Edition)
Years ago when doing A levels our textbook was called Chemistry in Context - except it never was. Physics yes - every time we turned on a light or looked at a rainbow, maths yes - every time I drove round an island or made a cake but chemistry? Even when making aspirin or azo dyes it seemed to remain an academic subject separate from real life. Yet as this book points out everything is chemistry. Whether it's the air we breathe, the food we eat, the planet we inhabit, the water we drink or even the very facts of our existence - all are determined by the set of rules that seemed so abstract when I first learnt them and the periodic table stuck on every lab wall. What chemistry needed was a book like this to beat that simple fact into our heads. And this book does so beautifully.

This is an almost perfect book. The author brings his readers on a journey that not only puts chemistry into context but teaches them quite a lot of pure chemistry along the way. Without them even noticing! Each chapter contains a perfect mixture of pure esoteric chemistry alongside what that actually means to us in the real world. For example the author explains how lone electron pairs in water molecules effect their shape, how that in turn effects intra and inter molecular bonding and the densities of the solid and liquid form. However interwoven into all that pure chemistry are the implications of that science. The fact they make life possible, allow ice skates glide over surfaces and even how they impact on foreign policy.

The book is also incredibly well structured. Whilst each chapter can easily stand alone as a topic - eg the age of the Earth or Global warming or the colour of blood - the chemical concepts introduced in each one build on knowledge gained in the previous ones, leading a reader from the simple basics like the simple notion of the atom, the molecule and balancing of chemical equations through to complex concepts such as the laws of thermodyanmics and fuzziness of waves and probabilities of finding electrons. A sort of whizz from year seven through to A level in one short book.

If the above makes it sound like a book for those with little or no knowledge of the subject, it isn't! Paul Braterman manages to weave those concepts into a narrative that engages the reader whatever their level of ignorance or expertise. Hence whether you know nothing about balancing equations or spend long days trying to explain it, it is woven into the story of discoveries. Of Dalton, Rutherford, Lavoisier, Avogadro, Cannizzaro and others and the times and cultures in which they lived. You learn of pressures and temperatures whilst being engaged by the very human story of Haber and his wife, Paul Braterman seems to have a real gift for engaging the reader by drawing together diverse strands and showing how they connect. His breadth of knowledge is incredible, he even manages to quote Margaret Attwood and show how what she says of good literature is as true of science.

And along the way you learn how humans have learnt to manipulate chemistry and how it is human will that determines whether those same chemical laws can be used to feed milions or destroy them. Or how easily we can be taken in by scientific language (climate change denial or homeopathy). So whilst everything is chemistry Paul Braterman also shows that we can and do use that everything to our own ends - sometimes with disasterous consequences, eg climate change.

If I were to go through everything that enthralled me about this book the review would go on forever. Every chapter and almost every page seemed to have one of those 'ooh thats interesting moments'. So I will just say that I have read many popular science books and this is up there with the very best of them. I was never bored or patronised by repetitions and endless analogies as is common to some writers or baffled and confused as is the way of some others. The author has judged this book perfectly, Brilliantly explained concepts to learn from but not over simplified, over explained or overdone. No knowledge needed but no patronising by assuming no knowledge means no brains either. Never boring.

If I were to have one quibble about this book it is the pricing. Its natural home is alongside all the other popular science writers like Dawkins, Cox, Goldacre, Jones etc. It surpasses many of them. Yet it is priced slightly above them and as many judge a book by its price I feel that may lose it readers. And it shouldn't - It is such a perfect book for anyone however much they know, whatever level of scientific knowledge they bring to it.. Students between GCSE and A levels for example would find it useful, or for the science component of general studies or for anyone interested in science. I'm passionate about good science writing. It is something we need. And this book is one to be passionate about..
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