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March 1, 2010
Volume 88, Number 9
pp. 46-47

Finding Joy In Chemistry

Explanations for lay readers of the science behind the stuff of everyday life

Reviewed by Mary Kirchhoff

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THE JOY OF CHEMISTRY: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things, by Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf, Prometheus Books, 2010, 393 pages, $19 hardcover (ISBN-10: 1591027713, ISBN-13: 978-1591027713)
THAT'S AMORE A metastable suspension of curds in whey.

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You've got to love a chemistry book whose preface draws comparisons to "The Joy of Cooking" and "The Joy of Sex." What does "The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things," by Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf, have in common with these other well-known tomes? Introducing joy into what were—and perhaps still are—challenging or delicate subjects.

Chemistry has proven to be a perplexing subject for many students. As Henry Adams observed in "The Education of Henry Adams," "The bit of practical teaching he afterwards reviewed with most curiosity was the course in Chemistry, which taught him a number of theories that befogged his mind for a lifetime." "The Joy of Chemistry" attempts to lift this fog by demonstrating and explaining chemical phenomena in terms accessible to the nonchemist, providing the reader with a "virtual adult chemistry set."

The authors explain the chemistry of everyday things, from computers and cars to photocopiers and black lights. The book begins with a few timely words on safety, essential advice given the hands-on activities sprinkled throughout the text. The authors ask the reader to procure the materials detailed in the "Shopping List and Solutions" section for use in subsequent demonstrations. Most of these materials can be purchased at your local grocery or hardware store. These hands-on activities illustrate a variety of chemical phenomena, enabling the reader to directly experience the effects of mixing chemicals, such as changes in color and temperature, evolution of gas, and precipitate formation.

The book introduces a good deal of chemistry, providing analogies that make the concepts easily accessible. For example, a solution is described as the "chemical equivalent of a conference: a concentration of reactants with the mobility that they need to combine." The chapter on chemical kinetics notes, "Like an obstreperous child avoiding chores, thermodynamics may tell you the reaction will take place, but not when." An electron is described as a "fickle lover" that "will flirt with, or even flit to, any nucleus it finds more attractive." These comparisons provide the nonscientist with a vivid image of chemistry at the molecular level, as well as a touch of humor.

The orderliness and utility of the periodic table are presented early on. The periodic table is a convenient vehicle for introducing basic chemistry concepts including protons, neutrons, and electrons; metals, nonmetals, and metalloids; and ionization and shell theory. The authors do not shy away from chemical equations in describing salt formation, acid-base reactions, and other chemical transformations. Chemical equations are the language of chemistry, and the reader gains an appreciation for the wealth of information embedded in a chemical equation.

The first part of the book addresses chemistry fundamentals: atomic structure and bonding, reaction type, thermodynamics, and kinetics. The second part of the book explores different fields of chemistry, including organic, inorganic, analytical, and biochemistry. One chapter uses forensic science as the framework for introducing analytical chemistry, a particularly relevant approach given the plethora of "CSI"-style television programs introducing the masses to crime-scene investigation. The magical herbs in the Harry Potter books introduce phytochemistry, the chemistry of plants.

A strength of "The Joy of Chemistry" is its ability to illustrate complex chemistry concepts through familiar materials. For example, phase changes are discussed by examining the properties of a good pizza cheese. The authors point out that mozzarella is the cheese of choice on pizza because it melts smoothly and evenly at its melting point. When it comes to freezing pizza, however, imitation mozzarella, a processed cheese, performs better than real mozzarella because it provides a better phase transition in going from frozen to melted. A "Little Miss Muffet" phase diagram is used to illustrate the relationship between melting and freezing and the composition of cheeses. Cheese is described as a metastable suspension of curds in whey, hence the correlation to Little Miss Muffet.

"Like an obstreperous child avoiding chores, thermodynamics may tell you the reaction will take place, but not when."

The chapter on acids and bases, "The Basic Stuff," offers numerous examples of everyday acid-base chemistry. In baking, combining sour cream with baking soda makes cakes light and fluffy due to the formation of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide also provides the buffering necessary to ensure the proper alkalinity in blood. Controlling the pH of water in a swimming pool is a delicate balance; bacterial growth must be inhibited without making the water too irritating to swimmers and corrosive to the materials used in the pool itself. All of these examples illustrate the essential chemistry underlying our daily lives, much of which goes unnoticed because it is invisible to our eyes.

Demonstrations throughout the book engage the reader in hands-on learning. The difference between endothermic and exothermic processes is obvious when citric acid and lye are separately dissolved in water. The application of this demonstration is found in cold and hot packs, where different salts are used to provide cooling and heating. In another demonstration, the active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, is extracted from aspirin tablets by using rubbing alcohol. The isolated product is then hydrolyzed to salicylic acid and acetic acid, giving the reader a taste of organic chemistry.

The book shows how table salt, laundry blueing, household ammonia, and distilled water are used to grow a garden of crystals. Intermolecular forces are demonstrated by having readers layer and mix water, glycerin, and canola oil. In another demonstration, leaf pigments are separated via chromatography using nail polish remover and paper towels as the mobile and stationary phases, respectively. The book's "Antifreeze and Antiboil" demonstration introduces four colligative properties: freezing-point depression, boiling-point elevation, vapor-pressure lowering, and osmosis. "The Joy of Chemistry" effectively uses these hands-on activities to explain chemistry concepts and relate them to common materials and transformations.

An unusual feature of the book is that each chapter and demonstration begins with a science-related quotation or two from literature, and a number of these reflections focus on the chemistry of personal interactions. "The Song of the Lark," by Willa Cather, notes that "Dr. Archie watched her contemplatively, as if she were a beaker full of chemicals working." The great Albert Einstein opined, "How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?" The authors note that "if one judges by the number of references to chemistry in Western literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it would appear that chemical literacy was once more common."

Telling new acquaintances at a cocktail party that you're a chemist can be a conversation stopper. Despite our best efforts to describe how people's lives are improved through the transforming power of chemistry, many people cannot move beyond their high school chemistry experience or their belief that all chemicals are bad. Recommending "The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Everyday Things" to these new acquaintances is an easy way to catalyze further conversations at your next social gathering.

Mary Kirchhoff is director of education at the American Chemical Society.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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