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Hilary Eppley, DePauw University
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Fun Science Reading Over the Semester Break?

Hi everyone, Although I am still grading and can't quite get to the fun stuff yet, I thought I'd throw this question out there--are there any fun and interesting books out there that you've read recently that deal with the process or history of science or other more "social" aspects of it? I thought maybe we could compile a semester break/holiday wish list of science reading! One book that is very readable and filled with all kinds of fascinating science factoids is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (the travel writer). It deals with all fields of science (even chemistry!). I initially listened to it as a book on tape and thought it worth the investment to have the hard copy of the book for future reference. One amusing thread throughout the book was his peculiar fixation on the untimely demise of scientists! Any other good suggestions? --Hilary
Anne Bentley, Lewis & Clark College
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Good idea, Hilary!  I have two movies to suggest.  One is King Corn, a documentary about two recent college grads who grow an acre of corn in Iowa and trace where their corn will end up (cattle feed, high fructose corn syrup, etc).  Tons of chemistry in this one.  http://www.kingcorn.net/

 The second is a PBS documentary called "Forgotten Genius," about Percy Julian, one of the very first African American PhD chemists in the US.  (I believe Julian had to travel to Austria to find a university that would accept him for PhD studies.)  I found the movie quite inspiring (a scientist who really loves his work), and my students found it eye-opening ("I didn't think science could be racist.")  You can watch the movie in segments online, or order a DVD copy.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/julian/ 

Nancy Scott Burke Williams, Scripps College, Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College
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Oh, yeah....sciency books....

So everyone by now prolly knows Napoleon's Buttons, right? You've read it, right? No? Then why are you reading this friggin' post?! Order the thing already! 

Uncle Tungsten...also cooler than Santa Claus wearing shades. Twice as cool. Even if you throw in shade bedecked reindeer.

On a more obscure (now we get to the 'social' part Hilary mentioned) level, I've read a few books recently that focus on the Scientific Revolution, on the debates at the time about the nature of knowledge, and about the Anglo-Dutch emerging scientific community (that began as the Invisible College and became the Royal Society). WARNING: these books are for serious addicts of fat books on history that are relevant to Early Modern Science. They may cause somnolence, drool, or a desire for a swift death amongst those who don't like historical non-fiction.

The Leviathan and the Air Pump  The argument about whether experimental science was a new, exciting, revolutionary way to understand the physical world, or whether experimental science was blasphemous, treasonous, and useless). The book is good, albeit plodding (it's only 350 pages, and yet it manages to pull off plodding remarkably well) and trying unless you are a committed post-modernist. The authors' agenda is so plainly to portray experimental science as having no basis in truth that it will weary the most patient chemist. That said, it's a treasure trove of understanding of the intellectual debates of 17th century science. This book made me smarter, which was worth the rise in blood pressure.

Going Dutch About the growing fusion of Anglo-Dutch cultural and intellectual life, including that of the scientific community, between the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. This one starts off with sizzle, gets really dull, and picks up at the end again. The chapters on the scientific community can be read in isolation without losing much unless you have an interest in 17th century Anglo-Dutch politics, architecture, gender relations and gardening (in other words, I liked it, but...).

Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age About how the rise of Dutch commerce created changes in habits of mind that gave rise to the predecessors of the Scientific Revolution. In general, a book only a history buff like me could love (and only one who is as fascinated by Dutch history as I am). Cook is persuasive in his argument that Baroque commerce was a necessary prerequisite for the rise of modern science in 17th Century Holland, but the book suffers from a lack of a more European perspective: the interplay between these changes and the thought of Galileo, Bacon, Hobbes, and the later English scientists Boyle, Hooke, Locke, and Newton is somewhat lacking, and it's duller than the other books on this list.

London Rising, the story of the renaissance of London (no, that's not a pun; the rebuilding happened when London was Baroque....ok, so *that* was a pun). Wren, Locke, Hooke, and Newton figure prominently, and it does a good job of showing how intertwined the fate of 17th century science was with the political winds in England at the time. This one also begins and ends very strong, and bogs down in the middle. The author's first love is clearly architecture, and the rebuilding of London is the central theme of the book, but the emerging New Science also does get a lot of attention.


Hilary Eppley, DePauw University
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Great suggestions! I actually know about the Percy Julian one--required viewing at DePauw since he was a DePauw undergraduate (and was denied a faculty position by the Board of Trustees because of his race--luckily for science he went on to do bigger and better things!). Our science building is actually named after him. And Uncle Tungsten is definitely required reading for all inorganic chemists! I had not heard of most of the others and especially the King Corn movie sounds intriguing! Anyone else? Some of you out there must have read something other than stuff for work???!!! Back to finishing my grading--the reading can commence on Monday! --Hilary
Maggie Geselbracht, Reed College
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I started reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman for some sobering inspiration.  Some may critique his endless stream of anecdotes, but he does quote a number of scientists, chemists, even!  All in all, it is sobering for the picture he paints of the huge global energy challenges we face...and inspiring in the sense that it renews my passion to get students interested in science so that we have the resources, creativity, and brain power to solve these problems!

I also took the opportunity of a long Amtrak ride to listen to a great video podcast I had downloaded awhile ago by Daniel Nocera and Angela Belcher from MIT.  You can watch the video online at http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/414/  or download it from iTunesU (go to MIT>Environment/Energy>The Role of New Technologies in a Sustainable Energy Economy).  Although the video is 90 minutes long, it is a great general discussion, Q&A format, that was held at the MIT museum.  (As an aside, I found the demographics of the audience to be depressingly monolithic.) 

This book and video have me thinking about reworking my Advanced Inorganic elective course syllabus so that that it focuses on the Inorganic Chemistry of Energy Production, Use, and Storage.  Under this broad heading, I can easily imagine topics from just about every subfield of inorganic.  I am going to kick off the semester by having my students watch the video and write me a response paper.  Stay tuned for learning objects to be posted to VIPEr...

Nancy Scott Burke Williams, Scripps College, Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College
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I haven't read Friedman's latest (after The World is Flat I concluded that his downhill slide since The Lexus and the Olive Tree, one of the best books of its decade, was terminal (From Beirut to Jerusalem is also top-shelf), and so didn't bother), but now you've got me intrigued, Maggie...may have to...read....Friedman....anyway, the link you provide also has a link to Chapter 18 (the book has 17 Chapters), a comments blog for the ideas in the book; surely an important place for inorganic chemists who are knowledgeable about these issues (alas, I am not) to make their ideas heard.


Barbara Reisner, James Madison University
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Although it's fiction, one of my favorite books that talks about science is Carl Djerassi's book Cantor's Dilemma. It's a short and entertaining read.  I was assigned this book for a Philosophy of Science Course when I was an undergrad.  After I bought my books, I went back to my room and started browsing through what I bought.  I intended only to spend a few minutes doing this, but by the time I put this one down, I had finished the book and missed dinner.  

When I teach JMU's Literature and Seminar course, I always assign this book as an entry to talk about the culture of science.  The books almost always gets rave reviews.  (Every year, one or two students in a class of 40 are a bit put off by the amount of sex in the book.)  I have a series of questions that I use to get the discussion going (and a very basic quiz to prove that they've read the book).

Maggie Geselbracht, Reed College
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I would like to re-ask this question for this year!  What have you read recently or what is on your "if I ever had the time to read for fun" list in the way of science or teaching-related books? 

A few days ago, I celebrated the end of classes by diving into The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which has been mentioned elsewhere on VIPEr.  I have the feeling I will fly through it, so what should I read next?

Elizabeth Jamieson, Smith College
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I enjoyed both Napoleon's buttons and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  I am definitely going to put Uncle Tungsten on my reading list. 

It's not new, but The Elements of Murder by John Emsley is a good read.  I've passed on some of those stories to my students in the past.  A colleague in the Education dept. here also recommended "The Story of Science" series by Joy Hakim.  This is a 3 volume set - "Aristotle Leads the Way," "Newton at the Center," and "Einstein Adds a New Dimension."  They're geared more for younger readers, but I used some of the stories last year in my general chemistry class when introducing the people behind quantum mechanics.

Adam R. Johnson, Harvey Mudd College
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I have to say, I get enough chemistry at work.  I've had the "history of the world in 5 glasses" (or whatever it is) (thanks Scott) for about 3 years, unopened.  I've purchased Levi's "the periodic table."  I have a few others, unopened.  During break, I break out the hard core hard SF novels.  Sorry folks.  Nothing to see here.

Adam

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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I got "Salt" for xmas.  No, not the Angelina Jolie movie, the book by Mark Kurlansky, "Salt: A world history".  I've just started reading it and I think its not going to take long for me to finish it.  It reads well, and is reminiscent of Napoleon's Buttons.  In fact, anyone who is interested in history/commodities/chemistry/cooking should read this book.

I'm not even a tenth of the way through and I already highly recommend it.  

Kurt Birdwhistell, Loyola University New Orleans
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I just want to thank this list for recommending Napoleon's buttons.  I just finished it and thought it was great.  I thought it could make a great course on its own or maybe inconjunction with a historian. 

 

Anyway thanks  Happy New Year!

 

Kurt

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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Hi,

I wanted to bump up this thread and include some of the science-history/science-culture books I've really enjoyed recently:

 

The most recent is "Periodic tales: a cultural history of the elements from arsenic to zinc" by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, which I am currently enjoying.  I recommend it.

http://www.amazon.com/Periodic-Tales-Cultural-History-Elements/dp/006182...

 

Elizabeth recommended this one in a post above and I want to second that recommendation:

"The Elements of murder: a history of poison", by John Emsley, which is separated by elements and focuses on elemental poisons and case studies from history of deaths from various elements.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Elements-Murder-History-Poison/dp/0192806009/r...

Emsley also wrote this one which I enjoyed:

"The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus"

http://www.amazon.com/The-13th-Element-Sordid-Phosphorus/dp/047144149X/r...

 

I still need to get my hands on Uncle Tungsten. If anyone comes across any other books like the ones mentioned in this thread, post them!

-Kyle

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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I was also recommended to read these two:

"The Invention of Air" about Preistly

http://www.amazon.com/The-Invention-Air-Steven-Johnson/dp/B0045EPCPA/ref...

and

"The dissappearing spoon"

http://www.amazon.com/The-Disappearing-Spoon-Periodic-Elements/dp/031605...

Chris Mullins, University of Kentucky
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I know this is a group of primarily Inorganic chemists, which I am...but I also teach and dabble in Orgo...so here is one I just finished:

 

"The Quest for the Cure" by Brent Stockwell

and just started "Hyperspace" by Michio Kaku

 

Chris Hamaker, Illinois State University
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I also tend to stay away from science books for my leisure reading (in my copious spare time) and tend to migrate towards history.  One book that has some of both is "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb" by Richard Rhodes, which I really enjoyed. 

http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Sun-Making-Hydrogen-Bomb/dp/0684824140

I am currently reading "The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb" by Allen Hornblum, an it's pretty good.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Invisible-Harry-Gold-Soviets/dp/0300177577/

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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Speaking of interesting semester break science reading, there was a recent J. Chem. Ed. article on reading and media recommendations:

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ed300296j

-Kyle

 

Anne Ryter, Western State Colorado University
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If you are looking for nonfiction that reads like a thriller, Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook is an great choice.  The subtitle, Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age, might also be an added attraction.  Blum walks the reader through various poisonous compounds and the early techniques used to identify them as causes for death.

Chris Mullins, University of Kentucky
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Regarding "The Poisoner's Handbook" it appears buyer-beware, I haven't read it...but these reviews are a deterrent: http://www.amazon.com/The-Poisoners-Handbook-Forensic-Medicine/product-reviews/1594202435/ref=cm_cr_dp_qt_hist_one?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0

I just finished "The View From the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos" by Primack and Abrams and I would recommend it...I would call it a blend of physics and the social sciences, with some pertinent chemistry mixed in...

http://www.amazon.com/View-Center-Universe-Discovering-Extraordinary/dp/1594482551/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1343064680&sr=1-1&keywords=joel+primack

Currently, I have just started another book by one of my favorite young authors, Jonah Lehrer titled "Imagine: How Creativity Works". Lehrer wrote "How we decide" which I really enjoyed, and I might get to "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" sooner or later.

Enjoy!

:)CSM

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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Finally got around to reading "The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks". A great read and I definitley recommended for anyone who has ever done anything remotely Biochemistry-related, or who is interested in Science and it's impact on society, especially relating to ethics and medicine.

Cheers,

Kyle

Anthony L. Fernandez, Merrimack College
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Hello all.

I think that the recommendations have all been great and I would like to add two more.  Thes three books are not new, but I thoroughly enjoyed them when i read them several years ago.

  • Sharon Bertsch McGrayne - "Prometheans in the Lab"
    • This book is divided into 9 chapters and each chapter covers a classic chemist and their chemical contribution to the modern world.
  • Robert P. Crease - "The Prism and the Pendulum"
    • This book discusses the ten "most beautiful" experiments in science.
  • Keith J. Laidler - "To Light Such a Candle"
    • This history of science and technology focuses on big ideas (thermodynamics, electric power, and molecular architecture to name a few) and how they are related to technology and the development of the modern world.

I am also just starting to read "Cooked" by Michael Pollan.  This book focuses on how people "transform" food using fire, water (braising), earth (frementation), and air (baking).  I'll add more when i finish it.


 

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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So many recommendations from people that I need to read. My list keeps getting longer. Has anyone read any of Mary Roach's books? The "Justlikecooking" blog reviewed "Gulp", and now I want to check it out.

-Kyle

Sabrina G. Sobel, Hofstra University
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Mary Roach's books are uneven in quality, ranging from good to excellent. Stiff is a great favorite of mine, Spook was interesting, but not gripping. Packing for Mars was a bit weird, and Gulp was great. In general, they are engaging reads.

I did not see The Last Sorcerers mentioned before in this forum (maybe I missed it?), by Richard Morris. I used it in a class paired with the NOVA episode about the Periodic Table narrated by David Pogue. My absolute favorite is Zero by Charles Seife (make sure that you get the right Zero book - there are more than one, hah!), which I have dubbed, "Zero, My Hero". It is an excellent discussion of the development of zero as a mathematical and philosophical concept from ancient times to the present. Lastly, Galileo's Daughter is great for the physics-minded.

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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I picked up Michael J. S. Dewar's autobiography "A Semiempirical Life", which has been a quick and fun read. Only breif mention of Inorganic Chemistry (Dewar-Chatt-Duncanson Model), as he was mainly an organic and theoretical chemist. I enjoyed his thoughts on arguements and science/chemistry. 

I want to grab F. G. A. Stone's autobiography from the same series next:

http://www.amazon.com/F-G-Stone-Organometallic-Chemistry/dp/0841218269

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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Hi All,

I finally got around to reading "The Disappearing Spoon". Definitely a fun read, and I recommend it. 

Kyle

Kyle Grice, DePaul University
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Hi All,

Although the quarter isn't quite over yet for me, I started reading Sam Kean's "The tale of the deuling neurosugeons", having read his previous two books ("dissappearing spoon" and "violinist's thumb"). I am really enjoying this book. FYI, I think it would be great for any students interested in medicine/neuroscience. 

Cheers,

Kyle