BOOK REVIEW: The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins

The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short IntroductionThe Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book succeeds in systematically exploring the topic, but it fails to do so in a readable fashion for a non-expert reader who’s looking for a rudimentary grasp of the basics. It’s true that the topic is complex and challenging (as the author argues up front,) but I don’t believe the book’s daunting nature all lands on the subject matter. I’ve read up on other difficult topics using this series (VSI,) and found some books much more approachable.

The main problem was a lack of clarity (versus precision) in the language. In other words, the author didn’t want to oversimplify or use analogies, even though those are what’s needed for a neophyte reader to build an intuitively grasp a subject. For example, while the chapters are nicely organized by the laws of thermodynamic and presented in their usual order, there’s no quick and dirty definition of the respective law given at the beginning of each chapter. A simplified definition (incomplete and imperfect as it might be) would allow the reader to gain a basic intuition of the concept. Then, the reader can tweak and expand the concept as they go. But that’s not the approach taken here. Instead, several paragraphs are taken to get around to a statement of the law in question. There was also a lack of analogies and other tools to help the reader gain a foothold based upon what they know. I suspect these tools were avoided because they are all incorrect at some level of precision, and it was the scholarly fear of imprecision that resulted in their teaching effectiveness being abandoned.

This is a great guide for people who think mathematically and / or who are looking for a quick refresher of ideas they once knew. For those who don’t have a background in science and who need verbal explanations that make an effort to be comprehensible, it’s probably not the best one can do.

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BOOK REVIEW: Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins by Oné R. Pagán

Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal IntoxicationDrunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication by Oné R. Pagán
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Humanity’s proclivity to think ourselves above nature has led us to miss the fact that we aren’t the only intelligent creatures and that we share more in common with the rest of the animal kingdom than – perhaps – we’d like to think. Science’s recognition of this truth has spawned a vast collection of books on animal (and, for that matter, plant) intelligence as well as the other traits we share in common with different species. This book carves out an interesting niche in this literature by discussing how other creatures use psychoactive substances (i.e. what we think of as “drugs and alcohol.”) While people tend to think that we are alone not only with respect to intelligence, but also with respect to our vices, it turns out this doesn’t seem to be the case. Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about dolphins that play with blowfish or monkeys on magic mushrooms – e.g. what their internal experience of the substance is like, and to what degree consumption is purposeful versus accidental, but there is an increasing number of studies that suggest other species use drugs, and like it. The book also delves into the role plants play, particularly in producing substances that have psychoactive effects.

This book is humorous (the material is certainly there) and intriguing. It’s an easy pop science read, and avoids becoming too bogged down in the minutiae of biochemistry. That said, it does include graphics, such as chemical diagrams of psychoactive molecules, and does have to dip its toe into concepts of biology and chemistry. If you find the topic intriguing, you should give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean

Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around UsCaesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A book about air and the gas molecules that float about in it may not sound gripping. However, Sam Kean has a gift for finding interesting little stories to make talk of nitrogen-fixing, the discovery of oxygen, and the improvement of the steam engine fascinating. Such stories include that of a vaporized resident of Mount St. Helens, a gas-belching lake that suffocated families in their sleep (not a horror movie plot—a documented event), the scientist who both made millions of new lives possible through his nitrogen-fixing process and then took killing to its most despicable with poison gas, the pig who survived nuclear fallout, and, of course, how the last breath of a Roman Emperor came to be his last–and how likely it is that you’re breathing some of it right now. Along the way you’ll learn about farts, about the use of nitrous oxide for fun and surgery, about Einstein’s venture into refrigerator design, about lighter-than-air air travel, and about what air might look like on another planet.

The book is divided into three parts and nine chapters. There are also eight “interludes” that each takes up an intriguing subject that is chemically or topically related to the preceding chapter. The first part, and its three chapters, addresses the components of air and where they come from. The three chapters explore sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide as molecules released by geological processes (e.g. volcanoes,) the abundant but—without great effort—useless element of nitrogen, and oxygen—useful for breathing and setting the world on fire.

The middle part deals with how humans have used components of air for our own purposes. These three chapters discuss nitrous oxide’s invention, the exploitation of steam to power the Industrial Revolution, and the use of lighter-than-air elements for air travel.

The final part both describes ways in which humanity has changed the air, and looks at what we might have to contend with if we need to go to another planet to live. The seventh chapter explores nuclear testing and the radioactive isotopes that have been spread by it. The penultimate chapter examines the ways in which humans have tried to make weather more predictable by engineering it—usually with little to no effect. The last chapter is about what air might look like on other planets, be they planets on which we’d have to make air or ones that already have their own atmospheres.

There are a number of graphics, including molecule diagrams, photos, and artworks. There are also notes and a works cited section.

I’d highly recommend this book. I found it to be fun to read and fascinating. If you’re into science, you’ll love it, and—if you’re not—you may change your mind.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins

Chemistry: A Very Short IntroductionChemistry: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Lately, I’ve been reading several of these “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] books put out by Oxford University Press. They are a good way to take in the basics of a subject in a concise and layman-friendly manner—either as a refresher or introduction. And they are inexpensive both on Kindle and at my local book seller, Blossom Book House in Bangalore. There are 400 to 500 titles in the series (and growing) and they deal with topics as broad as… well, Chemistry, to as narrow as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They’re available for subjects in the sciences, art, social sciences, the humanities, etc. This book, like most in the series, is about 100 pages long, and includes a glossary and suggestions for further reading.

As is common across the series, the writing is approachable to a non-specialist, but don’t expect Mary Roach style popular science writing. The author doesn’t use interesting stories or colorful language to make his point. The trade-off for getting a concise explanation is that you may find the book dry. I won’t say that these books—and this one in particular—aren’t for pleasure readers, but they’re for readers who take pleasure in learning–as well as those who need to get a grasp on a subject quickly (e.g. your fiance’s mother is a Professor of Microbiology and her father is one of the foremost experts on the Norman Conquest—and you don’t want to seem like an idiot—OUP has you covered.)

As the common subtitle suggests, you will only get the bare essentials. That’s truer for books with a broad scope than those of narrow scope. That is, if you read the AVSI book on “Philosophy” you are going to get less of the full story of the title subject than you will of the one entitled “Heidegger.” Of course, Chemistry is broad.

There are seven chapters in this book. The first offers background information on the history of chemistry, its scope and where it fits with respect to related sciences, and how the subject has come to be organized into sub-disciplines. The second chapter explains the basic concepts of atomic structure and bonding. The third chapter offers the basics of thermodynamics, and the fourth describes the nature of chemical reactions. The fifth chapter describes the methods that are used in the study of chemistry. The last two chapters are a bit different. They tell the reader what chemists have produced (for good and bad) and what directions the discipline is likely to take in the future, respectively.

Many of the AVSI books contain simple, monochromatic graphics, but this particular one includes only a copy of the Periodic Table. There may be points in the book that would benefit from a graphic, but I can’t say that I noticed the absence when I was reading. Let’s face it; on the microscopic level of chemistry takes place, any graphic would likely be a greatly simplified abstraction any way.

I’d recommend this for those seeking a quick guide to the subject of chemistry for those who forgot or never learned the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Elements by Theodore Gray

Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the UniverseElements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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What element makes up most of your body by weight? Are diamonds really the hardest known material on Earth? How can you tell a genuine neon light from one that doesn’t contain any actual neon? Are silicon-based life forms really a possibility? How did phosphorous contribute to a human population explosion? How can one tell whether one’s “Titanium” golf club actually contains titanium? What is tin used for–given that it’s not tin cans, tin foil, or tin roofs? Which noble gas has been caught forming compounds with common elements? Why do welders have to get x-rays before an MRI? Why does Ytterby, Sweden have four elements named after it? Why are gorilla lovers boycotting tantalum? Which is better for committing homicide: Thallium or Polonium? [Hint: The answer depends on whether you want to send a message or not—if you know what I mean.] How much natural uranium can a private citizen possess in the US? Which, if any, of the elements named for people are named for the person who discovered them? These are the types of questions you’ll have answered while reading this book.

The most general question the book addresses is probably, how can one collect elements without setting the world on fire? [If that doesn’t make sense, I’d recommend Randall Munroe’s book “What If?” Munroe tells us what would happen if one tried to make a wall out of one square foot containers of each of the elements (in the form of the Periodic Table)? You’ll note that I said “tried to make” and not “made,” and that should tell you something.] Gray is an element collector, and the many photographs for each element show examples of the forms (including manufactured products) in which a given element can be acquired. You’ll also find out where the gaps will remain in your collection of pure elements. [On a related note, you’ll learn which elements are radioactive.] You also may be interested to hear what element sample the FBI confiscated from the author’s collection [hint: it wasn’t Uranium or Plutonium.]

The organization of the book is straight forward. There’s front matter that gives one a rudimentary primer on chemistry and the periodic table in order to refresh the knowledge that has fallen out of your brain since high school or college. But the bulk of the book consists of one short chapter for each element. The chapters each have a cover page containing a photo and some technical information about the element that will only be of interest to the very nerdiest of nerds. Then there’s a page or so of text, which gives some interesting factoids about the element and how it’s used. Finally, there’s a collection of photos of the element and some products that contain it—with one notable exception.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read, but provides a lot of interesting information. And the author’s sense of humor shines here and there.

I read this book on a Kindle Touch. I mention this because true element groupies may find this less than ideal because of the lack of color. However, for me it was fine. Furthermore, the e-book formatting was good. Sometimes books with a lot of graphics don’t work out so well, but in this case it was not a problem.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in science, though if you know a lot about chemistry you may find it a bit remedial.

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BOOK REVIEW: What is Life? by Addy Pross

What Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes BiologyWhat Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dr. Pross’s book shares a title (but not a subtitle) with the seminal work by the renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger from 1944. While Schrödinger addresses a wide range of topics on how life might be explained in terms of physics and chemistry, Pross’s focus is narrower. Pross asks—and proposes an answer for—the straightforward (but thorny) question of how abiogenesis could occur. Abiogenesis is life from the non-living. Darwin did an excellent job of explaining how we could get from single-celled organisms to the great complexity we see in our own bodies, but Darwin didn’t touch the question of how that very first ancestor became animated.

The subtitle of this work, “How Chemistry Becomes Biology,” gives one insight into how Pross proceeds. There’ve been many ideas about how life came to be on planet Earth over the years. For a time, the idea of panspermia—life arriving from an extraterrestrial source—was popular. Of course, the most popular belief has been that there was a force of life (i.e. an “élan vital”) breathed into non-living matter by a, presumably, supernatural force / entity. While the awe-inspiring nature of life made this idea appealing / believable, it took a hit from the Urey-Miller experiments. Said experiment exposed the four materials believed to have been the most common in our pre-biologic atmosphere (hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and water vapor) to lightning, and the result included a range of organic materials—including amino acids–the building blocks of… well, us, among the other life forms of the planet. Of course, Urey-Miller didn’t make abiogenesis a foregone conclusion, but the production of ever more complex self-replicating molecules under laboratory conditions has made it easier to digest the notion that life developed without any intelligent or supernatural push.

While Pross’s ideas are at the stage of hypothesis, he develops a compelling explanation that revolves around the idea of dynamic kinetic stability. “Dynamic Kinetic Stability” is a mouthful, and so it’s necessary to break it down. The best place to start is with the “stability” part. This is because the biggest problem for an abiogenetical theory of life is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law tells us that entropy increases. There are many ways of restating this, such as that chemical reactions move to states that are of lower free energy. However, the most intuitive way is to say that a beer mugs break but do not spontaneously pop into existence. So if everything is getting simpler by deteriorating, breaking, and decomposing, how does one get / maintain a stable state of complexity? First and foremost, the answer involves adding a lot of energy and resources, but there’s more to it than that–as the author explains. “Dynamic” can also be explained in complex terms, but it’s most easily thought of as being like a river in that the river’s existence is stable, but it’s always a different river—ever changing water molecules arranged differently. (Critically, our bodies are the same way. Except for neurons, our cells are constantly being replaced.) The term “kinetic” speaks to how said replacement takes place; replication must be fast and decay slow.

The appeal of the ideas put forth by Pross is that they’re conceptually consistent with Darwinian Evolution. That is, an entirely new set of principles isn’t necessary to make sense of the origins of life. Pross argues that the self-replicating molecules that can most effectively put resources to use succeed in doing so, and—in the process–they drive others into extinction.

I found this book interesting and readable. The author uses good analogies to make his points (which often deal in complex matter) as clearly as possible. I can’t disagree with the other reviewers who’ve pointed out that the book is a bit repetitive and drags out a relatively simple statement of the argument. It’s not so egregious that I could say that it’s necessarily the result of a desire to pad the book out to a length necessary to sell in hard-copy form. (But it might have been.) The understanding of this topic is in its infancy, but that doesn’t mean this book isn’t a valuable contribution to popular understanding of abiogenesis.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in reflecting on from whence we came in a fashion that is open-minded to explanations that eschew the supernatural.

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