Monday, 27 August 2012

From Stars to Stalagmites: How Everything Connects - A Review



Quick Summary:  This book will help you to realise that there are not really three sciences and that much of what you might currently think of as Chemistry is in fact either Physics, Biology or technology.  It covers a lot of material very quickly and in an easy to follow style that gives the science in the context of the history and the people involved.  It succeeds where other books have failed in covering lots of ground "comprehensively" in both meanings of the word.  Go buy it.

Review: First things first, Paul is a friend of mine, even despite his disappointment at my self confessed lack of love for chemistry.  We met when he became involved in the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE) fighting against creationism in the UK education system.  I have since enjoyed several dinners with him and his breadth of knowledge, enthusiasm and twinkling eye left me looking forward to reading his new book. Knowing Paul, he would be mortified if I pulled any punches in this review, so I'm a bit mortified that I haven't really got any significant ones to pull and I hope he can forgive me for this.

Paul cares about science and good science education.  My own distaste for Chemistry (I grew up a bit of a physics geek and I am now studying biology) probably resulted from poor teaching (we called the teacher Mr "Whittlewhattle") at secondary school level and when I told him about this it caused Paul much pain, but not much surprise.  

I must confess to thinking of Chemistry as the book keeping science, trapped somewhere between the soaring themes and elegance of Physics and the complex intricacy and beauty of Biology, the poor Chemists had to try to get the number of molecules to balance either side of an equals sign.  I have read a good number of popular science books and those few that have focused or touched upon Chemistry didn't do a good job of dispelling this impression.  Paul is all too aware of this and he has always been able to explain in summary form just where those other science writers were going wrong and how they might be improved.  So he did rather make this book a hostage to fortune although I should stress that his knowledge of the shortcomings of others has always been gentle, good natured and humorous.  On one occasion I described a failed attempt at a popular science Chemistry book as "the repetitive regurgitation of the formula for a chapter with a different chemical as the subject, repeated until the rear cover was reached", to which Paul instantly replied "Oh that will be XXXX." and we both dissolved in childish glee.

So, knowing that he was working on a popular science book, I also knew he would expect it to awaken my interest in and respect for Chemistry.  He does enjoy a challenge.  

Anyway, both my curiosity and expectations were now on high alert. Could Paul's book  finally awaken the interest in his beloved Chemistry that he was sure must be somewhere inside this admitted geek?

The book itself declares huge ambition from the title, "From Stars to Stalagmites, how everything connects" and is nothing if not inclusive.  

Other popular science books such as The Age of Reason or Longitude pile on the human history, characters , emotion and conflicts alongside the science in a (it has to admitted, successful) attempt to soap opera-ify their subjects.

Alternatively books such as Your Inner Fish or Sex, Death and Suicide and The Red Queen probe individual developments in our understanding or particular natural phenomenon, delving into details and showing up beautiful intricacies and subtleties. 

So which way does Paul choose to go in order to fit in all the promise of the title?  Well he does both.  First of all his style helps enormously.  Down to earth, matter of fact, straight forward. Simple and direct. Content, content, content. 

No convoluted and long winded metaphors in the name of false comprehensibility. No unnecessary wanderings around personal histories and anecdotes that are tangential to the main point he is making.  Paul just gives us it straight. There are a couple of places where he warns us of a complex issue ahead and offers a shortcut to the next section but in neither case did I take up his invitation nor regret not doing so. 

So we get the science and the scientists alongside politics on the world stage of human development.   This means that we move at breakneck speed and if I had a complaint it would be that the book could have been three times the length.  Knowing modern publishers this simply isn't an option and so instead I strongly request some sequels going into more detail.

The book tackles how things connect. Those things are atoms but also the history of the universe, planet earth and life. For example why are water molecules the shape they are and why is this important to life?  Here are some tasters of the content.  Uncomfortable reading for some politically committed readers in the US; the American revolution munitioned with the aid of French manure-farm nitrate, and French revolutionists condemning the educated as "elitist", shed an embarrassing light on the embarrassing views of the (surely to most Americans) embarrassing tea baggers. 

There is a superb chapter on the common arguments used by global warming deniers that  makes you appreciate that there really are dark forces in the world in addition to dark energy. 

To help you put my review into context, I am an avid reader of popular science and I am nearing the end of a biology degree with the Open University. So I had already read or I am currently studying many of the topics covered.  I have rarely read so much content delivered so simply and understandably.  This book is a great way to bring everything together either as an introductory overview before tackling a topic in more detail or as an enjoyable whistle stop tour through human progress and knowledge. 

So do I now "like" chemistry?  I suppose so yes.  Perhaps it would be more honest to say that Paul had simply pointed out how much of the rest of science is simply chemistry and how much of human civilisation is built upon it. So Paul has in fact persuaded me that I "liked" chemistry all along. 

Thinking about it I realise this is exactly what he intended. I can see his eyes twinkling in my minds eye right now.  

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