Science and Inquiry discussion

308 views
General > Why are there so few books about chemistry written for the lay reader?

Comments Showing 1-49 of 49 (49 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Pete (new)

Pete | 16 comments Yes, I know there are a few, but nothing like the number of books written about physics or biology (obviously evolution). Is chemistry just not interesting? Not sexy enough?

Or have I just not found them all?


message 2: by Adam (new)

Adam | 55 comments I agree. There is an overwhelming amount of books written about Physics, and they're all mostly centered around the topic of Quantum Mechanics. Which is one of the MOST difficult subjects to convey to lay readers. I don't know how people can glean real understanding from these books without really understanding something about Physics in general, such as electromagnetism.

Then to also start discussing the atomic world you need to know a bit of chemistry as well, otherwise periodic tables are entirely confusing.


message 3: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten | 161 comments I have often wondered that myself. Probably because my grandpa had a PhD in chemistry and I grew up with it...I always look but am disappointed.


message 4: by Cindy (new)

Cindy (newtomato) | 6 comments I'm going to throw out a guess. Chemistry, in general, doesn't capture the layperson's attention quite like certain topics in physics, astrophysics, and biology. QM is sexy and counter-intuitive. Astrophysics is about the cosmos, which usually fascinates people from a young age. And biology is frequently about, well, us, which is always an interesting topic.

OTOH, The Disappearing Spoon and the iPad periodic table app have been pretty big hits.

Just thinking out loud here...


message 5: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten | 161 comments True, and environmental science books tend to have catchy titles. I can see that, space is sexy...atoms are not.

The Periodic Table app is so cool.


message 6: by Cindy (last edited Jul 16, 2011 07:59PM) (new)

Cindy (newtomato) | 6 comments I was trying to think of what sub-fields in chemistry might excite the public? Aspects of biochemistry, I think could be a hit. Chemistry of everyday items would be interesting - I'm thinking something like Wired magazine's feature of "What's Inside." (People need to learn to not be afraid of all "chemicals.")

Any other ideas?


message 7: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten | 161 comments Environmental chemistry was one of my favorite classes in undergrad. We covered atmospheric and water chemistry, pollution etc. It was great, very very interesting. Unfortunately those are the topics that make people panic the most.

Maybe the fun, explosive kinds of chemistry would keep people entertained? I know all the dudes in my classes paid better attention when things were lit on fire.


message 8: by Pete (new)

Pete | 16 comments I used to work as an organic research chemist in the pharmaceutical field, and yes, conflagrations were always exciting, though not the kind of excitement you want to have.

One other point - when I think of a stereotypical "scientist," I think of someone in a white lab coat playing with test tubes. Who does that? A chemist!


message 9: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten | 161 comments Well yes, but your average American doesn't care that it's bad to have things be on fire or explode, they just like to be entertained. Hence why action movies that blow up most of a city make so much money!

Good point.


message 10: by Adam (new)

Adam | 55 comments Cindy wrote: "I was trying to think of what sub-fields in chemistry might excite the public? Aspects of biochemistry, I think could be a hit. Chemistry of everyday items would be interesting - I'm thinking somet..."

Yeah, but one of the biochem books I've heard that's popular is crap like "Darwin's Black Box" by Michael Behe... and that book is bunch of BS written by a moron.


message 11: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten | 161 comments I think chemistry is just taken for granted. People love their Tupperware, lawn sprays, sunscreen etc, but they forget that a lot of the really popular consumer products we use every day all exploded out of chemistry after WWII. I really like the idea of a book that expands on the "what's inside" theme. But not in a panic inducing way, in a "look how cool chemistry is, you're not getting fried by the sun" kind of way.


message 12: by Priscilla (new)

Priscilla (penewcomb) When my kids were young, we did kitchen chemistry - chemical change as demonstrated through preparation of food. Also, years ago i taught hands on science to teachers - and practiced the lessons beforehand with my kids. We had great fun with vinegar and baking soda volcanoes, and cooking s'mores in homemade solar ovens. We had fun - and talked about the chemical change processes behind the fun.

If people were aware of everyday chemistry, maybe that would make deeper exploration of chemistry more inviting.


message 13: by Pete (new)

Pete | 16 comments One of my favorite stories about science is that of the search for the structure of DNA (The Double Helix. The science is, of course, ground breaking, but what makes it so exciting for me is the race between Crick/Watson and Linus Pauling. We always think of scientific pursuit be be so altruistic, but there are huge egos involved, and these big name researchers want to get their papers published first. I would think there would be some excellent story lines available based on the pursuit of these chemical discoveries.


message 14: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (mjkirkland) I think books about chemistry for the lay person are great--so many people are afraid of "chemicals"!


message 15: by Betsy, co-mod (new)

Betsy | 1668 comments Mod
This discussion has stuck in my mind. I was in Barnes & Noble a few days ago for the first time in a long time (I'm a Kindle fanatic). At the first table I stopped at were a number of "simple science for dummies" kinds of books. One that caught my eye was Periodic Table: An Exploration of the Elements, which seems to be a basic introduction to chemistry for the lay adult. I know this is not the kind of book you were hoping for, but I had to buy it anyway. I haven't studied any chemistry since high school, many, many, many years ago. I'm not sure I'll read this book, at least not straight through, but it looks like it might be a good source when questions come up. And who knows, it's only 173 pages.


Cheryl is busier irl atm. (cherylllr) If you do read it, or at least explore it more thoroughly, let us know what you think please, Betsy!


message 17: by Betsy, co-mod (new)

Betsy | 1668 comments Mod
Will do.


message 18: by Charise (new)

Charise | 54 comments Cindy wrote: "I'm going to throw out a guess. Chemistry, in general, doesn't capture the layperson's attention quite like certain topics in physics, astrophysics, and biology. QM is sexy and counter-intuitive. A..."

My brother has also recommended The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. I have put this book on my to-read list.


message 19: by Betsy, co-mod (new)

Betsy | 1668 comments Mod
That sounds good. Goes on my Maybe shelf.


message 21: by Ibis3 (new)

Ibis3 | 23 comments I've been thinking about this off and on since you posted the question. I've come to the conclusion that chemistry doesn't lend itself to narrative. It's really quite mechanical, and unless you need to know how different molecules come together or react with one another, a lay person doesn't have a need to know the details. It's only when chemistry starts "becoming something else" does it become relatable (in both the sense of being something we are able to relate as as story and in the sense of something interesting that we can relate to). Go one way and it's particle physics, go another way and it branches off into biology or geology or history. [/speculation]


Cheryl is busier irl atm. (cherylllr) Good point Ibis3. And yet something about the way you presented your thoughts prompted more thoughts in my mind.

I wonder, could chemistry be made 'sexier' if a writer discussed applications? I mean, some of us got some of that in high school (my teacher's favorite example was how soap worked to bind with grime molecules, something like that I've unfortunately forgotten).

But adults might like to read about, say, how the chemistry of rubber was first tree sap, then vulcanized, then artificial. Or the chemistry of drugs & medicines, and how they work on our bodies and brains. Or the chemistry of fashion, like why cotton is more comfortable than polyester and what is toxic about older cosmetics. I'm sure there are some books about that kind of thing out, but are they just old ones for school reports, or are there newer ones for us?


message 23: by David (new)

David Rubenstein | 872 comments Mod
Our December, 2010 book was Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World. The book was mostly about quantum physics. But the most interesting parts were the chapters that describe how quantum theory explains the properties of everyday chemicals.

Also, next month's book, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity has some discussion of chemistry. In one of the early chapters, the author explains his theory of how inorganic chemical reactions might auto-catalyze, and produce self-replicating life forms.

So, I agree with Cheryl, that chemistry comes to life when a writer discusses applications.


message 24: by Melissa (last edited Jul 29, 2011 06:42PM) (new)

Melissa (mjkirkland) Chemistry is also behind many biological functions including metabolic processes. Also, I am always very interested in the chemistry that explains how molecules are passed through cell membranes in our bodies.

Glucose metabolism is pretty interesting.

On the other hand, I have to confess I hated Organic Chemistry. Why did I need to learn the formula for styrofoam???


message 25: by Charise (new)

Charise | 54 comments I am always looking for science books and or stories to share with my middle school class. There are very few books out there that illustrate how facsinating chemistry can be in a story type fashion that will get kids attention. One of the ones I use is The Periodic Table by Adrian Dingle and published by Kingfisher.


message 26: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 136 comments http://www.scientificamerican.com/pod...

this sounds like a chemistry book of sorts that might keep people interested. The Poisoner's Handbook Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum


message 27: by Charise (new)

Charise | 54 comments Patricrk wrote: "http://www.scientificamerican.com/pod...

this sounds like a chemistry book of sorts that might keep people interested.[bookcover:The Po..."


I read the summery of the book and it definately does looks fascinating. Thanks!


message 28: by AER (new)

AER (bioacoustics) | 10 comments !:) Here's one: 'Periodic Tales' by Hugh Aldersey-Williams.


message 29: by Jenny (new)

Jenny Hemming John EmsleyUK based Chemist who's carved a niche in Chemistry for lay persons. Top stuff.

Also, may I recommend (since we are all, by defition, into social media) Periodic Videos on Flickr, and the wonderful 'what a scientist should look like' Prof. Martin Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham, UK http://www.flickr.com/photos/periodic....


message 30: by Ali (new)

Ali (doublehelix88) There are four fiction books by an author named Alan Bradley. I think they touch on chemistry. I haven't read them, but they're on my list for addressing some chemistry.


message 31: by Charise (new)

Charise | 54 comments Jenny wrote: "John EmsleyUK based Chemist who's carved a niche in Chemistry for lay persons. Top stuff.

Also, may I recommend (since we are all, by defition, into social media) Periodic Videos o..."


Many of the books by John Emsleylook fascinating. I have put several on my to-read list.Thanks!


message 32: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Joseph While this book doesn't deal solely with chemistry, most of the book does, and in great depth. It is also a very enjoyable read. I would call this a must read for those interested in chemistry. Its called uncle tungston by oliver sacks. Well worth checking out.


message 33: by Betsy, co-mod (new)

Betsy | 1668 comments Mod
Uncle Tungsten looks really good. As do the John Emsley books. Thanks.


Cheryl is busier irl atm. (cherylllr) I'm nearly done with Uncle Tungsten right now and it is great for those who might be curious about the field. It's a little challenging - Sacks doesn't explain everything. And - in my opinion/ to my taste - there's too much biography of the scientists in it. But I do recommend it to the OP and others who are curious.


message 35: by Pete (new)

Pete | 16 comments Thanks for the recommendation about Uncle Tungsten. I was paging through it in the bookstore the other day and it did look interesting.


message 36: by Muhammad (new)

Muhammad Eesa (muhammadeesa) | 5 comments I know I'm resurrecting a somewhat old discussion thread, but I found this thread interesting as I've also been wondering about the lack of chemistry books for the lay person.

It may be true that chemistry is perceived as a difficult subject and that it does not lend itself to narrative, but I believe that more can be done to popularize the subject to a wide audience than has already been published.

Chemistry is a vast subject, and I think many aspects of chemistry can be potential topics for pupular science writing. You need writers with the right background and the gift of being able to render difficult aspects of chemistry easy to understand.


message 37: by Leonardo (last edited Sep 04, 2012 04:55PM) (new)

Leonardo Noto (leonardonoto) | 113 comments A really good basic chemistry (both organic and gen chem) overview that is written for the layperson is "The Joy of Science" by The Teaching Company. The course is also a good review of the other major subdivisions of science, but its chemistry lectures are one of the few well-written pieces for laypersons on the subject that I've come across. I have a degree in medicine and biochemistry, btw, so I know a little about the subject. A solid molecular biology/biochem book that is accessible to the layperson is "A Genetic Switch" by Mark Ptashne, but it is a book that will take a little more work to "get" than "The Joy of Science," which can be listened to while stuck on the freeway.

Dr. Leonardo Noto

www.leonardonoto.com or follow me on Twitter @DrLeonardoNoto


message 38: by Leonardo (new)

Leonardo Noto (leonardonoto) | 113 comments David wrote: "Our December, 2010 book was Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World. The book was mostly about quantum physics. But the most interesting parts were the chapters that descr..."

I haven't read either but I'll definitely have to check them out. Thanks for the recs!


message 39: by Mike (new)

Mike | 4 comments It appears to me that in the science news media often reports stories related to biology (particularly human health), astronomy, and environmental science (usually pertaining to impacts upon humans). While chemistry is related to all of those fields, it doesn't tend to be explicitly talked about. I've spoken to some science journalists working for general news organizations and they believe that the above subjects are what is most attractive to lay readers. As a result, other topics can tend to not make the cut to appear in print.

I wonder if a similar phenomena is happening with books. Maybe people in general find biology and physics more inherently interesting, with clear connections to humans, in the case of the former, and a sense of wonder, in the case of the latter. Maybe book publishers are less likely to believe that they can sell a book about chemistry than about a different area of science. Maybe chemists are less likely to write popular science books than their colleagues in other fields.

The most popular science communicators that I can think of are biologists (e.g. E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould), astronomers (e.g. Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson), or physicists (e.g. Stephen Hawking).

I think that the relative lack of lay chemistry books is real, though I'm not sure what the cause is. This is one more thing that I want to research after I finish my Ph.D.


message 40: by John (new)

John Robinson | 3 comments There is always Asimov for chemistry. He wrote a great deal about it and all very accessible to the layman.


message 41: by John (new)

John Robinson | 3 comments Muhammad wrote: "I know I'm resurrecting a somewhat old discussion thread, but I found this thread interesting as I've also been wondering about the lack of chemistry books for the lay person.

It may be true that..."


Asimov is still available at least in the used markets.


message 42: by Kikyosan (new)

Kikyosan | 64 comments Here is a little statistics that reflects the title of this discussion. A local newspaper is going to release a quite famous scientific book per week.
Out of 25 titles:

11 about physics and universe
6 about science in general
2 about creation of artificial dna and its implications.
2 about math (chaos, statistics)
2 about chemistry
1 about evolution
1 about meteorology


message 43: by Mochajunkie (new)

Mochajunkie | 12 comments Has anyone read Stuff Matters? We have made so many advancements in science that it is hard to know/keep up with how things are working at the molecular level.


message 44: by Jim (last edited Jun 29, 2015 05:19PM) (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 629 comments Mochajunkie wrote: "Has anyone read Stuff Matters? We have made so many advancements in science that it is hard to know/keep up with how things are working at the molecular level."

No, but now I want to. I've worked with my hands all my life (carpentry, remodeling, farming) & the differences in materials has been HUGE just in my life time. Glues, fasteners, Tyvek, vinyl, shingles, & all sorts of materials have gotten so much better. I can do things now with glue I wouldn't have dreamed of 40 years ago (Chemists are my heroes!) yet a friend who makes/repairs fiddles finds that old hide glue is still the best.

I turn green bowls, some less than 1/16" thick, yet they're strong - when they don't break before drying or getting off the lathe. Incredible! Plain old wood is so versatile, yet a lot of steel is worse for my purposes now. I've heard it was due to the way the 'new' furnaces work. Don't know for sure, would love to learn more.


message 45: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Mills (nancyfaym) | 403 comments That sounds like a good one. maybe we could nominate it for the next group book


message 46: by Betsy, co-mod (new)

Betsy | 1668 comments Mod
Please do.


message 47: by Codex (new)

Codex Regius (codex_regius) | 9 comments One topic that might seem interesting, at least for amateur astronomers, is planetary chemistry. The two of us are currently writing a book on Saturn's moon Titan, and I have realised that in the available 500+pages textbooks, half the articles are dedicated to the chemistry of its atmosphere. Quite heavy stuff, most of it, and I deem that armchair astronomers with a hunch for chemistry don't get it made more accessible by the publishers - even though the topic has implications for understanding processes (natural or man-made) in our own atmosphere.


message 48: by Elentarri (new)

Elentarri I enjoyed this book and wish there were more like it. The book actually includes the chemical formulae of some of the substances and their reactions.

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 366 comments That looks interesting, Elentarri.


back to top