An engaging chemistry lesson that also serves as an encyclopedia to understanding the world around us.




A chemistry professor teaches “the stories your chemistry teachers wouldn’t tell you” through short, accessible lessons on drugs, deadly household items, mysteries of ordinary objects, and more.

Debut author Farmer (Chemistry/Sonoma State Univ.) devoted his life to chemistry after a high school friend on LSD jumped in front of a car and was killed instantly. He was driven by a quest to better understand hallucinogens and their effect on the brain, but he also wanted answers to other questions that haunted his childhood. When Farmer became a chemistry instructor, he noticed that he would regularly stump his classroom when he asked a question that provides the title of a subsection here: “What Substance is Used to Make 80% of All Pharmaceuticals?” (The answer: petroleum.) His shock regarding how little the general public knows about chemistry led him to write this book. In it, he does go into drug-related topics, such as how methamphetamines act as a stimulant, but also addresses much more than just chemical extremes. The first chapter introduces basic chemistry concepts, such as atoms, molecules, and neurotransmitters. The following chapters each cover an overarching theme, such as “The Poisons in Everyday Things,” which breaks down into specific lessons: “How Can Visine Kill You?” “Death by BENGAY,” “Deadly Helium Balloons,” and others, and ends with a list of materials for further reading. Each lesson is no more than a few pages long and successfully shows how relevant chemistry is in everyday life. In the seventh chapter, “Why Junior Mints Are Shiny and Other Weird Facts about Your Food,” Farmer explains why it’s hard to remove gum from the soles of shoes by describing what causes strong intermolecular forces. The lessons include images of molecular structures; others include funny cartoons, such as an elephant balancing on a pencil to represent graphene’s strength. The short sections and accessible language will keep readers’ attention, and the frequent addition of molecular structures could be a useful addition to chemistry courses.

An engaging chemistry lesson that also serves as an encyclopedia to understanding the world around us.

Pub Date: July 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-119-26526-9

Page Count: 326

Publisher: Wiley

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2018

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...


Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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