Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Molecules

I couldn't resist the title on the new books shelf at the library: Every Molecule Tells a Story, by Simon Cotton, a British chemist. Off I went to my comfy chair for an hour or two dipping into Cotton's text.

Lots of fun information, but the going was tough. Unfortunately for Cotton, it was inevitable that I would compare his book to Peter Atkin's classic Molecules, first published by W. H. Freeman in 1987, and reissued as a much improved second edition in 2003 by Cambridge University Press.

So off I went looking for Atkins, and spent another two or three even more delightful hours. Atkins is a gifted science writer and his books are invariably a pleasure to read.

And look, here on the back of the Second Edition, a blurb from the "Boston Globe": "We need to be reminded that matter, ordinary matter, is mysterious and magical. The smell of fresh raspberries, the flaming hillsides of New England in October, the pleasurable rush of sexual desire. Molecules. Just molecules. Physicist and biologists take note: in Atkins' delightful book, the Cinderella of chemistry begins to look a lot like a beautiful princess."

Hmm, I'm thinking. That sounds familiar. A quick Google delivers the author of the quote.

Yep, I wrote about the first edition of Atkins'Molecules in the fall of 1987, and used it as an excuse to rescue chemistry from the cinder hearth of science, much to the delight, as I recall, of dozens of chemistry teachers in the New England area who made copies of my essay for their students. The notion of chemistry being the "Cinderella of the sciences" took on a life of its own.

The 203 molecules of Atkins' Second Edition consist of less than a dozen kinds of atoms. Glad-handing hydrogen. Gregarious carbon. Narcissistic nitrogen. Promiscuous oxygen. And a few exotic hanger-ons, such as fluorine, phosphorus, sulfur, and chlorine. Atoms so small that a million million might comfortably sit on the period at the end of this sentence. No child's Tinker Toy construction set could be simpler. No child's construction set is so rich with possibilities.

Molecules that burn, and molecules that extinguish fire. Molecules that cause pain, and molecules that are pain killers. The yellow of carrots and the pink of flamingos. Cellulose and TNT. Cannabis and mustard gas. Touch, sight, taste, smell. The mysteries of sex. Pleasures and poisons. As Atkins says: "The world and everything in it is built from the almost negligible."