Field of Science

Top 10 popular chemistry books for the general reader

An aerogel, one of the wonders of modern chemistry
described by Mark Miodownik in "Stuff Matters"
Steven Weinberg - with whom I once had the great pleasure of sharing a panel on 'Big Science' - has noted a list of 13 of his favorite science books for the general reader in an interview with The Guardian. It's a perfectly respectable list (and it includes my all-time favorite book) although it suffers from a few issues, such as being more historically oriented and not being broad enough. 

But as usual, the other big limitation of the list is that it contains no chemistry books. This wouldn't be the first time a popular science list has excluded chemistry - chemistry is the black sheep of the sciences when it comes to popular writing, even though modern life would be unimaginable without it, as would the puzzle of the origin of life. Given Weinberg's physics background this is somewhat understandable and it's his personal list after all. However I thought I would add my two cents to the discussion by offering my own modest list of chemical titles which I think would delight and inform the general reader, along with some biomedical research sprinkled in. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

1. Oliver Sacks - "Uncle Tungsten": Oliver Sacks recently wrote a wonderful and poignant editorial in the NYT about his imminent fate, but the good doctor should rest supremely assured. All his writings are memorable and will live on forever, and none so much in my opinion as his delightful romp through the wonders of chemistry as a child narrated in "Uncle Tungsten". I myself grew up experimenting with hazardous chemicals, and so this book resonated with me like few others. The book is a paean not just to the magical world of chemistry as explored by a young and receptive mind but also to a nostalgic and charming time when one could buy a pound of each alkali metal from a hardware store and drop it in a lake to see what happens (as Sacks did).

2. Deborah Blum - "The Poisoner's Handbook": This volume is a riveting account of the sinister side of chemistry, and of human nature in general, as it manifested itself in the heyday of New York City during the Jazz Age. Blum is exceedingly accomplished at bringing out the devious motives of poisoners as they exploited the unique chemistry of each poisoning, and she is also very adept at chronicling the rise of forensic science as it pitted science against murder. Thankfully science has largely won that fight - Blum tells us how. If there's any doubt about how chemistry can come alive and impact society in the most consequential and personal ways, this book should dispel that doubt.

3. Natalie Angier - "Natural Obsessions": Angier's book is a rare example of an underexploited and revealing science genre; what one might call "fly on the wall science". In this case the particular wall belongs to the laboratory of Robert Weinberg at MIT. Weinberg is one of the most important cancer researchers of the past fifty years and his lab has discovered many of the most important genes and biochemical pathways involved in the spread of this diabolical disease. Angier does a really great job of documenting the everyday struggles, passions, pitfalls, blind alleys and triumphs of basic research. Science done by human beings, with all its warts and glories.

4. Barry Werth - "The Billion Dollar Molecule": Another true fly on the wall account, Barry Werth's book would get anyone interested in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of drug discovery and biotech research. It is quite definitely the best and only book I know in which a probing, highly articulate writer was allowed virtually untrammeled access to the secret world of cutting-edge research carried out by a major, upcoming company (Vertex Pharmaceuticals). Werth's prose is breathless, vivid and Promethean and makes the scientists at Vertex alternatively look like Gods descended from Olympus and rock stars at Woodstock. While he takes some poetic license, nowhere else have I seen the real world of highly risky and lucrative drug research and the sheer passion of industrial scientists described with such loving care and attention to detail. A must read, along with its less stratospheric but still readable sequel.

5. Philip Ball - "H2O: A Biography of Water": If I had to single out one writer who consistently produces highly readable books on popular chemistry it would be Phil Ball. Phil has written many excellent books on the world of molecules and his writing covers a remarkable range of topics - from Paracelsus to Chartres Cathedral - but in my opinion none bridges the mundane and the profound as well as his book on that most beguiling, commonplace and enigmatic of substances - water. Phil explores an astounding range of phenomena in which water plays a key role, from the water cycle in glaciers to water in outer space to water at the molecular level in the human body. There is also a great chapter on what Irving Langmuir called "pathological science" which describes in gory detail the polywater controversy. This book is a must have on the shelf of anyone interested in popular chemistry.

6. Sam Kean - "The Disappearing Spoon": Just when I thought that popular chemistry books would not become runaway bestsellers, along came Sam Kean with his chronicle of the fun, swashbuckling and sometimes morbid stories associated with the discovery of key elements. Kean focuses mainly on radioactive elements but he also has delightful chapters on other ubiquitous elements like gallium - which is the subject of the title of the book.

7. S. Venetsky - "Tales about Metals" and "On Rare and Scattered Metals": Speaking of elements, one of the delights of growing up in the 90s was the sudden access to hitherto unavailable literary and scientific gems from one of the former Soviet Union's leading scientific publishing companies, Mir Publishers. I discovered Venetsky's wonderful elemental romp through commonplace but still fascinating metals like gold, tungsten and molybdenum in an old used bookstore as a teenager and was stricken. Venetsky is an absolute delight especially when describing the role of coinage metals like copper and gold in history, and his writings are also liberally sprinkled with myths about these chemical wonders as well as descriptions of uses of elements such as 'rare' earth metals in everyday applications like electronics. Venetsky's book is one of those books which would make any boy or girl grow up to be a chemist.

8. Patrick Coffey - "Cathedrals of Science": Biographies of physicists abound but those of chemists are rare. That is why Coffey's book on the epic lives and rivalries of chemists Gilbert Newton Lewis and Irving Langmuir is very much worth a read. Lewis and Langmuir were both the torchbearers of American chemistry during the 1920s, and both made foundational contributions to the discipline. Coffey is at his best while describing their discoveries and the apportioning of credit for those discoveries that became a sticking point between them, their students and colleagues, many of whom included luminaries like Linus Pauling, Walther Nernst and Svante Arrhenius. A great example of the story of science as a quintessentially human endeavor.

9. Roald Hoffmann - "Roald Hoffmann on the Philosophy, Art and Science of Chemistry": Roald Hoffmann is one of those very few Renaissance Men of science who have won a Nobel Prize, written plays and popular books and contributed original ideas to the philosophy of their discipline.  I reviewed this collection of essays by Hoffmann for 'Nature Chemistry' last year. As I describe in that review, Hoffmann is especially adept at telling us how chemistry creates its own emergent philosophy which unmoors itself from its reductionist roots in physics. The book would be worthwhile for this discussion alone, but it also has splendid chapters mulling over the meaning of beauty and elegance in chemistry and the complex face of chemistry when it impacts the environment. A unique contribution.

10. Mark Miodownik - "Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-Made world": One of the perpetual complaints that chemists have is that when it comes to popular chemistry, somehow the public manages to achieve the contradictory feat of appreciating chemistry's ubiquitous presence in our everyday life while at the same time completely missing the excitement in the discipline. Mark Miodownik's wonderful new book handily bridges this gap. In a series of revealing chapters dedicated to a range of substances, from the exotic (aerogels) to the utterly mundane and commonplace (concrete), Miodownik brings materials science to life. Imagine writing a book about concrete that treats the substance with the same kind of fascination and wonder that one might treat kryptonium, and you get an idea of what Miodownik's book is like. In one sentence, a role model for what popular chemistry writing should be like.


  1. Nice list! I am definitely buying "Tales About Metals" as soon as possible.

    Philip Ball has an excellent post (as always) on Steven Weinberg's article.

    I consider myself a good reader and try to read as much as possible. Currently I have 35 book "reviews" (just a bunch sentences) on my blog including some technical chemistry books. Most of them are popular ones though.

    And this was the list of books in my Amazon shopping cart last year. I keep adding books, so the new list a little bit different. But, no time to organize at the moment.

    I am not trying to promote my list or posts, but I thought you or someone else might find something interesting.

    1. Promote by all means! Great list - glad to see Nick Lane's book in there. He has a new one coming out next month by the way.

  2. I would put Aldersey-Williams' 'Periodic Tales' on that list, as a highly readable account of the discovery of some of the elements, reaching back, when necessary, into alchemical days. The account of trying to reproduce the isolation and discovery of phosphorus in his own urine in worth the price of the book by itself.

    'Cathedrals of Science' has sat in my reading pile for over five years. It's so densely written, I'm only good for five pages at a time. I may flush it on my next trip to the used bookstore.

    1. Thanks. I have been wanting to read Aldersey-Williams's book for a while now!

  3. I got the book Tales about Metals when I was 10, I think it was the first book I bought by myself in a bookstore, with the money I won in the bookstore raffle. That was in Ukraine, and the year was 1985. I am 40 now, but I still remember vividly how engrossing the book was, even if some stuff was perhaps a bit over my head. Now in the USA, trying to see if I could find this book for my children, and can't believe it was translated into English!!!! I still remember the stories. This book is a great popular science book! Highly, highly recommend. So happy I ran into this article and was able to locate this book.Thanks!

  4. I'm surprised that The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager didn't make the cut...


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