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So I promised to do a popular science book review and it’s been in the pipeline for long enough have also started working on my next post, which requires a lot more research but I’m hoping to have it up by the weekend. It is something that is close to my heart so I want to do it to the best of my ability.

Also, as it is Mental Health Awareness Week, I’d just like to point out Time to Change, a UK charity that is aiming to end the stigma surrounding mental health and make the services easier to understand and access. This is especially important as the rates of suicide have been rising year on year, dramatically so in men. So any male readers, please know you aren’t alone and that it doesn’t make you any ‘less of a man’ to have this illness. Just get help if you need it, please.

Back to the topic at hand!

The book I’ve reviewed, Molecules at an Exhibition, first came to my attention almost 4 years ago now. A group of friends and I went on holiday and of course we never bring enough books so we got around to swapping. It is only a small book, at 240 pages and it is split into 8 ‘Galleries’, where the author has grouped certain molecules together depending on their actions and descriptions.

The book begins with a light introduction outlining the why’s of the book (he is particularly interested in these molecules) and a quick guide to some chemical terms and measurements so all readers are at a level pegging.

The galleries are:

  •  Nearly as Nature Intended: food and drink
  • Testing Your Metal: essential metals for the body
  • Starting Lives, Saving Lives, Screwing Up Lives: helping and harming the young
  • Home Sweet Home: detergents, dangers, delights and delusions
  • Material Progress and Immaterial Observations: molecules that make life a little easier
  • Environmental Cons, Concerns and Comments: molecules that stalk the world
  • We’re on the Road to Nowhere: molecules that transport us
  • Elements From Hell: mainly malevolent molecules

The food and drink section was probably my favourite purely because of the two sections on garlic and caffeine, which I think was a brilliant start to the book as it sets the tone of the book and eases the reader in easily. It is not a serious, sluggish read, the author writes with an irreverent tone throughout. For example, when talking about garlic:

“Uncooked garlic in salads can be enjoyable to the eater but not to those they come into contact with afterwards”
“Some people [who] eat it regularly…protects them against illness because it keeps others at a distance”

There is a hint of Ben Goldacre about his style although a lot more subdued in how he disagrees with certain lifestyle choices and supplements; he holds something back but makes it very clear what he thinks on the matters.

As well as being an informal guide through some common molecules, it is also full of factual gobbets you can casually throw into conversation (eg. Smoking cigarettes reduces the time that caffeine has a stimulatory effect by two hours! And we need 14 different metal elements to function properly).

Add to this, the historical and cultural context of the discoveries of the molecules themselves and it makes for an absorbing read. Due to the fact that it is split up into Galleries means that the book is great as a pick up and go read, say on the commute to work or train to town.

However, nothing is ever perfect is it? Despite this book calling itself an exhibition, I feel that it would have benefitted from some pictures, even some diagrams throughout the book. I think it would be a nice start to the chapter and an interesting way to split up the text. This may sound a little childish but I think if you’re going to call it an exhibition of molecules, he may as well have gone the whole way!

Despite this, I think this is a good quality book, for readers wanting to get back into science, for students…for anyone really, who has an interest in the unseen world around them.

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