audiobooks · Chemistry · stuff I read

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum

43228964Summary from Goodreads:
From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times -bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. “Milk” might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by “embalmed milk” every year. Citizens–activists, journalists, scientists, and women’s groups–began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.”

Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.”

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying “David and Goliath” tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

The Poison Squad is a very good overview of the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the political struggles of the era which are, annoyingly, still the same struggles today. “Regulation stifles business and prevents us from making as much greedy money as possible” versus “please stop trying to poison the populace with unknown food additives, pesticides, chemical dyes, etc.” (you can guess what side I come down on). It’s a bit dry in places but since I tend to listen to audiobooks on 1.5-1.75x speed I didn’t notice as much.

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from the library via Libby.

Chemistry · mini-review · stuff I read

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Summary from Goodreads:
Praised by Ha Jin as “a genuine piece of literature: wise, humorous, and moving,” and perfect for readers of Lab Girl and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, a luminous coming-of-age novel about a young female scientist who must recalibrate her life when her academic career goes off track.

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She’s tormented by her failed research–and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there’s another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can’t make a life before finding success on her own.

Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she’s confronted with a question she won’t find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want? Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry–one in which the reactions can’t be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

Chemistry is a book that fits in between Dear Committee Members and Dept. of Speculation – which is an intersection that I didn’t know I needed. I really enjoyed the narrator as she winds up having to break almost everything in her life from her academic career to her long-term relationships before she can figure out who she is or what she wants. The writing is very wry and there’s a lot of science and chemistry (NERD CRED FTW). I had some trouble at the beginning with the tenses – present tense is used for EVERYTHING, including events from the narrator’s childhood, and I found that kind of annoying.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss

Chemistry · mini-review · stuff I read

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

Summary from Goodreads:
In this exuberant book, the best-selling author Natalie Angier distills the scientific canon to the absolute essentials, delivering an entertaining and inspiring one-stop science education. Angier interviewed a host of scientists, posing the simple question “What do you wish everyone knew about your field?” The Canon provides their answers, taking readers on a joyride through the fascinating fundamentals of the incredible world around us and revealing how they are relevant to us every day. Angier proves a rabble-rousing, wisecracking, deeply committed tour guide in her irresistible exploration of the scientific process and the basic concepts of physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, cellular and molecular biology, geology, and astronomy. Even science-phobes will find her passion infectious as she strives “to make the invisible visible, the distant neighborly, the ineffable, affable.”

At its most basic, Natalie Angier’s The Canon is a nice book that overviews all the cool things about physics, chemistry, geology, biology, astronomy, etc. It’s not really a book for me – someone who already likes science and majored in hard sciences – but I thought the breadth of information was nice.

However, the breezy, chirpy, odd-obscure-vocabulary-and-literary-reference stuffed writing style was really distracting. I consider myself to have a very wide-ranging vocabulary but I was making considerable use of the Oyster dictionary then out to the web to look up words but even Google started drawing a blank. Surl? Proptosically? For a book about how fun and not-hard science is the style made it seem artificially dense.

Give The Canon a shot if you aren’t terribly familiar with the science realm, but skip if you have already have an in-depth knowledge.

Dear FTC: I read this via my Oyster subscription.

Chemistry · mini-review · stuff I read

Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts

Summary from Goodreads: 

For centuries, we’ve toyed with our creature companions, breeding dogs that herd and hunt, housecats that look like tigers, and teacup pigs that fit snugly in our handbags. But what happens when we take animal alteration a step further, engineering a cat that glows green under ultraviolet light or cloning the beloved family Labrador? Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life. How are we using it?

In Frankenstein’s Cat, the journalist Emily Anthes takes us from petri dish to pet store as she explores how biotechnology is shaping the future of our furry and feathered friends. As she ventures from bucolic barnyards to a “frozen zoo” where scientists are storing DNA from the planet’s most exotic creatures, she discovers how we can use cloning to protect endangered species, craft prosthetics to save injured animals, and employ genetic engineering to supply farms with disease-resistant livestock. Along the way, we meet some of the animals that are ushering in this astonishing age of enhancement, including sensor-wearing seals, cyborg beetles, a bionic bulldog, and the world’s first cloned cat.

Through her encounters with scientists, conservationists, ethicists, and entrepreneurs, Anthes reveals that while some of our interventions may be trivial (behold: the GloFish), others could improve the lives of many species—including our own. So what does biotechnology really mean for the world’s wild things? And what do our brave new beasts tell us about ourselves?

With keen insight and her trademark spunk, Anthes highlights both the peril and the promise of our scientific superpowers, taking us on an adventure into a world where our grandest science fiction fantasies are fast becoming reality.

A very well laid-out book of popular science with chapters building off previous chapters. Anthes has a great tone – she doesn’t use a lot of tech-speak but also doesn’t bog down in explaining every, tiny bit of biology so a wide range of people should be able to enjoy the book. You’ll need to understand how cells work and replicate at a basic level on your own.  A great sense of humor at times, too.

Anthes brings a lot of good ideas to the fore that I think have slipped past the news feeds because they just don’t have the right “hooks”.  Like the frozen zoo – what are the ethical issues with banking DNA from endangered animals before they are lost to us forever?  How does genetic modification effect our livestock (and since GMO crops are a current hot-button issue, if a cow has been engineered to be resistant to mad-cow disease is that good or bad)?  We love biotech that helps us – humans – to have stronger hearts, better prosthetics, and less chronic disease but that same technology surrounds us in the animal world, too.

Dear FTC: I obtained an ARC of this book via a friend who attended a conference.

BBAW · BNBC · Booker Project · Bookspotting · Chemistry · I read Banned Books · Newbery project · Nobel Project · Nostalgia Project · Women Unbound Challenge

Bye, bye 2010! Recapping the reading

2010 was a crazy year what with the stress of trying nearly the whole year to sell my house.  In my attempt to “declutter” and “stage” my house for potential buyers I wound up packing up books that I was intending to read!  More stress!

According to Goodreads stats (far more accurate than my count-your-reading-journal-pages method), I read 91 books this year , 9 more than last year, but I only read 28,809 pages compared with 29,709 pages last year.  This probably reflects my attempts to infuse a little young adult into my reading repertoire.  I had intended to try and break the 100 book barrier but the craziness of December put the kibosh on that.  If I had to choose my favorite book from the year it would be a tie between Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron (an author I have an obvious favorable bias towards) and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak; I read both at the beginning of the year and they are still with me.  Least favorite book was Vixen; it wasn’t so bad I wanted to light it on fire, but it really got under my skin with the cliches and seemingly poor research.

I participated in a few challenges this year.  The Women Unbound Challenge was the one I completed, even reading one book beyond what I’d planned.  Sadly, I didn’t get the Complete Booker Challenge 2010 finished; I got three of six Booker-winning novels read but just never got to the other three (I did read one Booker short-list, so not a complete bust).  I’m going to have to think on the future of challenges in 2011.

My Nostalgia Project stalled out with its initial subject – Flowers in the Attic.  Too intense.  The Booker Project and Newbery Project are coming along swimmingly, the Newbery especially, but the Best American Project had to go on hold when I had to pack all my Best American books in order to how the house.  I didn’t make much reading progress on the Nobel Project but I did acquire more books to help me in the endeavor (and I can’t quite decide with Vargas Llosa to read…too many good choices there).

In honor of the International Year of Chemistry in 2011, I started a blog specifically for reading chemistry-related books (  I cross-posted a few science/chemistry posts from this blog and will probably continue to cross-post in the future.

This year I also made my first foray into requesting review copies…which added a whole new level of stress because now I feel obligated to read and finish the book I’ve requested.  Thank goodness I didn’t go nuts and ask for many more review copies – packing and moving has gotten me far, far behind on the ones I have right now!

That’s it for 2010 – bye, bye and so long!

Chemistry · stuff I read

The Disappearing Spoon (and Reading Chemistry!)


I’m a big nerd.  I think chemistry is pretty fun (where else do you get to set stuff on fire, distill alcohol, make drugs, and play with expensive machinery like Rotovaps and even more expensive machinery like NMRs).  I heard Sam Kean speaking on NPR about his new book The Disappearing Spoon, a book that is all about the elements on the Periodic TableIt sounded so wonderful I just had to have it – I opened up my nook, called up the Shop, and had it downloaded in about a minute.  Ahhhh, book love, instant gratification at my fingertips.

Anyway, back to The Disappearing Spoon.  Kean doesn’t start with hydrogen, helium, and beryllium, discussing each element in turn as the periodic table ascends in number – good for a textbook, not so fun for a popular science book.  Kean instead groups the elements by type (noble gases), function (poisoner’s corner), or interesting stories (gallium tea spoons and radioactive lead).  He opens the book with his own fascination with mercury (an element strongly linked with his childhood) and then on into the depths of the periodic table.  This allows him to talk about elements that are chemically similar or elements with similar stories of discovery.  The periodicity of the elements (the first functional arrangement is credited to Mendeleev) helped a number of chemists, some of them quite eccentric, determine where and how to look for “new” elements.  

Kean does a great job of both telling stories and explaining the chemistry.   Having a chemistry background, I wasn’t bored when Kean gave an elementary explanation; that being said, a casual reader without a scientific background won’t be overwhelmed by technical explanations and equations.  The Disappearing Spoon is really a fun book to get people interested in the stories behind the science (scientists are just as nutty and gossipy as the average human) – from there people might stay interested in the science.  Who knows what somone might discover.

Discoveries lead to squabbles, squabbles make for great anecdotes.  Some are pretty funny, some are sad.  Some, like that of Primo Levi, whose knowledge of chemistry allowed him to obtain food and survive the concentration camps of World War II, led me to new books and a new project/blog Reading Chemistry.  I had a brain wave – with the International Year of Chemistry ocurring in 2011, why not have a blog for reading chemistry-related books of all types?  My goal was to get it set up before 2011 and then keep going when the year is over.  I might add other contributors as I go but for now it’s just me and some cross-posted reviews.  Yay, chemistry!

Chemistry · stuff I read

The Poisoner’s Handbook

No, not that type of poisoner’s handbook; think “true crime”.

The Mystery Book Club that meets at my store picked The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum as one of their next reads (I think April, maybe May).  So I was like, “Hmmmm, a history of forensic medicine, specific to poisons and chemistry, in Jazz Age/Prohibition New York….I’ll read that!”

From a true crime/history of forensic medicine standpoint The Poisoner’s Handbook is interesting and fun to read.  Blum focuses on a major poisoning case in each chapter, be the agent methanol, arsenic, thallium, carbon monoxide, cyanide, or radium.  Medical examiner practices we take for granted today (timely autopsies, accurate death certificates, etc) were implemented to lend the profession credibility; corrupt and ill-trained coroner systems as well as the political machine that was New York City politics had to be dealt with.  It’s all very fascinating and readable.

But then there are some things that bug me about this book.  There are no graphs or pictures in this book – not even a Periodic Table.  A picture is worth a thousand words when you’re explaining why radium is taken up by the body in the same manner as calcium (they’re in the same group so they have the same basic chemistry) but radium causes major problems because of its reactivity and radiation (it’s easier to explain radioactive decay of alpha, beta, and gamma particles if you’ve got a picture).  Similarly, I can line up the molecular models of methanol and ethanol in my head along with their acid and aldehyde by-products and understand how those chemicals act in the liver but I’m thinking the average Joe with a high school chemistry background (at most) won’t be able to do that.  I’ve had six semesters of chemistry, up to advanced organic, and I have a degree in biology, so I understand all the physiologic processes described in the book but a non-science-background reader might need a boost.  So, diagrams would be nice and maybe also the photographs of the scientists and other historical players described in the text.  Also, some of the text descriptions of what happens chemically are kind of vague (“titration” is not really described as titration but as a progression of colors when you add acid to a solution); vagueness makes my little chemist’s heart sink (I am a member of Alpha Chi Sigma Professional Chemistry Fraternity – so is Bassam Shakhashiri who is thanked in the acknowledgements). 

I also found the chapter layouts a little weird.  Each chapter revolves around a specific poison, which is nice, but the middle of each chapter gets into the general history of the crime lab for that time period before returning to the case involving the specific poison.  It gets a little confusing to read about cyanide poisoning then about all the methanol deaths during Prohibition (and the enforcement laws about denaturing industrial ethanol) before returning to a case of death by cyanide.  It would have been a little more clear to have separate chapters for the poisoning cases/poisons between chapters about the general history of the department. 

If you love true crime or history of criminology, definitely read The Poisoner’s Handbook.   If you see this on the shelf with the rest of the chemistry books in the “Science” section of the bookstore be forewarned that it might not have as much chemistry as you would like but it’s still fun to read if you’re looking for something light.