Monday, February 6, 2012

Review - Letters to a Young Chemist editor Abhik Ghosh (3/5 stars)

Reading level: Young Adult/Adult
Genre: Chemistry/Non-fiction
Size: 320 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Interscience
Release Date: April 5, 2011
ISBN: 978-0470390436
Stand Alone or Series: Stand Alone
Source: Amazon Vine
Rating: 3/5 stars

I got a copy of this book to review through the Amazon Vine program. I work as a chemist and thought this sounded like a fun read. While it was a somewhat interesting read for someone who works in the field I don't think it was a good read for someone who is considering chemistry as a career.

The book is broken into four sections: From Fundamentals to Applications, Chemistry and the Life Sciences, Functional Materials, and Chemistry and Energy. Each case study starts as a letter to a fictional undergrad student named Amanda who is considering getting a degree in chemistry. The author of each case study gives a brief history of their background and then delves into a specific example of how they have used chemistry to solve a problem/problems.

The concept it fun but its execution is lacking in many cases. Like any collection of "stories" there are a lot of hits and a lot of misses in this book. My main problem with this book that a lot of the misses are in the beginning of the book in the From Fundamentals to Applications section. If I had started reading this book as a student I would have run the other way from chemistry; these initial case studies are difficult to understand, highly technical, and don't apply to problems that are easy to relate to. I've worked in the field for over 10 years and even my eyes were glazing over halfway through the first case study.

So just keep in mind this reads like a technical journal, you need a lot of chemical knowledge to follow these case studies. Some of the case studies are so specific and narrow that you need a lot of very specific knowledge to understand what is going on.

That being said there are some parts of the book that are very well done and would be exciting to read it you were considering a career in chemistry. Most of the cases in the section on Chemitry and the Life Sciences were pretty interesting. I enjoyed the case study called "Better than Sliced Bread" which goes into how they are working on solving Celiac's and other such diseases. I also enjoyed the Choreographing DNA section which discussed DNA and related it to a dance recital that the author participated in. Other highlights were "Biomaterials at the Beach: How Marine Biology Uses Chemistry to Make Materials" and "Happy Campers: Chemists' Solutions to Energy problems". These selections tackled issues that are broadly understood and did a good job of explaining in a way that was easy to understand without already have a PhD in Chemistry.

Overall I do think that this book provides an interesting array of case studies from various fields in chemistry; it is an interesting read for someone who is working in the field of chemistry. Unfortunately I do not think it does a good job targeting the audience it was intended for...that of young undergrads thinking about a career in chemistry. Many of the case studies tackle obscure issues, are highly technical in explanation, and just plain tedious to read about. I wouldn't recommend this for students considering a degree in chemistry; I do cautiously recommend this for chemists interested in reading overviews of a broad variety of new chemistry areas.

This book goes towards the following reading challenges:
- 150+ Books Reading Challenge

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