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COMMENT BOOKS & ARTS

lecturers. Throughout most of the C H EM I STRY

Explosive moments
book, the mathematical essentials could
be appreciated without adopting that
approach, but its advantages are consid-

in the laboratory
erable when the authors discuss the fields
in which they are international leaders —
general relativity, black holes and high-
energy astrophysics.
All that said, I was constantly thinking
about how I would have presented the Mark Peplow surveys a gorgeous gala of reactions in
same material using more elementary Theodore Gray’s new book.
techniques. In my view, simpler, perhaps
more intuitive, approaches can help stu-

F
dents to appreciate the greater power of or Theodore Gray, chemical reactions

NICK MANN
the methods adopted in this book, and are “a sort of nanoscale fight club”. In
would reinforce the new graduate stu- Reactions, the chemist, science writer
dent’s capacity to master the material. and technologist offers a lavishly illustrated
For instance, Thorne and Blandford’s tour of this molecular battleground, full of
geometrical approach leads directly to wit and wonder.
the invariant number density of states in Gray’s career as a chemical evangelist
phase space in relativity. I derive the same began in 2002, when he misread a line in
result more primitively, by considering Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten (Knopf, 2001)
the various aberration effects involved in and imagined the periodic table of elements
observing a relativistically moving black as a literal table. A skilled woodworker, Gray
body; in this way, the student appreciates decided to build it and stock cavities beneath
more about aberration effects in relativity, each symbol with samples of the elements.
as well as about a key relativistic invari- Then, he recalls, “things really got out of
ant. This is not a criticism, but rather an hand” (go.nature.com/2fdcm9b). The table
example of the advantages of adopting won the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry,
multiple approaches. and spawned a cottage industry: Gray now
The book becomes more demanding sells periodic-table posters, books and quilts,
as it progresses through the subjects. The and makes museum displays. With photogra-
final section, on general relativity, is per- pher Nick Mann, he has amassed a gallery of
haps the most challenging, as the authors element photos, showcased in his 2009 book
are well aware. However, their many The Elements. Its sequel, Molecules, followed
insights are certainly worth the effort, in 2014; Reactions is the final part of the tril-
for example in understanding the phys- ogy (all published by Black Dog & Leventhal).
ics close to the event horizon of a rotating Gray’s enthusiasm shines in Reactions.
black hole. In the final chapter, they drop Take the humble glow stick, which mixes Aluminium foil reacts with bromine.
their pedagogical mantle and bring every­ two precursors to generate a peroxyacid ester
thing together in a synthesis of under- that jolts a dye into emitting light. Of this, an messy and multitudinous. It can be hugely
standing of contemporary cosmology. object available at petrol stations for a pit- challenging to explain why they occur, and
This is authoritative and should be sup- tance, he urges: “I insist that you be amazed.” to choose which to include.
plemented by the many excellent books The text is peppered with dry asides, and a Reactions leans heavily on combustion
on the subject — there is a vast amount of grumpy disdain for anything unscientific. and explosion — understandable, given its
detailed physics to be mastered. Homeopathy he brands authorized lying; visual emphasis. As a result, some of it feels
How is this book going to be used? claims for ‘chemical-free’ health foods irk samey. Plenty of other glamorous reactions
Many separate courses could be created him. Even steampunk — gadgetry with a could have illustrated different concepts, from
from it. I suspect that, as with the Feynman Victorian aesthetic — draws his ire, because the redox chemistry behind the spectacular
lectures, professors will love the approach, “none of the things ammonium dichromate ‘volcano’, to the cat-
whereas most students will appreciate its these people make alytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide
brilliance only once they have assimilated actually work”. used to create ‘elephant’s toothpaste’ — a foam
the mat­erial through independent reading. So far, so enticing. fountain beloved of science demonstrators.
That is what I recommend: take one of the Yet the book struggles When Gray settles on a subject, he can
sections and enrich it with supplementary to sustain momen- provide genuine insight, as in sections on the
reading (the authors make ample sugges- tum because it lacks anatomy of fireworks or the composition of
tions). Then repeat the process several a narrative. In The paints. But too often, the coverage is frustrat-
times, with a progressively deeper under- Elements, the organiz- Reactions: ingly superficial. In the sole example from
standing each time. ■ ing principle was obvi- An Illustrated the vast field of synthetic organic chemistry,
ous: it was a beautiful Exploration he outlines the total synthesis of the alka-
Malcolm Longair is Jacksonian Professor catalogue of the build- of Elements, loid physostigmine, yet divulges nothing
Emeritus of Natural Philosophy at the ing blocks of matter, Molecules, and
Change in the
about why it is useful — it’s a treatment for
Cavendish Laboratory of the University of ordered by atomic Universe glaucoma. And although the diagrams that
Cambridge, UK. His most recent book is number and full of THEODORE GRAY show its step-by-step construction create
Maxwell’s Enduring Legacy. fascinating facts. But Black Dog & Leventhal: an impression of complexity, Gray doesn’t
e-mail: msl1000@cam.ac.uk chemical reactions are 2017. begin to explain why this particular route is a

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BOOKS & ARTS COMMENT

cunning way to knit together a molecule. It’s


enough to spark, but not sate, curiosity.
Delving into the principles behind
Books in brief
reactions, Gray follows the Sun’s energy The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World
from chlorophyll to plant carbohydrates, John Davies and Alexander J. Kent University of Chicago Press (2017)
and onwards to oil, petrol and the chemis- It stands as one of the most astounding feats of twentieth-century
try of the internal-combustion engine. This cartography. From 1950 to 1990, Soviet spies and satellites
discussion of energy is straightforward (“an surveyed most of the planet to create what may be more than one
itch that the universe needs to scratch”); million military maps, so detailed they show the composition of
the coverage of entropy is more difficult to bridges and species of trees. As John Davies and Alexander Kent
follow. “Feel free to skip this section, by the reveal in this glorious homage embellished with 350 map extracts,
way: it’s really hard,” he writes. From a science the gargantuan project might have been groundwork for a cold-war
communicator, that feels like a cop-out. coup. Ironically, its near-comprehensive coverage has proved a boon
There are brief mentions of how other for Western surveyors working in otherwise uncharted territory.
factors — concentration, temperature, sur-
face area — affect rates of reactions, but no
unifying explanation of chemical kinetics The Little Book of Black Holes
to go with the thermodynamics. Catalysis, Steven S. Gubser and Frans Pretorius Princeton University Press (2017)
surely one of the most important principles The first faint chirp recorded by the Laser Interferometer
of modern chemistry, is notably absent. Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in September 2015
Still, it feels churlish to gripe about this marked the momentous merger of two black holes. And it’s to
love letter. Mann’s photography transforms these astrophysical regions of no return that physicists Steven
chemical samples into art, and captures the Gubser and Frans Pretorius devote their slim primer. After extolling
thrill of Gray’s demonstrations. Many photos black holes as theoretical laboratories, they trek through relativity,
recall the works of eighteenth-century artist Schwarzschild black holes and beyond. The thrills come thick and
Joseph Wright, using chiaroscuro to frame the fast, not least when a hypothetical probe nearing a singularity is
glow of a reaction with a background of deep “squished and stretched into an infinitesimally thin line”.
shadow. Others are playful: in one, chlorine
gas combines with sodium metal to create
a billow of sodium chloride, which rises to Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future
vaporously salt a net full of popcorn. Edward Struzik Island (2017)
The pictorial treats go beyond photo­ Starting in May 2016, a huge wildfire devastated Fort McMurray,
graphy. Molecular structures are bathed in Canada. Dubbed the Beast, it burnt more than 566,000 hectares
a diffuse violet glow, the shimmer serving as and displaced 88,000 people. And it is a sign of heated times: a new
a reminder that their shroud of electrons is wildfire paradigm is emerging in North America’s boreal forests,
a cloud, not a constellation of points. And already pressured by fracking, logging and insect infestations. Edward
the most attractive chapter, on the chemistry Struzik’s deft account interweaves reportage, science and policy
of light, draws a beautiful analogy between to show how fires that are normally key to ecological resilience are
sound waves and musical notes, and electro- growing bigger and faster, thawing permafrost, degrading watersheds
magnetic wavelengths and colour. and disrupting habitats of species from grizzly bears to fungi.
There are gorgeous sequences of stills from
high-definition video, such as one showing
the hellish cauldron created when aluminium Planet of Microbes
meets bromine. I had an urge to jab the page Ted Anton University of Chicago Press (2017)
to make it play. Indeed, Gray’s previous works Collectively, Earth’s microbial hordes are its dominant life form.
have been ported, extremely successfully, into A realm that spans the mammalian gut, the ocean floor and the
iPad apps, with multimedia that users can International Space Station is a rich one, and discoveries in it
manipulate. I expect that Reactions will make continue to rattle and revivify biology. Ted Anton’s captivating
the same transition. For now, it feels like an narrative follows the field’s evolution through key findings in
app trapped inside the body of a book. ■ symbiosis, archaea and the microbiome by inspired scientists such
as Lynn Margulis, Carl Woese, Margaret McFall-Ngai and Elaine
Mark Peplow is a science journalist based Hsiao. Anton dips, too, into how the findings are influencing diet,
in Cambridge, UK. agriculture, medicine and environmental sustainability.
e-mail: peplowscience@gmail.com

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams


CORRECTION Matthew Walker Allen Lane (2017)
The Books & Arts article ‘Final ascent of If your nightly snooze lasts less than seven hours, you risk
physics’ (Nature 549, 331–332; 2017) weakening your immune system, messing with your metabolism
incorrectly stated that Special Relativity and and depriving yourself of a “consoling neurochemical bath”. So
Classical Field Theory is the last book in the argues neuroscientist Matthew Walker, who draws on current
Theoretical Minimum series, and described research to demystify sleep, traverse the wild world of dreams and
it as “historical” instead of “ahistorical”. disentangle sleep disorders. From an infant’s polyphasic snippets of
The text and title have been corrected. slumber to the “hyper-associative problem-solving benefits” of REM
dreaming, Walker’s investigation is anything but soporific. Barbara Kiser

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