Chemistry surrounds us now, and will be crucial to our future well-being

Better looking, better living, better loving. How chemistry can help you achieve life’s goals 

John Emsley 

Weinheim, Germany: Wiley-VCH | 2007 | 229pp | ?16.99 (HB) | ISBN 9783527318636 

Reviewed by Don Wallis

There have been many attempts over the years to write books which purport to educate ’the layperson’ about the chemicals which surround us. On my own shelves I have copies of Chemistry in the marketplace  (1986) by Ben Sellinger and The extraordinary chemistry of ordinary things  (1992) by Carl Snyder, both of which have gone through several editions. 

Better looking, better living, better loving  is John Emsley’s attempt along similar lines and is to be highly applauded. His style is racy and enthusiastic, which makes the book difficult to put down. It is up-to-date and informative throughout and covers an exceedingly wide scope from antiperspirants to fabric softeners, from functional foods to solar panels and from condoms to titanium manufacture; I kept coming across facts which interested or amused me. Each chapter begins with a fictional news item from the future, and ends by addressing an issue of concern - often a green issue. 

Although Emsley has removed most of the systematic chemical names and formulae to footnotes for the more chemically-inclined reader, I think he should have removed such information altogether and fulfilled his aim to write for ’the layperson’. It is particularly irritating to see molecular formulae for organic molecules, like carminic acid as C22H20O13 - such formulae are of little use to anyone.  

The glossary of terms for the more experienced readers is excellent, though I found the arrows in the text referring to the glossary were annoying and could have been better designed typographically. 

The last chapter on chemistry and art seemed a little out of place in a book about the chemistry which surrounds us every day, but ironically, as an art lover, I found it the most enjoyable and informative chapter in the book. I always enjoy reading about the pigments and varnishes used in painting and the detective work involved in uncovering fraud in the art world. I read with interest about the forgeries of Han van Meegeren, having seen an example of his work in Rotterdam many years ago. I think Emsley should write a separate book on that subject. 

As the book is aimed at the layperson I gave it to such a person to read and her comment was that ’it was approachable and lively without being flippant, and, most importantly, it was easily understandable. The anecdotes and examples of chemistry in action were enjoyable and occasionally amusing’. Praise indeed.