Elegant solutions: ten beautiful experiments in chemistry

Elegant solutions: ten beautiful experiments in chemistry 
Philip Ball 
Cambridge, UK: RSC | 2005 | 208pp | ?19.95 (HB) | ISBN 0854046747 
Reviewed by Michael Gross

When Britain’s TV audience voted for the 100 greatest Britons, chemists found themselves in the margins of society, clearly less valued than politicians, artists and scientists from other disciplines. Similar voting exercises held in Germany, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and the US make similarly depressing reading for chemists. 

Flying the flag for chemistry, both the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the RSC have independently set out to honour the greatest experiments in chemistry. The RSC has commissioned science writer Philip Ball to compile his personal favourites.  

His choices, partially overlapping with those of the ACS members, cover a broad range from atoms and their decay (Rutherford and Curie) through to biological chemistry (van Helmont’s willow tree and the Miller-Urey experiment). I have described four of the 10 experiments in my own books, at least in part because of their sheer beauty, so my own selection would overlap with Ball’s as well.  

Pasteur’s crystal sorting experiment, which established for the first time a relationship between a macroscopic property with a molecular one, is an eternal favourite that would probably appear on anybody’s list. If I had to add one more experiment to Ball’s selection, it would probably be Ghadiri’s self-assembling peptide nanotubes.  

The book makes good

holiday reading (as I tested experimentally), and is fully compatible with trains, planes and hot weather. 

Will it change the outcome of the next greatest Britons poll in favour of the chemists? I doubt it, but for a silver lining look at the result of the French poll: Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur, both featured in this book, came in fourth and second, respectively.  

So, maybe there still is hope for beautiful chemistry to be recognised alongside the other aspects of our culture.