Derek Lowe
2016 | 528pp | £19.99
ISBN 9781454611807
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This coffee-table style book is arranged in a series of vignettes describing pivotal moments in the history of chemistry. It adds to Sterling’s Milestones series, covering medicine, maths, physics, law, etc. Each page is accompanied by a full-page image relating to the science. The early events are quite widely spaced in time, but the pace picks up in the 19th and 20th centuries, as might be expected.

Lowe’s writing style is accessible, informative and light enough to dip in and out of, without skimping on detail where necessary. While the aim of the book is clearly to broaden the appeal of chemistry to less familiar audiences, the book admirably faces up to several of the more nefarious, unfortunate and tragic events of history. Triumphs of theory and practice sit alongside tragedies such as the Bhopal disaster in India, and misguided developments like Radithor – a radium concoction intended as medicine.

While Lowe’s background in organic and medicinal chemistry is evident from some of the choices, the book’s scope is suitably broad, taking in developments across all areas of the subject. It’s clear that Lowe is interested and enthusiastic about chemistry in all its guises, and has revelled in researching the material for every page.

A chemist reading the book will come across many familiar friends and well-known stories, but will almost certainly discover some new tidbits and tales to maintain their interest. It’s also refreshing to have the stories arranged chronologically – while I was aware of many of the events, it can be tricky to know how they relate to one another. The book does this very well, both with its clear layout and significant cross-referencing.

The final pages of the book look to the future, with predictions for events of similar magnitude in the next 10–15 years. Lowe is clearly aware of the treachery of such predictions, and hence his are relatively strongly built on current research. 

Overall, the book is an enjoyable read. I will certainly be dipping back into it from time to time to refresh some of the stories, and sharing it with my non-chemist friends.