Chemicals for life and living

Chemicals for life and living

Eiichiro Ochiai 

Heidelberg, Germany: Springer 

2011 | 288pp | ?22.99 (HB) 

ISBN 9783642202728 

Reviewed by John Mann 


By analogy with Bill Bryson’s famous text this book might have been called ’The chemistry of almost everything’, since the author states in his preface ’without chemicals there is no universe, let alone human beings’. We can all agree with this, but how can one convey the all-encompassing nature of chemistry in an exciting and informative way? 

Certainly discussion of the chemistry of life and basic geochemistry are essential together with mention of all the chemicals that make for a healthy and comfortable life with perhaps a little about the negative side of chemistry - pollution and poisons. All of these topics are included and much more besides with inclusion of a large collection of chemical compounds ranging from DNA and synthetic polymers through to drugs (both medicinal and recreational), carbon allotropes, fireworks and perfumes. 

The information is presented as a collection of mostly unconnected essays, and the majority are very good. I particularly liked the chapters on DNA and protein biosynthesis, and the relation of the elements to health, since they emphasise the importance of biological chemistry. There are well chosen stories of drug development: penicillin and related antibiotics, the chemotherapy of Aids, taxol and cisplatin as exemplars of anticancer drugs, and the contraceptive pill. 

The less desirable impact of chemistry is presented in terms of environmental problems with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and heavy metal pollutants, but also through the impact of psychoactive drugs and natural toxins. The eclectic collection of chemicals (many depicted with full stereochemistry) is accompanied by informative and colourful illustrations. 

Finally the book concludes with a 60 page introduction to chemistry, and although this is excellent, it left me wondering who the target reader was. Without a good working knowledge of chemistry, the first 216 pages would be largely unintelligible. That said, the book does represent a brave and largely successful attempt to describe the importance of chemistry and chemicals.