Reading Enrichment for General Chemistry with DocM

In our General Chemistry course, we have learned an enormous amount of chemistry that will form a solid basis for your future chemistry and science courses.  But what we have learned is much more long-lasting than that!  You now possess many of the chemistry tools necessary to better understand the world around us and to intellectually consider the challenges that humankind faces in the years and decades ahead.  Our little blue planet faces problems of world hunger, world health, social justice, sustainable energy production, global warming and pointless wars.  You are part of a generation that must find solutions to these problems, many of which will involve science and technology.  

Thinking about global problems and working to solve them is further inspired by Ignatian ideals and the Jesuit tradition.  The concept of Magis calls us all to lives our lives in the spirit of generous excellence, to help other living things.  The concept of discernment calls us to evaluate what we know and what have learned in terms of how this knowledge could most effectively help others.  Contemplation calls us to evaluate what we are doing and why we are doing it.  How can we use our lives in the most fulfilling and productive way?  How can we truly be “men and women for others”? The answers to these questions are uniquely personal and thus contemplation is in integral part of the process.

My contribution to your on-going process of lifelong learning is to provide you with a list of books that I enjoyed reading and are of interest to a student of science and chemistry.  There are many, perhaps better, books not on this list, so the list will continue to grow.  If you know of a book that should be on the list, please let me know ( and I will try to read it and possibly add it to the list.

[Credit for most of the cover art:  Most of the descriptions in quotes are from  This means that all of these books are available.]
Updated, December, 2017


Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Oliver Sacks (This is a fascinating story of Oliver Sacks as a young boy living in the 1930s and 40s in London. Brian Greene: "Oliver Sacks weaves together the wonders of chemistry and his boyhood experiences with grace, ease, and just the right comedic touch.")

The Periodic Table, Primo Levi (Levi was a celebrated Italian author and chemist and the story is a mixture of his family history, being Jewish and chemistry with each chapter being named for an element.  The most gripping chapters deal with life under a fascist government including the Nazis.)

The 13th Element. The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus, John Emsley (This is the story of one element, from its discovery and its remarkable properties down through its commercialization in matches.  Most of the book deals with the latter where matchmakers in a Dickens-era England worked for starvation wages while losing their health due to diseases such as phossy-jaw caused by exposure to phosphorus. If you ever wondered why we have industrial health and safety laws, this book will answer that question.)

Oxygen, Roald Hoffman and Carl Djerasi (This is a screenplay that addresses taking credit for the discovery of oxygen.  Was it Carl Scheele who was actually the first to discover it and describe its properties, or was it Joseph Priestley who discovered it second but published his results three years before Scheele (1774 vs 1777) or was it Antoine Lavoisier who didn't discover it at all, but rather took the results of Scheele and Priestley and was the first to correctly interpret them?)

Mauve. How one man invented a color that changed the world, Simon Garfield (The title tells only part of the story.  The production and marketing of this one chemical ignited an interest in industrial production of chemicals, including research and development.)

Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science, Roald Hoffmann and Vivian Torrence (This book blends chemistry with art, poetry.  Each chapter is free-standing and the chapter titles give a flavor of the books contents: Radium, The Periodic Table, Amazing Growth, Energy and Form, Greek Air, Simply Burning, The Philosopher's Stone, Phlogiston, Blood Counts, The Grail, Patterns, Seeing to the Center of Things, and a dozen more!  This is a very fun book that is relevent in a way similar to the interlude chapters in our text book.)

The Same and Not the Same, Roald Hoffman (Hoffman is a most gifted popular science writer (and Nobel prize winner in chemistry.) In this book, he addresses enantiomers (mirror image molecules) and the trouble they can cause — for example, Thalidomide: one enantiomer was an effective sedative prescribed to pregnant women and the other enantiomer, supposedly removed from product, caused serious birth defects, especially missing limbs. In his usual style, he blends science, ethics, and values for a thought-provokingly good book with lots of terrific colored pictures.)

Periodic Tales – A Cultural history of the elements, Aldersey-Williams “Hugh Andersey-Williams offers readers a captivating look at the elements—and the amazing, little-known stories behind their discoveries. Periodic Tales is an energetic and wide-ranging book of innovations and innovators, of superstition and science and the myriad ways the chemical elements are woven into our culture, history, and language.”

The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean “The Periodic Table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.”

Chemistry History:

Lavoisier in the Year One, Madison Bell (Antoine Lavoisier was one of the greatest minds of science; he unraveled the experimental results of Joseph Priestley and others and provided an explanation of the facts that we still use today.  He has been called “the father of modern chemistry.”  The “year one” reference in the title refers to the French revolution in which the calendar was reset to One.)

A Short History of Chemistry, 3rd ed., J. R. Partington (J. R. Partington wrote a large number of books dating back to the 1920s!  His first edition of History of Chemistry appeared in 1937.  Partington was a scholar of chemical history and this book is excellent.

The History of Chemistry, John Hudson (This is a fairly typical history of chemistry book.  It is inexpensive and relatively thin so it gives a concise oversight to the subject.  It also has a number of pictures to augment the text.  There are many books on the history of chemistry, but this one is still in print.  Some really good chemistry history books were written in the early 20th Century and are probably available in your local library.)

A Chemical History Tour: Picturing Chemistry from Alchemy to Modern Molecular Science,
Arthur Greenberg (This is a "coffee table book" with lots of pictures of pre-20th Century European chemistry labs and apparatuses.)

Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist, Jean-Pierre Poirier and Rebecca Balinski (This is a thorough historical account of Lavoisier's life and includes all aspects of his life including his work with the tax agencies, building a fence around Paris, work with the metric system, and most importantly, his scientific work.  Lavoisier in the Year One (listed earlier) is a much simpler book to read, but this one is truly excellent.)

Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, Royston Roberts (36 "accidental discoveries" that have changed the world, from the discovery of quinine, smallpox vaccine, anesthetics, the basis of organic chemistry, synthetic rubber, chirality, fabrics such as nylon, insulin, X-rays, safety glass, penicillin, teflon, and many more interesting stories, most of which have their basis in chemistry.

Historical Development of Science and Technology:

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes.  Meet Joseph Banks in Paradise, Herschel on the Moon, Davy on the Gas, Dr Frankenstein and the Soul, and... several other key figures in the English Enlightenment.  Utterly absorbing account of 18th and early 19th century English science leading up to the Romantic Age of Science.

The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder (development of the metric system during the late 18th century and early 19th century in France)

The Fly in the Cathedral, Brian Cathcart (This is the remarkable historical account of Rutherford and the discovery of the nature of the nucleus.) *

The Map that Changed the World. Willian Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, Simon Winchester (This is an account of how one man spent 22 years unraveling the unseen geological make-up of England, making it possible to create a map of the underside of England.) From this accomplishment he went on to debtors prison for ten years.  The story has a happy ending, however.

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, Jenny Uglow (In 1760s Birmingham, England, a group of scientist/engineer/experimentalists met near the full moon of each month to enjoy an evening of intellectual exchange.  The group consisted of Michael Boulton (manufacturing of toys and buttons, James Watt (steam engine), Josiah Wedgwood (pottery), Erasmus Darwin (inventor, early evolution theorist and grandfather of Charles Darwin), and Joseph Priestley (religious nonconformist, experimental genius and discoverer of oxygen).)

Connections, James Burke (This fascinating book describes how coincidental connections between events and individuals triggered scientific and technological discoveries.)

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time, Dava Sobel (John Harrison spent 40 years perfecting a clock that would not gain/lose time at sea for the purpose of navigation.  His biggest challenge was convincing the board that was offering a prize for such a device that he actually had the best clock.  His clocks were confiscated, accidentally destroyed and dismissed for reasons that were very often political.  Finally, King George III intervened and Harrison was awarded the prize.)

Galileo's Daughter, Dava Sobel (This historical memoir contains content from the 124 surviving letters written by Galileo's daughter.  Because she was a sequestered nun, the two seldom met face-to-face, buth, nevertheless maintained a loving relationship through letters smuggled out of the convent.  Sobel is a master story-teller and this one is quite hard to put down.) *

Science and Change 1500 - 1700, Hugh Kearney.  These two centuries were pivotal in the development of science.  Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal and others all contributed to the development of "modern" science.  All this took place in an era when Aristotle's explanation of how the world works was enjoying 1500+ years of being deemed the truth.  The work of these individuals also challenged traditional religious views and the relationship between science and religion was often contentious. 

Napoleon's Buttons. How Seventeen Molecules Changed History, Penny LeCouteur and Jay Burreson.  Seventeen individual stories.  Fascinating!

Journey of the Universe, Brian Swimme & Mary Tucker, “Today we know what no previous generation knew: the history of the universe and of the unfolding of life on Earth. Through the astonishing combined achievements of natural scientists worldwide, we now have a detailed account of how galaxies and stars, planets and living organisms, human beings and human consciousness came to be.”

Cathedrals of Science, Patrick Coffey, “Coffey describes how chemistry got its modern footing – how thirteen brilliant men and one woman struggled with the laws of the universe and with each other. They wanted to discover how the world worked, but they also wanted credit for making those discoveries, and their personalities often affected how that credit was assigned.”

The Microbe Hunters, Paul de Kruif, “Microbe Hunters is a timeless dramatization of the scientists, bacteriologists, doctors, and medical technicians who discovered microbes and invented the vaccines to counter them.”

Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field, Forbes & Mahon, “Two of the boldest and most creative scientists of all time were Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). This is the story of how these two men - separated in age by forty years - discovered the existence of the electromagnetic field and devised a radically new theory which overturned the strictly mechanical view of the world that had prevailed since Newton's time.”

A More Perfect Heaven, Dava Sobel, “By 1514, the reclusive cleric Nicolaus Copernicus had written and hand-copied an initial outline of his heliocentric theory... Over the next two decades, Copernicus expanded his theory through hundreds of observations, while compiling in secret a book-length manuscript that tantalized mathematicians and scientists throughout Europe. For fear of ridicule, he refused to publish.”

Galileo’s Finger. The 10 Great Ideas of Science, Peter Atkin, “Galileo's Finger takes the reader on an extraordinary journey that embraces the ten central ideas of current science…  Atkins leads the reader to an understanding of the essence of the whole of science, from evolution and the emergence of complexity, to entropy, the spring of all change in the universe; from energy… to symmetry; and from cosmology, the globalization of reality, to spacetime, the arena of all action.”

Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, “Few other books have created such a lasting storm of controversy as The Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory that species derive from other species by a gradual evolutionary process and that the average level of each species is heightened by the “survival of the fittest” stirred up popular debate to fever pitch. Its acceptance revolutionized the course of science.”

Science, Technology and Social Justice:

Splendid Solution, Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio, Jeffrey Kluger (The true story of the remarkable search for a solution to the polio epidemic of the early and mid-20th century.)*

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, Jeffrey Sachs (In the first part of this book, Sachs reviews the economic development that has or has not taken place in the third world.  He offers explanations for each case.  In the second half of the book, he addresses the challenges set by the UN's Millennium Development Goals for ending extreme poverty in the world.  (Thanks to Dr. Gary Michels for recommending this book.)

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Mortenson has dedicated his life to helping villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan build schools and to encourage girls to go to school.  This is a very inspiring book.) (Thanks to Dr. Barbara Zust (Gustavus Adolphus College) for recommending this book.)

Guns, Germs and Steel, Jsred Diamond. The author reviews the history of humans, continent by continent and island by island down through the ages.  Read how resources and circumstances come in to play in directing our evolvement as a species.

Collapse, Jared Diamond, “In Jared Diamond’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel, the author explores how climate change, the population explosion and political discord create the conditions for the collapse of civilization

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert, “Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.”

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. Pollan masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato.

1491, Charles Mann, “Pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city.”

Ethics and Science:

A Rum Affair, A true account of botanical fraud, Karl Sabbagh (In the 1940s, a well-respected botanist John Heslop Harrison provided “evidence” that certain grasses survived the last ice age on the Isle of Rum.  This is the story of how this fraudulent claim was unraveled.)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lax, Rebecca Skloot, “Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more.”

Popular Science:

Mean Genes, Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan (Our genetic makeup evolved for a much different world than we find ourselves in today.  Food was scarce, enemies lurked, and life was short.  Chapters include topics dedicated to debt, body fat, drugs, risk, greed, gender, beauty, infidelity, family, friends and foes.) (Thanks to Dr. James Platz (CU Biology) for recommending this book.)

Oxygen The Molecule that made the World, Nick Lane.  How did Earth become a planet with an oxygen atmosphere?  How did life begin?  What is the role of oxygen in life?  This is a fairly difficult but very interesting book that assumes a knowledge of cell biology and biochemistry. 

An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks.  Seven true accounts from the noted clinical neurologist Oliver Sacks. The chapter titles should coax this book onto your must-read list: The Case of the Colorblind Painter, The Last Hippie, A Surgeon's Life (about Tourette's syndrome), To See and Not See (about people that experience difficulty after regaining their sight after decades of blindness), The Landscape of His Dreams (about a painter who could recall and paint miniscule details about his hometown after decades of not seeing it), Prodigies, and An Anthropologist on Mars (about autism).

  Planet of the Bugs, Scott Shaw, “Dinosaurs, however toothy, did not rule the earth—and neither do humans. But what were and are the true potentates of our planet? Insects, says Scott Richard Shaw—millions and millions of insect species. Starting in the shallow oceans of ancient Earth and ending in the far reaches of outer space…”

Decartes’ Bones, Russell Shorto, “Sixteen years after René Descartes' death in Stockholm in 1650, a pious French ambassador exhumed the remains of the controversial philosopher to transport them back to Paris. Thus began a 350-year saga that saw Descartes' bones traverse a continent, passing between kings, philosophers, poets, and painters.”

Other Books of Interest:

The Professor and the Madman, A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester*

Rocks of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Stephen Jay Gould.  Author/Philosopher/Essayist Stephen Jay Gould addresses science and religion as the two compatible rocks in our lives. 

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren, “Jahren has such a passion for the natural world that it's hard to imagine her in any role other than her current one; a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii. Lab Girl is her engaging new memoir, which tells the story of her fight to establish and fund her own research laboratory.”

The Naturalist, E. O. Wilson, “Wilson describes for the first time both his growth as a scientist and the evolution of the science he has helped define. He traces the trajectory of his life—from a childhood spent exploring the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida to life as a tenured professor at Harvard—detailing how his youthful fascination with nature blossomed into a lifelong calling.”

The Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley, “[Nebraska] anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley blends scientific knowledge and imaginative vision in this story of man.  (1957)”

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver, “Flight Behavior is a brilliant and suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our particular chosen truths.”

*Thanks to my wife Sue for recommending these books.

In my reading rack:
Exploring Chemical Elements and their Compounds David Heiserman
Chemical Storylines    Burton
Women in Chemistry  Marlene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham
What Remains to be Discovered John Maddox

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. [...] Is there no other way the world may live?

President Dwight David Eisenhower,
"The Chance for Peace," speech
April 16, 1953