- The Good: Enthusiasm on every page; chemistry in everyday life
- The Bad: Some chapters more interesting than others; switches topics too fast
- The Literary: A few good historical references; interesting structure
From your morning coffee to the happy-hour margarita, Dr. Kate Biberdorf explains the fascinating chemistry of our daily lives. You may have seen “Kate the Chemist” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or the like, where she enthusiastically lights things on fire. Specializing in general chemistry for non-majors, Kate fills in the chemistry you missed in high school in the hopes of igniting a passion for science.
One of the most interesting things about this book is how it’s organized. The first third is an in-depth crash course chemistry lesson. I like the few historical tidbits about the chemists themselves, but even with the humorous interjections and profanity, chemistry 101 is still a lot to throw at a pop science audience, especially with so few pictures or diagrams. Kate does have a few new analogies to explain some of the concepts, but I’m disappointed by the real-world examples in the first section (like the cringe-worthy Ryan Reynolds hand-holding metaphor).
The second two-thirds of the book is the promised chemistry of everyday things. It’s arranged by “day”, but only loosely. Beginning with breakfast, working out, getting dressed, there’s a left turn to the beach, then back to the house with cooking and cleaning, before concluding with happy-hour and bedtime, with a specific focus on sex. Unfortunately, within each of those chapters, the topics careen wildly and don’t seem to follow any apparent order. For example, the breakfast chapter ranges from caffeine absorption, the process of roasting coffee beans, pasteurization of juice, milk as a colloid versus an emulsion, induction cooktops, amino acids, salmonella, vitamins and minerals, and using radioactive iodine to treat hyperthroidism.
One of the issues with a pop science book or a survey class is the limited amount of time to dive deep into any subject. But even so, some strong takeaways and useful recommendations are what made the cooking and baking chapter one of the most useful. Kate provides specific suggestions to up your baking game, including measuring by weight instead of volume, as well as using specific brands of flour depending on what dessert you want to whip up. Contrast that with the getting dressed chapter, which is primarily about hair and makeup. The best recommendation was to use a heat protector if you use hot tools to curl or straighten your hair, but it isn’t necessary if all you are doing is blow drying the hair.
Thinking back to the beginning, several of the concepts taught in the first section aren’t used in the rest of the book, which leaves me wondering if skipping the orbital shapes or stoichiometry would have kept a reader interested long enough to get to the fun stuff. Or if organizing the necessary chemistry directly before the useful application would have been better. Deep within this medley there are some gems, but it’s a mixed bag.