Summary of The Chemistry Book by Derek B. Lowe

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Chemistry Book by Derek B. Lowe

The world of chemistry has long been filled with excitement. If if you are not familiar with every aspect of this field, you will no doubt be aware of the many discoveries chemistry has been a part of. Some of them have been funny, some accidental and even some that have been downright disastrous. However, no matter what the circumstance, chemistry has filled the ages with some incredible achievements. 

The Chemistry Book goes through about 250 of these discoveries with all their highs and lows. This summary will give you some of these highlights so that you can appreciate chemistry just a little bit more. 

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The beginnings of chemistry
  • Chemistry during the 17th and 19th centuries
  • The blunders and disasters of chemistry
  • Modern Chemistry and the future

Key lesson one: The beginnings of chemistry

Well, it is hard to really tell when the first bit of chemistry was discovered. Could it have been the first fire that was man-made or perhaps the first use of herbal medicine? Whatever it may have been, chemical reactions surround us all the time. The real achievements in chemistry started around the Bronze Age. Up until then, copper had been used to make some basic tools. However, bronze provided a stronger alternative. 

Bronze is made when tin is added to copper. The one thing that made this mixture possible was travel and trade. Tin from Cornwall in England made its way to the Mediterranean and people began to experiment with the various combinations. Thus, bronze was born. As the Greeks continued to experiment, they created brass by adding zinc to their bronze mixtures. No matter what changes occurred after this, bronze has still remained the metal of choice for things like bells and cymbals on a drum kit. In fact, the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age not because iron was stronger or superior in any other way, it was just readily available. 

But it wasn’t just metal that involved a bit of chemistry. The earliest documented chemist was a Babylonian woman named Tapputi. She made perfume from natural ingredients like myrrh and balsam but what she also did was purify her mixtures by heating them up and collecting the vapours. This was the first-ever documented account of a purification process involving distillation and filtration. Many people knew how to make perfume at the time, but not many followed the same procedure as Tapputi. In fact, many chemical processes in the early ages were kept as closely guarded secrets. The ancient Egyptians for example used just water to clear away impurities and collect pieces of gold. King Croesus of Lydia, however, managed to develop a new technique with the use of an alloy called electrum. With this, they managed to refine pure gold. Historians are still trying to piece together the actual method but it was most likely a secret only known to those directly involved in the process. 

This secrecy was also seen in China when porcelain was first produced. Porcelain requires a mixture of various ingredients including kaolin clay which was originally found in a village in China with the same name. The process in which it is made also needed a very precise amount of water and high levels of heat. The exact quantities of all the ingredients and the temperature needed were not known outside of China. Even as porcelain made its way into Europe, no outsiders could replicate it. It was not until 1708 when an alchemist in prison got a hold of some kaolin clay and alabaster that he managed to crack the secret recipe. It eventually bought him his freedom!

Key lesson two: Chemistry during the 17th and 19th centuries

As the seventeenth century came around, medicinal chemistry came to the forefront. When the Jesuits returned to Rome after their explorations of the New World, they brought back with them a new medicine. It came from the bark of a specific tree in South America and would later become known as quinine, the medicine used to treat malaria. 

People in Rome had been suffering from malaria but did not know that mosquitoes were the cause. The people of South America, specifically in the areas of Bolivia and Peru, were using the tree bark to treat the symptoms of malaria. When Europe got a hold of this new medicine, it meant that explorers could go on their journies of the new world and be protected from illness. It was during this time period that alchemy went into the background and people began to pay attention to hard science. Robert Boyle published a book called The Sceptical Chymist which became the basis for modern chemistry. 

In the eighteenth century, paint was all the rage and the colour that everyone wanted was blue. Why? Well, blue was super expensive and reserved for only the most important people and artists. The only source of it came from lapis lazuli stones which had to be sourced from Afghanistan. It was by complete accident that dye maker Johann Jacob Diesbach made a new blue pigment that would later become the famous Prussian and Berliner blues. He was actually trying to create a red pigment from crushed beetles but had contaminated reagents. 

In the nineteenth century, synthesis became popular and also highly debated amongst chemists and scientists. The most prominent of which happened when Friedrich Wohler synthesized urea, a compound that is found in urine. He had managed to make something out of nonorganic material that previously was only made by living creatures. Those who believed in vitalism, that living things are special, were not happy with this. It is a debate that still continues today.

Key lesson three: The blunders and disasters of chemistry

Throughout history, there have been accidental discoveries but none so much as with chemists. Take Christian Friedrich Schonbein for example. The German chemist used his cotton apron to clean up a spill of nitric and sulfuric acid. He then proceeded to put the apron by the fire to dry and was soon startled by a bright flash that set his apron on fire. What he just discovered was nitrocellulose or guncotton. This discovery would eventually lead to the development of dynamite after being experimented with by various chemists. 

Chemistry is filled with dangerous substances and processes. However, the benefits seemingly outweigh the risks and they continue. Take the compound known as diazomethane. It is extremely hazardous exploding with nothing more than sunlight, heat or sharp edges. Thus, in order to handle it, the safety protocols are extensive but its use in chemistry as a reagent is crucial. Then there’s cyanide which is extremely poisonous. But if you are wearing gold jewellery, chances are that cyanide was used during the extraction and purification process. This process was first developed in 1887 but is still used today despite the danger of cyanide because it is extremely cheap. 

The twentieth century brought with it our understanding of radioactive substances. The first clue was unearthed by Antoine-Henri Becquerel when he discovered that uranium salts emitted radiation. His discovery caught the attention of Marie and Pierre Curie. Their research continued leading to the discovery of thorium, polonium and radium. This research would earn the three of them a Nobel Peace Prize in 1903. However, what they did not realize is that their continued work with radioactive substances was slowly poisoning them. In fact, the Curies lab books are still radioactive today and are kept in lead-lined boxes. 

Another blunder in chemistry came in 1921 when General Motors decided to add tetraethyl lead to gasoline to enable fuel to burn more evenly. As much as it did what it was supposed to, it also released harmful levels of lead through exhaust fumes. The manufacturing of ethyl gasoline actually resulted in many deaths but the chemist in charge, Thomas Midgely swore to the press that it was safe even though he had lead poisoning himself. Years later, work done by Clair Cameron Patterson showed that the introduction of tetraethyl gas in the automotive industry was the number one contributor to lead contamination on the planet. After four decades of damage, lead began to be banned from use in gas, paint and other products.

These are just some of the incidents speckled across history. Many chemical blunders have made the planet what it is today. The planets damaged ozone, health problems and chemical spills that have drastically affected people and their environments. 

Key lesson four: Modern Chemistry and the future

In recent years, chemistry has been a pivotal instrument in medical research. With so many compounds and derivatives available, scientists have been able to test and develop more drugs than ever before. From new chemical compounds to engineered enzymes, chemistry has given scientists and drug companies endless breakthroughs which we can be grateful for. As technology continues to advance, we can be certain that there will be a lot more to come in the world of synthetic drugs. 

In the future, chemistry looks to help the world deal with the greenhouse effect by looking at clean energy sources. There are many hurdles that need to be overcome but nothing that cannot be solved over time. One option is using hydrogen as fuel but hydrogen is notoriously hard to store. Then there’s the concept of artificial photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a process whereby plants utilise carbon dioxide to produce glucose, releasing oxygen in the process. Even though this process is crucial for our survival, it actually occurs very slowly due to the enzyme involved being very slow. If scientists are able to improve the process, there is a possibility that more carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere.

These are just a few possibilities of where chemistry will take us in the future. It continues to be integral to our lives here on Earth and is not only needed for survival but for the continuous improvement of processes.

The key takeaway from The Chemistry Book is:

Chemistry has a fascinating history and you don’t have to be a chemist to understand it. Many discoveries have been made accidentally but that does not make them any less profound. There have been a few tragic events and unfortunate casualties in the world of chemistry but each of them remains an important lesson to the chemists who came after them. There is no doubt that chemists still have more surprises in store for the future, we just have to wait and see what they are.

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Chemistry Book: 

You don’t have to be a chemist to experiment! No matter what you wish to achieve, it does not hurt to experiment a little. Whether it is cooking, a new field of study or even something as simple as a new book genre – try it out. You may find that you accidentally discover something wonderful!

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