Simon Cotton reviews this 'popular chemistry' book

Better looking, better living, better loving: how chemistry can help you achieve life's goals
John Emsley
Weinheim: Wiley VCH 2007 | Pp229 | £16.99 | ISBN 3 527 31863 1

Cover of Better looking, better living, better loving

There are lots of popular science books around. Astronomy, genetics, readers can't get enough of it. As chemists, our problem is that there is very little 'popular chemistry' in print, so thank goodness for John Emsley's latest contribution.  

This book does what it says on the cover. Successive chapters discuss cosmetic chemistry and health advances, deodorants and personal hygiene, developments in food science, high-tech metals and chemistry in the home, and the chemistry of colour. Consumer chemistry is behind it all, with the author explaining how chemicals in everyday products work.  

This book conveys a lot of chemistry and demolishes scare stories about widely used chemicals (eg hair dyes), while dispelling myths about some 'natural substances' (proponents of anti-chemistry never seem to refer to 'natural chemicals'). There are a few surprises - for example, homeopathy 'works', not as a result of the chemicals diluted into non-existence, but because of the psychotherapy accompanying the treatment. 

The chemistry presented in each section is put into context, and connections are made, thus antiarthritic drugs are linked to painkillers, NSAIDs and Vioxx. There is a certain morbid curiosity in the chemistry accompanying body smell and armpit odours and deodorants, as well as pheromone chemistry, are covered here. The chemistry of dishwasher detergents and air-fresheners is also covered. Carbohydrates fit into medicinal chemistry as well as diet. There are also sections on solar energy and glass, and a lot about titanium chemistry, which could be useful to A-level teachers.  

One of the chapters that I most enjoyed is The art of the chemist, which discusses the pigments available, the role of oil and varnish, conservation and restoration of paintings, and applications of chemical analysis. Chemistry in the detection of frauds and fakes makes fascinating reading. Exposure to this section alone would be enough to make artists and art historians see the value of chemistry.  

No one will read this book without making many discoveries. Emsley has produced an excellent read and I wait with anticipation for his next offering.