Monday, April 06, 2009

The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry Synopsis

I got an old book at a booksale titled "The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry." It first gives a history of alchemy (since alchemists were the first actual chemists). It talks about how the Ancient Greeks thought everything was made from the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. etc.

Here are the topics covered:

What is matter? Anything the has weight and can be seen or touched, like a book, ice cream, air, water, moon, stars. There are things that are not matter: heat, radio waves, ideas, and feelings for instance.

What are the three states of matter? Can something change from one state to another? Matter can be solid, liquid, and gas. (We'll introduce colloids later, right?) Showing ice, to water, to steam is a great way to show matter changing state. Dry ice with hot water poured over it is a great way to show a solid changing to gas. The bubbles in soda or sparkling water are another example of carbon dioxide gas.

What is a chemical element? A part so simple it cannot be divided into simpler parts. No matter how much alchemists tried to break some metals down even further, they saw that they never changed. Gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin are examples.

What are chemical compounds? Compounds are made by putting together chemical elements. Most things are compounds. Salt, water, vinegar, sugar, chalk are all compounds. Water is made from hydrogen and oxygen. But those two things alone won't make water. Chemical compounds usually use special means of combination. In the case of 2 parts hydrogen and 1 part oxygen, electricity can be applied and the resulting explosion allows the hydrogen and oxygen to combine to form water. We could see carbon dioxide forming when combining vinegar and baking soda by putting some vinegar in the bottom of a water bottle, putting some baking soda in a balloon, and fastening it onto the bottle top. Once it was on, we tipped up the balloon and as the two reacted, the balloon started to inflate with the carbon dioxide gas. The book goes on to talk about how some elements join so easily with other elements that they are hard to find in their 'pure' form, while others hardly ever react.

The next topic covered in the book are atoms and molecules. There is a pretty typical, incredible (and I mean that literally here since it cannot possibly be understood just from the description) size given. Molecules are made by atoms joining together--either with the same element or even hundreds of other atoms from different elements. Chemical compounds are made of molecules.

How do atoms combine? Atoms are attracted to each other like tiny magnets. Atoms can join in different combinations and in different patterns (a nice point to make). Some important arrangement patterns are atoms in a long line, a chain, or atoms in a circle, a ring.

What is a mixture? Take a handful of sugar and a handful of marbles and put them in a jar and then shake the jar up. Is this the same as a compound? No. Mixtures can be easily separated. In the case of salt water, the salt can be separated out by evaporating away the water. Compounds require a chemical reaction to be broken back into their constituent elements and that is a much more involved process.

How do chemists form new compounds? Different materials may each be dissolved in liquids and then the liquids could be mixed together.

The book then talks about taste (the importance of dissolving what is eaten in order to taste it), the discovery of phosphorous (urine and sand heated--and the book says they don't understand why he chose sand) and how it is necessary for health, that oxygen is the most abundat element and how it is isolated and how humans use oxygen in their bodies. The book also covers the hardness of diamonds, how graphite writes, making charcoal, where coal comes from and it's uses, and iron as an incredibly important element civilization, as well as steel. In a section of organic chemistry, the book covers why carbon molecules are so ubiquitous, plants and their food, chlorophyll as a catalyst (speeds up a chemical reaction without changing itself), the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle, and proving that plants emit oxygen (an experiment is included). The book concludes by discussing some branches (at the time) of chemistry: agricultural and food chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, and medical chemistry.

The final question in the book asks, "Is there still a need for new chemists today?" And the final concluding sentences: "Endless opportunities await the chemist to help make the world a more comfortable and more humane place in which to live. This is the noble purpose of chemistry."

UPDATE:

From a question brought up in the comments:

The book is definitely meant for a young audience. I'd say around elementary age. Since my own kids are still in elementary, I haven't started collecting older texts yet. Though I did pick up a college chemistry textbook at a library sale.

The book was published in 1960, so the illustrations are four colors at best. Because it is meant for a younger audience, it includes illustrations on every page.

2 comments:

Brad Williams said...

Thank you for sharing this book review, Kim. How are the visuals in the book? And what is the writing level, is it meant as a high school text?

Regards,
Brad Williams

Kim said...

The book is definitely meant for a young audience. I'd say around elementary age. Since my own kids are still in elementary, I haven't started collecting older texts yet. Though I did pick up a college chemistry textbook at a library sale.

The book was published in 1960, so the illustrations are four colors at best. Because it is meant for a younger audience, it includes illustrations on every page.