Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Book (Science): The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry

The Ancestor's Tale falls further and further behind. No fault of Richard Dawkins's, though -- just circumstances and my own reading habits.

For some reason I seem to mentally classify books as "the one I'm reading at work" and "the one I'm reading at home". ("Reading at work" here means reading while walking to/from work and to/during/from workday lunch.) The Ancestor's Tale is currently stuck in the "reading at work" category, so I rarely even think of picking it up at home. Which I should, or I'll never get through it.

This weekend was a little odd, though, because on Saturday I ended up stuck at Lori's work while she and her crew dealt with a software deployment. And I didn't have my "reading at work" book (or any book) with me. So I ran out to Indigo at the Eaton Centre to see what I could find.

This was one of those serendipedous trips -- I just happened to trip over a new Larry Gonick Cartoon Guide!

For those who don't know Gonicks books (The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon Guide to Statistics, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, The Cartoon History of the Universe, etc), they are some of the best introductory guides to their subjects around. As good as or better than most of the non-cartoon introductions to those subjects. Gonick (often writing with help from experts, but sometimes alone) doesn't believe in giving a superficial overview. The stats book gets into Baysian analysis; the physics book into quantum mechanics (without the woo-woo mysticism that haunts a lot of popular books on the subject); the history of the universe book actually covers Africa, India, and China quite well (which is unusual for popular general histories in North America, which concentrate heavily on Europe). They're not what you'd expect from a book of cartoons. Sure, they wouldn't take the place of textbooks, but they do make great supplemental material.

The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry actually started off disappointingly, though. The first chapter covers the history of chemistry very quickly. It soon became obvious that this was because Gonick wasn't going to be writing about the history of chemistry -- he needed all the space he could get for the actual science! By halfway through the book he's well beyond anything that I took in high school chemistry. In fact, he introduces material that I'd never even heard of before, such as "enthalpy" (which he describes as "possibly the ugliest word in chemistry"). I was always more math and physics than chemistry, but I'm pretty sure that the term never came up in Mr. Stephina's class. Of course, he was always so busy blowing stuff up, I might have missed it.

The book contains some of the best and most intuitive explanations for the different kinds of chemical bonds, and how their differing natures affect chemical reactions they get involved in. Gonick also has a great (and detailed) overview of the nature of acids and bases and how they're related. He ends with a section on electrochemistry that revolves around how to calculate the voltage you'll get from different kinds of chemical batteries -- I had never seen this material presented before, so it was fascinating.

I have to admit, though, that trying to read the book through in a single sitting (trapped, as I was, at Lori's office) got rather tiring. Things like deriving the base ionization constant tended to make my eyes glaze over. I don't know if it's because this book gets into more detail than the physics or statistics ones, or if it's just because I'd always been better at physics and stats than chemistry, but I did find it a little overwhelming at times. If I'd taken the time to work through the examples, it probably would have sunk in better, but I was reading to relax, not work!

In any case, it's yet another great Gonick guide. I'm still missing a few from my collection, so I've got to fill those holes in.


Len said...

My main beef with the Cartoon History of the Universe series is that Gonick seems to have just accepted the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as being straight history, and he relates a lot of stories that are highly likely to be mere legends (or at best, a small grain of historical truth encrusted with legendary embellishment) as the actual story.

The Cartoon Guide to Physics was great, though. And surprisingly easy to understand, even for the math challenged (like myself)....

James said...

True enough -- that annoyed me as well. Though if I recall correctly (I don't have my copy of volume 2 handy) he sticks to those legends which are most likely to have a historical basis.

Gonick does provide an excellent bibliography for each of his books, though, so readers can dig deeper on their own.

teflonjedi said...

Hey, I've got a copy of The Cartoon Guide to Physics, from many moons ago. Found it quite enjoyable, and a pretty good covering of the material!