History · In the Library · Science · Ying L

From Stars to Stalagmites | by Paul S. Braterman

From Stars to Stalagmites

From Stars to Stalagmites: How Everything Connects
by Paul S. Braterman
(World Scientific, 2012, 315 pages)

This wonderful book was written by Paul Braterman, a chemistry professor at the University of Glasgow in UK. It includes 16 chapters covering various scientific topics such as Lavoisier’s modern concept of an element, the naming of oxygen and hydrogen, Dalton’s atomic theory, Avogadro’s hypothesis, making metal, the ozone hole problem, and why grass is green and our blood is red.

I am thoroughly wowed by Braterman’s exhaustive research. I found myself frequently checking the extensive endnotes. All the chapters use the same outline which makes it easy to follow. Braterman incorporates many intriguing stories that make the content engaging. It’s my favorite type of book. Biographical information, major achievements, explanation of scientific methods and the impact on history are weaved together beautifully. Even if you are familiar with major scientific discoveries in the 1800s and 1900s, you’ll still learn something new from this book.

Chapter 6 is titled Science, War, and Morality; the Tragedy of Fritz Haber. Think back to high school chemistry and you may remember studying Haber’s Process and manipulating various variables to affect ammonia output. The invention was named after the German chemist Fritz Haber (Nobel Prize 1918). In this chapter, not only are Haber’s life and the importance of his major contributions presented, their effects and consequences on the history of fertilizers, explosives and chemical weapons are also discussed. It’s sad to know that Harber, who acted as chief of Germany’s Chemical Warfare Service during World War I, was born to Jewish parents. Also, the tragic suicide of his first wife was attributed to his involvement in Germany’s poison gas program. Harber’s contributions, the author relates, helped Germany to sustain a far more damaging four year long conflict and inflicted horrible casualty levels. Haber himself was labeled as a war criminal and spent some time in Switzerland under a false passport. However, the author points out that half of the world’s population depend on Harber’s discoveries for their very survival, because of the vital role in food production of synthetic fertilizers using the Harber Process.

This book reads like a documentary movie and is not bogged down with scientific terms. Each chapter can be read independently. What’s nice is the author references chemical equations and formulas in the endnotes. You don’t have to look at them if you don’t want to; but some would appreciate them for being there. I highly recommended From Stars to Stalagmites for history or science readers.

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