Years and years ago when I was in high school I chose Chemistry as one of my science courses. For whatever reason it didn’t click with me and I dropped it a couple of weeks in and switched to Comparative Civilizations class. Looking back it was an odd choice because I’m a science buff and I read science books for fun. Most people would have expected me to do well in Chemistry class.
Fast forward 25 years and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of covalent bonds and ionization. I know the words but try as I might I can’t call back what they mean. It bothers me as a trivia nerd and a science buff that I can’t grasp Grade 11 concepts.
So finding good science writing for people like me is always a treat, but even then it can be difficult to apply the concepts of chemistry and chemical reactions to everyday life.
It’s Elemental: the Hidden Chemistry in Everything by Kate Biberdorf makes understanding it all a lot easier. A brief introduction goes over the fundamentals: what’s an atom? What’s a molecule? How do they interact with each other? Biberdorf uses amusing analogies to explain how reactions work. For example, did you know that how actors Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively met is a good example of chemical reactions work? Apparently they were on a double date, each with other partners, but they preferred each other. This is analogous to when two molecules meet, break apart, and recombine into chemicals.
It’s Elemental is full of these kinds of explanations. Going through common situations (cooking, cleaning, grooming, going on vacation), we learn the hows and whys of why detergent is different from soap, or why champagne is bubbly.
I’ve read many books about everyday chemistry before. Joe Schwarcz writes similar works (which I also recommend), but Kate Biberdorf covers new ground that I don’t normally see, especially in covering the science of shampoos and conditioners, sunscreen, and skincare. Hair conditioner in particular is a marvel of chemistry, actually preventing hair from tangling in ways that until I read this book seemed magical.
It’s Elemental is a great way discover the inner workings of the world around you.
Steven McCreedy is a library technician at the Cambie Branch of the Richmond Public Library