Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry

Choose ten exemplary chemistry experiments. The synthesis of nylon? Bakelite, the first man-made polymer? The structure of DNA? The fixing of nitrogen? The discovery of buckyballs? Sorry, but none of those made the list of veteran science writer Philip Ball. Mr. Ball was looking for something other than mere importance. He was seeking "elegance", or "beauty" in the experiments he chose for this fascinating book. Some of his examples are not usually considered to be within the realm of chemistry, but that is fine with me. I have always thought that the goals of science education should not be restricted by artificial "disciplinary" boundaries. Mr. Ball's objective in Elegant Solutions is to identify experiments that are particularly inspiring, because they so clearly illuminate an important principle or represent a turning point in science. Louis Pasteur's "by hand" resolution of chiral tartaric acid is an example of the "elegance" criterion. Not only did the unlikable Mr. Pasteur painstakingly separate crystals that were mirror images of one another - he also provided insight into the meaning of his experiment. The isolation of radium by Marie Curie earned the Nobel in physics, but her work was almost all chemistry, and it is appropriate that her contribution be recognized in that light. Other supposed physics that made the list are Rutherford and Cavendish, but "alchemist" Jan Baptista van Helmont gets the leadoff essay, for his quantitative proof that plants are made of more than soil. A longer review of this book will appear soon in JCE.

Pick Attribution: 

Philip Ball

Publication Date: 
Saturday, January 1, 2005