Meet the Molecules

A tour of the nasty, the sweet, and the misjudged.

By Robert O. Kenworthy | June 2, 2016

An illustration of a hydrocarbon molecule from an ad for the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation.

Science History Institute

Theodore Gray. Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything. Black Dog and Leventhal, 2014. 240 pp. $29.95.

I was captivated by Theodore Gray’s previous book, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe; so I was excited to get my hands on this one, mostly because I believed Gray had taken on an impossible task in treating molecules as he had elements. There are, after all, an unimaginable number of molecules, while the elements, even considering all isotopes, are only a couple of hundred in number. My mind was put at ease by the book’s introduction, which clearly stated that the author had no intention of producing a textbook but rather intended to create the verbal equivalent of a chemistry set, the prized childhood possession of broken-down old chemists, such as I.

I found that Gray shares my bias for organic chemistry, and I looked forward to thumbing through his “chemistry set.” The author both describes the material world and inspires curiosity about it, while providing ample coverage of the inorganic, such as ores and salts, as well as the organic. I spent two decades of my life in the paint business, so I was particularly pleased that out of 14 chapters one is devoted to color (dyes and pigments) and another to polymers. Once paint is dry, you see, there is nothing left except pigment and polymer, plus a few additives to give the colorful film durability.

Molecules is filled with straightforward descriptions of what each molecule is and what it does, illustrated brilliantly with photographs by Nick Mann. Along the way Gray addresses the linguistic gimmicks marketers use to create consumer preference for their product: absurdities, such as “no chemicals” (when that clearly cannot be true), and my pet peeve, “organic,” as code for pure or wholesome. Gray also takes on public perceptions of some materials. When the public justifiably condemns a molecule, such as asbestos, for the harm it does, he agrees; but when the public advocates action not supported by science, his criticism is blunt. Gray names some “abused molecules,” and like a lawyer he takes on their cases, dispelling the misinformation that has grown to surround them. For example, he defends thimerosal and its use as a preservative in vaccines through a careful step-by-step discussion of the issues and the science. Just because the molecule contains one atom of mercury does not mean it behaves like dimethyl or diethyl mercury, environmental pollutants that accumulate in brain tissue. Thimerosal has since been shown to have caused zero cases of autism, the charge behind the original flap.

Gray also tackles the history of science, showing humanity’s struggle to understand a physical world it lacked the tools to measure. Just imagine what an eye-opening experience looking through the first microscope must have been. Or how hard it would be to understand why chemical reactions occur before knowledge of atomic structure existed. On a more material level Gray illustrates the making of soap with a homespun example of the early manufacturing practice of cooking beef tallow with lye.

This is a book I intend to give to every family member and close friend who cares about chemistry, was fascinated by high school science, or is just curious about the material that makes up the world we live in. I recommend you buy a copy for yourself and extras for those you care about.