The Chemical Educator, Vol. 5, No. 4, S1430-4171(00)04407-2, 10.1007/s008970407a, © 2000 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.


World of Chemistry. Robyn V. Young, Editor; Suzanne Sessine, Assistant Editor; Gale Group: 2700 Farmington Hills, MI, 48331-3535, 2000. Figures, tables, illustrations. ix + 1360 pp. 21.8 ´ 28.5 cm. $85.00. ISBN 0-7876-3650-9.

Reviewed by George B. Kauffman, California State University Fresno,

In order to add a volume on “the central science” to its successful World of... product line (World of Scientific Discovery, 1994; World of Invention, 1998; and World of Biology, 1999), a series targeted at secondary-level students, the Gale Group, a prominent publisher of academic, educational, and business research, references, assembled a panel of five subject advisors and commissioned a group of 46 contributing writers, almost half of them women. Manuscripts were accumulated between February and August 1999, and World of Chemistry appeared on December 19, 1999 — a publishing tour de force by any standards but made particularly notable by virtue of its up-to-date coverage and scope.

This attractive, oversized, and copiously illustrated volume contains more than a thousand alphabetically arranged entries, from American pharmacologist John Jacob Abel to Austrian-born German Nobel chemistry laureate Richard Zsigmondy, that provide, in the words of David K. Lavallee of the State University of New York, New Paltz, who wrote the Introduction, “basic information about chemical terms and concepts, applications of chemistry encountered in everyday life, descriptions of the chemistry behind industrial and commercial products, natural phenomena, and biographical sketches of individuals who have made major contributions to the development of chemical ideas and inventions.” In this book chemistry is considered in the widest possible sense and includes not only the traditional divisions of inorganic, analytical, organic, and physical chemistry but also biochemistry, polymer chemistry, cosmochemistry, geochemistry, atmospheric chemistry, marine chemistry, medicinal chemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry, nanochemistry, nuclear chemistry, astrochemistry, forensic chemistry, and biotechnology. Thus the user will find data on many exciting aspects of chemistry’s contributions to our understanding of our planet, its atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere as well as technological applications of chemistry to other fields.

The detailed structures of very large molecules such as DNA, RNA, and enzymes, the laboratory synthesis of complex natural biomolecules, and the analytical determination of submicroscopic amounts of elements and compounds are described. Also featured are the highly sophisticated technological instruments and techniques that make such advances possible such as NMR spectrometers, X-ray diffractometers, neutron activation analysis, chromatographs, mass spectrometers, lasers, electrochemical devices and electron, field-ion, and scanning tunneling microscopes.But simple pieces of apparatus such as theburette, centrifuge, manometer, and pipette are not neglected.

Topics of current interest like acid rain, cold fusion, DNA fingerprinting, food additives, Gaia theory and chemistry, genetic engineering, metallocenes, nuclear fission and fusion, ozone layer depletion, pollution, PAHs, PBBs, PCBs, and superacids are discussed. Also included, with explanations of their chemical composition, structures, and methods of development, are new types of matter discovered during the 20th century such as the fullerenes, synthetic polymers, plastics, superconductors, and nanostructures. The encyclopedia focuses heavily on industrial applications of chemistry, with explanations of the chemical principles underlying such everyday products as automobiles, clothes, cosmetics, foods, antacids, anti-inflammatory agents, artificial fats, artificial sweeteners, batteries, computer chips, glass, gunpowder, herbicides, DDT, liquid crystals, psychotropic drugs, soaps and detergents, vitamins, and waxes.

Not only are fundamental concepts, laws, and ideas discussed, but the people who developed them—chemists, physicists, chemical engineers, inventors, and industrialists—are also profiled. Although contributions of the Ancients such as Democritus and Maria the Jewess are considered, the 20th century is emphasized. The coverage is international, but especially good on contemporary American scientists. Of the more than 400 biographies, no fewer than 36 feature women and 13 African-Americans. In addition to the usual luminaries and Nobel laureates, many minor characters, whom I had not previously encountered, are included. The depth of coverage is not always commensurate with the importance of the subject. Thus George Washington Carver is allotted 3-1/2 pages, more than twice that given to Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry, making the volume a rich source of information on lesser-known scientists. Also, numerous personal details and anecdotes, unusual in a work of this sort, are related.

Arcane jargon has been avoided, and technical terms are clearly defined using standard vocabulary. Whenever possible and appropriate, chemical concepts are explained by use of analogies to familiar and common phenomena. Terms and names in boldface type direct the user to related entries, and there are cross-references to related entries not specifically mentioned in the body of the text. The book contains almost 400 structural formulas (formal charges missing in Lewis structures), figures, portraits, tables, and computer-generated models. In addition to the familiar portraits of chemistry’s “greats” that are found in most books, many unusual ones are included. Informal pictures of Nobel laureates Walter Gilbert serving champagne and Kary Mullis in shorts holding a drink provide a humanizing touch.

A Sources Consulted section (7 double-column pages) includes a bibliography through 1999 of the most useful print (classified as books and journal articles) and electronic material (53 Websites from 1999) encountered during the compilation of the encyclopedia. An extensive Historical Chronology (29 double-column pages) lists important events in chemistry and related sciences and technologies, some as long as several sentences, from ca. 30,000 B.C. (Stone age cultures use pigments to color various artifacts) to 1999 (Ahmed H. Zewail receives the Nobel Prize in chemistry—an award not announced until October 12, 1999, a mere two months before publication of the encyclopedia!). A very detailed General Index (148 double-column pages) facilitates location of desired information.

In addition to its extensive coverage of lesser known scientists, particularly minorities and women, the hallmark of this reference sourcebook is its timeliness. However, there is no free lunch, and the Gale Group’s policy of not providing individual contributors with galley or page proofs, coupled with the stringent publication schedule have, not unexpectedly, resulted in a large number of errors. A cursory examination revealed more than a hundred slips, mostly of the typographical variety: misspellings (usually of names), omission of words, run-together words, spaces within words, incorrect cases of letters in spellings, zeros in place of “O”s, and subscripts on the line with symbols in formulas.

Errors of fact are also present. For example, Cavendish did not discover argon but rather provided data for Ramsay and Rayleigh’s discovery more than a century later (p 197), Reich and Richter discovered indium not iridium (p 1196), and Grignard reagents are organic halides of magnesium not manganese (p 1201). The Historical Chronology and index are especially rife with errors, pointing to inadequate proofreading on the part of the editorial staff rather than the contributors. The recent death (February 25, 1999) of Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg, who is described as a physicist, a characterization that he particularly disliked, is noted, but, curiously, the earlier demise of Nobel laureates Geoffrey Wilkinson (September 26, 1996) and Vladimir Prelog (January 7, 1998) are not. Most of the errors would be recognized by the average chemist, but they might remain undetected by students, who should be cautioned to confirm the accuracy of spelling and other information by checking supplementary sources.

Although the editors have “not attempted to duplicate the degree of detail that is available in college-level textbooks or technical encyclopaedias designed for professional engineers or scientists,” the coverage of most topics is fairly complete and suitable for university students and practicing scientists. Considering the very modest price, broad coverage, and timeliness and keeping in mind the weaknesses noted above, I recommend this one-volume encyclopedia as a “best buy” to anyone interested in science and its applications.