VANITY, VITALITY AND VIRILITY: The Chemistry Behind the Products You Love to Buy

John Emsley, Author
John Emsley, Author . Oxford Univ. $28 (259p) ISBN 978-0-19-280509-6
Paperback - 259 pages - 978-0-19-280673-4
Hardcover - 272 pages - 978-1-4294-2145-4
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You are standing in the supermarket holding two bottles of sunscreen. One claims to have titanium dioxide, the other something called OMC. What are these mysterious chemicals and which works better? Enter Emsley, Cambridge University science writer in residence, who demystifies the benefits of chemistry from a catalogue of over 30 chemicals that we encounter every day. His subjects jump from lipstick and sunscreen to trans-fats and vitamin C, bleach, Prozac, baby diapers and Viagra (hence the third V of the title). Emsley includes the sources and uses of all the chemicals, which can read like encyclopedia entries, as well as histories of each chemical's discovery and occasional misuses. To this he adds a few morality tales of chemical witch-hunts in the media, such as the unsubstantiated accusation that aluminum causes Alzheimer's. The book can be read cover to cover or used as a reference, but either way, even chemists will find out some surprising facts, such as that scurvy was for a time treated with sulfuric acid. The more complicated chemistry is relegated to a glossary, but unexplained scientific terms pop up with regularity in the text. Emsley gets on his soapbox in the postscript, asking for a little gratitude for the much maligned chemical industry, whose benefits he has already demonstrated. Given the occasional detours into technical language, however, his audience may be predominantly the chemically inclined. (June)

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