Book Review

Julia Eckhoff

Lajos Kovács, Dezső Csupor, Gábor Lente and Tamás Gunda:
100 Chemical Myths – Misconceptions, Misunderstandings, Explanations.

Hardcover: 396 pages
Publisher: Springer; 2014 edition (September 26, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 3319084186
ISBN-13: 978-3319084183
€ 50.00 (Hardcover)

Science Made Useful

A band of Hungarian scientists unravels persistent scientific myths. Your Lab Times reviewer was absolutely thrilled.

Want to learn the truth behind the spinach/iron legend? Read this book! Cartoon: Elzie Crisler Segar

Every scientist knows the,“…, of course, you would know about that” appendix to every-day questions about biology, the human body and chemis­try, issued by family members or friends, who outrageously overestimate the applicability of our knowledge to kitchen problems. The usual reactions from scientists (for the shy ones: excusing themselves to the bathroom where they quickly ask Google; for the bold ones: killing the conversation instantaneously by making up a ridiculous story overloaded with chemical terminology) are now supplemented with simply consulting a book. 100 Chemical Myths – Misconceptions, Misunderstandings, Explanations will come in handy for most of the commonly-asked questions. Because, and that is another thing that probably every scientist knows, when it comes to chemicals, usually sane people can become superstitious tree-huggers.

Over approximately 400 pages, the authors Lajos Kovács, Dezső Csupor, Gábor Lente and Tamás Gunda tackled a huge variety of such myths, debunking some of them and explaining others.

The more you know the less you fear

The foreword is primed with a quote from Marie Curie, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” Knowing her biography, one cannot help but think that she should not have followed this motto quite so strictly (Curie became chronically ill and eventually died, most likely due to longterm radiation exposure). But it represents the authors’ motivation for writing this book, which is touched upon in the first section of the first chapter, “Fear of the Unknown: Chemicals”. They quote an American opinion poll that revealed that chemophobia and chemical knowledge maintain an inverse relationship: The more you know the less you fear.

If their idea was, however, to inform (and thus becalm) the public about common misbeliefs, they failed. The preface claims that, “This book has been written for open-minded non-specialists (…)”. They should have added, “…with a scientific background”, because without that there is no way one can follow, let alone enjoy, the information-rich text complemented by chemical structures, protein models and data illustrations like the phase diagram of water.

That said, for a life scientist it makes a delightful, satisfying read for exactly that reason. The authors did not stop at the stage where pop culture articles end, but dug deep into the hard facts, citing different studies on the same topic and – where applicable – explain myths at the level where a scientist’s heart applauds: the molecular one.

There are four chapters, “Misconceptions in General”, “Food”, “Medicines”, and “Catastrophes, Poisons, Chemicals”. The individual sections then have far catchier titles, like “Fat Matters: Margarine vs. Butter”, “The Resin Wars: Formaldehyde”, or the question that keeps us all up at night: “What Exactly Does Aloë Cure?”.

Each topic stretches over one to four pages. It adds a likeable touch that almost all pictures are quoted as “copyright-free Wikipedia picture” or “authors’ own work” – and look exactly that way, too. Informative and functional, but with the charm of hobbyist art. The four authors, all university-affiliated researchers, seemed to put a lot of work into this and were working on a low budget. This, however, affected neither the quantity nor the quality of information.

The spinach/iron/Popeye story

Where possible, the history behind a myth is revealed – and this may occasionally surprise even the proudest myth buster. For example, the spinach/iron/Popeye story. While some might still believe that spinach is one giant source of iron, the average scientifically interested person “knows” that this was a misconception, originating from a 1870 article published by Emil Theodor von Wolf, in which the author misplaced a decimal separator. A variation of this tale assigns the error to Gustav von Bunge and places the publication in the 1890s.

So far no news. But is that true? Who would have known that there is no evidence that either of the two ever measured the iron content of spinach? When in 2010 the forensic scientist Mike Sutton searched for the original publication, he could neither find that article nor any mention of Wolf or Bunge in the scientific literature before 1981, when an editorial told the story in the British Medical Journal.

What is more, the Popeye cartoons have never suggested a connection between spinach and iron. Popeye-inventor, Elzie Segar, no doubt wanted to influence children’s food choices, but she was aiming at vitamin A, not iron. Long story short: One of the widest-spread pop culture examples of the importance of consulting original publications is actually the worst. For the full story, check chapter 2.11.

Hungarian specialist knowledge

While reading the book, one cannot help but wonder, “What’s the deal with all these Hungarian examples? Why do I have to know about the mineral water consumption of Hungarians?” I’m sorry, Hungary, but I just do not have any application for that knowledge. Would European numbers and statistics not be a more obvious choice?

The answer lies in the fact that 100 Chemical Myths was originally published in Hungary in 2011. Three years later the translated version was issued. With that in mind, it is easy to ignore the eccentric detail and fully enjoy closing the gaps in every-day applicable (bio-)chemical knowledge.

Letzte Änderungen: 30.08.2016