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Old 10-03-2011, 12:24 PM   #231
WT Sharpe
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kennyc View Post
Shhh!

The transcript of her interview (on the Amazon website) is pretty funny.
I don't know what the scientific credentials of Amazon user/reviewer Andrew Charig are, but he certainly didn't feel she got the science right.

Spoiler:
As I started "The Poisoner's Handbook", I thought this was a great book: a fine history of modern American forensic science, told through a double biography of Norris and Gettler, two of its major founders, and illuminated with engrossing tales of murder, mayhem, and nightmarish misadventure. That thought died as soon as I started to spot the technical explanations that were uninformative, misleading, or downright wrong. Will a dozen examples do?

p. 56: Hydrocyanic acid (HCN) is not a potent acid or corrosive; it is just about the weakest acid known. The fact that it is ferociously toxic has nothing to do with its acidic strength.

p. 22: Chloroform is not terribly corrosive; on keratinized tissue (normal skin) it has no effect at all.

p. 86: You cannot get anything by mixing arsenic (As), copper (Cu) and hydrogen (H2) because the first two are metals and the last is a gas that does not react spontaneously with either of them.

p. 179: Radium (Ra) does not react with water to produce radon (Rn); it produces Rn by atomic decay.

p. 183: Radium (Ra) does not decay to produce polonium (Po) and radon (Rn) - its atomic weight is far less than that of Po and Rn combined so it cannot produce both. It can decay to produce Rn, which then decays to produce Po.

p. 187: Sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) is not slightly acidic; as any highschooler knows, it is moderately basic.

p. 191: There is no such thing as diethyl phlatate. (Did Blum mean diethyl phthalate? Did anyone proofread this book?)

p. 201: Ethanol (EtOH) does not "dissolve" into acetic acid; it is converted to acetic acid by tissue enxymatic activity.

p. 206: DDT is not an organophosphate; it contains no phosphorous at all. It is a chlorinated hydrocarbon.
passim: Blum does not seem to realize that wood alcohol, methyl alcohol, and methanol are just three different names for the same compound, used at different times as chemical terminology became more precise over the years.

And at least two misconversions from US weight units to metric.

How Blum got a Pulitzer for popular science writing and a job teaching it at the university level I cannot imagine; perhaps her zoology is better than her chemistry (it would have to be much, MUCH better), but her chemistry is far too inadequate to qualify her to explain it to others.

I propose that henceforward any book purporting to explain chemistry for the layman should be vetted by a committee of ten members randomly chosen from the American Chemical Society, before it is let loose on the unsuspecting public. Why shouldn't popular science writings be subject to the same peer review that professional writings are?

If Blum had left out the chemistry or else got it right, this would be a four-star book; as it is, it's a one.


And a couple of comments on what he said:

Spoiler:
Posted on Jan 10, 2011 7:53:42 AM PST
Prytania says:
My daughter (a forensic pathologist) gave this book to my husband (a polymer chemist) for Christmas, with the instruction, "Please just enjoy it, don't nit-pick it." That proved impossible. The boners were just too distracting, including Blum's totally bogus explanation of how mustard gas does its damage. (Which, by the way, a 30-second Google search could have answered for Blum.) Does someone pass these comments along to the author and publisher?


Spoiler:
Posted on Jan 14, 2011 8:52:17 PM PST
virtualchemist says:
Amen to this reviewer. Given that the author consulted Professors Bassam Shakashiri and Harry Gray to tutor her on a couple of points, it is a shame that she did not have the text proofread by someone who has even the slightest clue about chemistry and physics, to say nothing of the Constitution of the United States. Readers seeking to understand how truly ignorant about science and technology Americans are need go no farther than this book.


However, another responder to Charig's review says:

Spoiler:
Posted on Jun 1, 2011 3:57:40 PM PDT
Silea says:
In my paperback version of this book, about half of the errors you cite are not there (on page 187, she refers to Na2CO3 as alkaline), and several are ambiguous.

For example, the text on page 183 describes radium's decay as a cascade, from one unstable element to the next. While it does say that it becomes polonium and radon, the phrasing suggests in sequence.

Similarly, on page 201, the comment about 'dissolving into acetic acid' is in the context of enzymes breaking down the two kinds of alcohols. I don't think she meant 'dissolve' in the technical sense.

It appears that there has been a significant revision with fact-checking since your copy was printed.
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