Book Review: The World of Carbon





The World of Carbon by Isaac Asimov.

Aimed, perhaps, at a younger audience, The World of Carbon still makes for good general reading. It’s not a textbook so you certainly won’t learn the nitty-gritty of organic chemistry, I think Asimov does well in portraying the awesome breadth of the subject. From plastics to paints, fuel to kitchen ingredients (which, given the publication date of the late ’50s, is somewhat amusingly referred to as uses for the housewife), organic chemistry is the unseen, unsung hero of the modern technical world.

Asimov is known for a simple, direct way of writing, and that’s clear in this book, too. When the atoms in the molecule have this shape, it’s called this, and some common forms of it are this and this, and they are used in these common products. It’s been a fair number of years since I actively studied organic chemistry, so at times I’d forget things like the difference between a carbonyl and a carboxyl group and have to flip back a bit, but as I said the purpose really isn’t to teach full-blown organic chem. There are many little juicy bits of information, like the story of scurvy and lime juice on naval vessels (hence the term for sailors: “limeys”) or the Greek and Latin origins of many words and how they connect to chemistry (for example, if you know that linen comes from flax, then you can guess that linseed oil does as well).

I seem to be getting more fascinated by chemistry as time goes on, for it is a subject matter that is both deep and vast. Asimov even makes a point of how many countless trillions of organic molecules are possible, and most of the ones covered in The World of Carbon are relatively simple, leading to the obvious question: What treasures lie further out? I mentioned earlier about how the book is also something of a product of its time, and there was a smirk-inducing segment where Asimov cites research that there “may” be a link between smoking and lung cancer.

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