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Biological Chemistry

Molecules of Everyday Life

November 22, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 47

VANITY, VITALITY, AND VIRILITY: The Science Behind the Products You Love To Buy, by John Emsley, Oxford University Press, 2004, 259 pages, $28 (ISBN 0-19-280509-6)


If you love chemistry--not just its nuts and bolts but the story behind the discovery of the molecules of everyday life and how they work--you will enjoy John Emsley's new book, "Vanity, Vitality, and Virility: The Science Behind the Products You Love to Buy." While reading, I was delighted to find answers to many of those questions that at one time or another had just popped into my mind and then fled as rapidly, from how asphalt can reduce tire noise to the history of chewing gum. At the same time, Emsley presents crucial information about chemicals that have become part and parcel of modern living. With chapters on cosmetics, food, sex, hygiene, and depression, "Vanity, Vitality, and Virility" conveys information that is essential to those seeking to make intelligent decisions in an increasingly complex world.

Emsley is science writer in residence at the University of Cambridge chemistry department, and he has written other popular science books, including "Nature's Building Blocks: An A–Z Guide to the Elements" (C&EN, Nov. 4, 2002, page 38). Though he has done an outstanding job in "Vanity, Vitality, and Virility" of focusing on common but important issues regarding the role of natural and synthetic molecules in our society, the book is not for those with little or no experience with chemistry. While there is a glossary intended to provide more background, it is largely perfunctory, touching on only a small subset of the material presented in the book. At least a superficial knowledge of organic and biochemistry will allow the reader to fully appreciate the treasures contained within, where facts are packed together tighter than sardines in a tin.

Every page contains a nugget or two. If you are like me, many of these facts will be dimly remembered old friends, brought fresh to our memory by Emsley's succinct prose. But many others will be new. I, for one, was intrigued to learn that asphalt derives its name from the Dead Sea, which in ancient times was called Lake Asphaltities. It was upon this lake that lumps of natural bitumen were found. Bitumen is the pitch that would have been used to seal Noah's ark and waterproof Moses' reed boat. Equally intriguing is the fact that William Wrigley began making chewing gum as a promotion to help with the sales of soap and baking powder. Each chapter contains sufficient fodder for several episodes of the TV game show "Jeopardy!" But the book is far from a simple recitation of intriguing facts. Rather, Emsley takes the reader on a molecular tour of the products that we all use, or at the very least have heard about.

It is from the first three chapters--the first three stops on our tour--that the book's title is derived. First, we explore the products that appeal to our vanity. These are products that enhance attractiveness, protect our skin, and disguise its defects. From the first lipsticks, which were made from plant dyes and used by the ancient Egyptians, to the much more recent antiaging creams made from a-hydroxy acids and instant tanning lotions containing dihydroxyacetone, Emsley explains the functioning of these molecules, often including an account of the discovery of their fascinating properties.

At our next stop, we turn to issues of vitality, where the nature of those molecules we ingest is considered. Principal among these are fats. Emsley throws light on an otherwise dimly understood subject by considering fats for what they are--molecules. There are saturated, monounsaturated--both cis and trans--and polyunsaturated fatty acids. As Emsley dispassionately explains, each is characterized by a particular arrangement of carbon atoms giving rise to unique properties, some of which are desirable and some of which are not.

The second chapter is filled out with the interesting tale of vitamin C, including a historical review of the tragedy endured by seamen who suffered terribly from scurvy up until the end of World War I. Emsley rounds out this tale with an account of vitamin C's discovery, followed by its eventual synthesis and marketing, along with the comparatively recent suggestion by Linus Pauling that megadoses of this vitamin would prevent the common cold and even cancer.

Then it's on to virility, where the biochemistry of the molecules that play a part in sex, impotence, and infertility is elucidated. The story Emsley tells begins with nitric oxide, NO, the toxic gas once just considered an atmospheric pollutant but now known to be essential to many bodily processes, including sex. Those scientists who made this discovery received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1998. But to many, it was the clearer picture afforded by this research that would prove important, for it would lead ultimately to the discovery of Viagra, the impotence drug. However, along the road leading from NO to Viagra are interesting side stories, including that of the British neurophysiologist who found that injecting phenoxybenzamine into his penis would produce a remarkable erection--a fact he made abundantly clear before a live audience at the 1983 meeting of the American Urological Association.

The last three chapters of "Vanity, Vitality, and Virility" are as stimulating as the first, though only tangentially related to the subject matter suggested by the title. These include a chapter on cleaning and sanitizing products as well as a chapter about the chemistry of depression and Alzheimer's disease and the drugs that may be used to treat these ailments. Finally, there is a chapter on polymers, which I particularly enjoyed. Included in this chapter are the delightful discussions of the history and chemistry of chewing gum and asphalt.

"Vanity, Vitality, and Virility" ends with a postscript that should resonate with all who are passionate about chemistry and are proud of the way it has benefited the human condition. Unfortunately, the public at large does not share our positive view. Instead, they look at all things chemical as potential threats, plagued by what Emsley calls "chemiphobia." In his postscript, he presents the causes and possible cures for this condition. My prescription to cure this disease is more straightforward: more books like "Vanity, Vitality, and Virility."

Mark Eberhart is a professor of chemistry and materials science at Colorado School of Mines. He is the author of "Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart."


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