Review of THE JOY OF CHEMISTRY: A Quick Study Guide for Kids and Beginners to Learn Chemistry
Author: Nervana Elkhadragy, Ph.D.
This charming little book is intended to introduce kids to chemistry. It does so partly by anthropomorphizing atoms in a fashion sometimes cuddly, sometimes wrong. Chapter 1 sets the tone, “How Are Particles Similar to People?” The book’s title is appealing, as are the chapter titles, despite their simplification.
Unfortunately, simplification runs the risk of error.
For example, the answer to a Chapter 2 question, “Which one is easier to smell from a distance, hot or iced coffee?” is given as, “Diffusion occurs faster at a warmer temperature because particles have more kinetic energy, and thus move faster. That’s why we all enjoy the smell of freshly brewed coffee.” More nearly correct is that the temperature of the hot coffee produces a higher vapor pressure in the aromatic constituents, which then diffuse in the air at the same rate due to the air temperature, as do the aromatic components from cool coffee. “Freshly brewed coffee” smells better than stale coffee for other reasons as well.
Even so, questions and answers at the end of each chapter are generally a plus for reinforcing the lessons. A shortcoming is that each answer is introduced with an exclamation about how well the student has already answered it, such as, “Nice explanation!” Condescending?
Dr. Elkhadragy’s making particles into people requires us to extend a poetic license to the author for sentences such as, “Particles are like individuals. They think and make wise decisions.” Too cute to be true.
Similarly, drawing an analogy between the solar system and an atom produces “electrons are tiny particles that orbit the nucleus at a very high speed.” Too simple by far. The discussion later becomes more sophisticated with the introduction of the concept of electron shells. All in all, the description of the atom is mostly true and informative.
Next, we have compounds, “in which two or more elements decide to make a deal, hold a contract, and stay together.” Too folksy for my taste. I awaited details of the divorce.
A former science teacher myself, I enjoyed the description of the periodic table, not an easy thing to describe clearly and succinctly. One can easily remember that the specific groups of atoms had particular characteristics, like people in certain neighborhoods.
The book has an excellent discussion of the relative reactivity of the various kinds (groups) of elements.
It is easier to understand compound formation once one knows that atoms have “goals,” one of which (except for hydrogen and lithium) is to have eight electrons in the outermost shell. Group VII elements will tend to gain single electrons and become negative ions. Groups I, II, and III metals tend to give up electrons and become positive ions. Figure 6 has an atom preparing part with an electron.
Ionic and covalent bonding are well described once one gets past the idea of an atom’s “wanting.”
In sum, this well-written and well-edited book makes a painless introduction to essential aspects of chemistry. However, before using it in one’s classroom, consider how suited it is to the age of one’s students. Perhaps middle school students are the appropriate cohort.
P.S. The author has informed me that an upcoming revision will be addressing some of these concerns, in which case I will likely be happy to add another star to this review.