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from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in chemistry

Modern Chemistry
1999. 930 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-03-051122-4.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.,
1120 South Capital of Texas Highway, Austin, Texas 78746.
(This company is a division of Harcourt Brace & Company,
which is a part of Harcourt General Inc.)

A Sound Book, on Balance,
Despite Its Poor Beginning

Ronald P. Drucker

The appeal of Modern Chemistry begins with the fantastic illustration on the book's cover: An electron-micrographic image of a protein -- resembling a wispy cloud of some mysterious, multicolored vapor -- has been combined with a stylized depiction of part of the periodic table. This emphasis on visual appeal is sustained inside the book, where strong graphic design complements engagingly written text.

Modern Chemistry has seven principal units. Unit 1 is an introduction, including discussions of measurement and conversion factors. Unit 2, "Organization of Matter," covers atomic structure, the periodic table and bonding. Unit 3, "Language of Chemistry," addresses nomenclature, equations and stoichiometry. Unit 4 deals with phase changes and the properties of gases, Unit 5 with solutions, and Unit 6 with reactions, kinetics and equilibria. Finally, Unit 7 furnishes a survey of organic chemistry and nuclear chemistry. These seven units are followed by an extensive "Elements Handbook" and a guide to 28 laboratory exercises.

Throughout the book, students encounter special articles called "Research Notes," "Chemical Commentary," "Great Discoveries" or "Desktop Investigations." Whether these enhance the narrative (or simply interrupt it) depends on whether students can see any connections between the special articles and the main text.

The material in Modern Chemistry seems fairly rigorous. At many schools, this book would probably be viewed as one suitable for use in an honors course. With some winnowing, however, it can be used more broadly.

A Clumsy Beginning

The opening chapter is not auspicious. The first section has a headline proclaiming that "Chemistry Is a Physical Science," but the writers immediately becloud this by announcing that "chemistry is central to all the sciences, and there are no longer distinct divisions between the biological and physical sciences." The next few pages provide a helpful overview of modern chemistry, including a comparison of basic research and applied research -- but then a "Great Discoveries" article suddenly leaps out at the reader and delivers some ballyhoo about early investigations of radioactive decay. Why is this article here, on page 8? Why do the writers try to tell about radioactivity before they have said anything about mass, matter, elements or atoms?

Further along, the writers comment that substances can be classified by their properties, and they offer two examples. The first example deals with the electrical conductivity of metals, and even beginners may find it comprehensible; but the next example involves the abstruse distinction between the reducing sugars and nonreducing sugars, which beginners will find meaningless.

This chapter also includes the first of the book's twelve "Research Notes" articles. It describes one chemist's dogged investigations of Cremona violins, and it weaves together some information about the Renaissance alchemists, some speculation on the effect of soaking violin wood in seawater, and some high-level musings about the elasticity of varnish. This is the sort of stuff that delights scholars but makes students tune out.

In the final segment of the chapter, the writers redeem themselves with an effective overview of the periodic table.

The problems at the end of the chapter include one that requires a graphing calculator -- the first of many graphing-calculator problems that appear in Modern Chemistry. All these problems are tightly prescriptive, in that the writers provide each line of code that students should use for obtaining solutions. This strategy is advantageous at first, but students should eventually learn to solve open-ended problems by devising their own procedures. Modern Chemistry never gives them an opportunity to do this.

A funny thing happened to me when I got to chapter 2 -- I started to like the book. This chapter deals with SI units, conversion factors and problem-solving, and it is generally clear and easy to read. When the writers pull some metric prefixes, conversion factors and significant-figure rules out of their quivers and shoot at meaningful problems, they usually hit the bull's-eye. They provide an example that shows how to handle scientific notation on a calculator, they present a lucid explanation of direct and inverse proportions, and they give a four-step general approach to solving problems. (This approach is reinforced in the worked examples that appear in all the later chapters.)

Oh, I have a few gripes, of course. The fancy illustration on the chapter's opening page has no caption, so I don't know what it depicts. Roald Hoffman's essay about the complexity of chemical knowledge (page 32) is just too complex, and I find it impenetrable. The "Handbook Search" problem on page 61 asks students to look up the atomic radius of sodium and then calculate the number of atoms in a block of sodium, but the students get no clue about how to handle the unfilled spaces among atoms. And there aren't enough end-of-chapter exercises to enable the student to gain a real mastery of significant figures and conversion factors.

Some Good Work

How good is the coverage of scientific material in Modern Chemistry? Let me suggest an answer by describing how Holt's writers have handled two major subjects: the physical chemistry of gases, and the chemistry of acids and bases.

The treatment of gases in Modern Chemistry is good. It begins (in chapter 10) with an overview of the kinetic theory, a good verbal description of the behavior of an ideal gas, and a short section about the van der Waals corrections. Next comes a quantitative introduction of the concept of pressure, followed by discussions of Boyle's law, Charles's and Gay-Lussac's law, the combined gas law, and then Dalton's law of partial pressures. The exposition continues (in chapter 11) with Avogadro's law, the derivation of the ideal gas law, a passage about the stoichiometry of gases, and finally a section on Graham's law. The presentation is clear throughout and is bolstered by numerical problems.

Teaching about acids and bases offers a different sort of pedagogical challenge, which the writers address in chapters 15, 16 and 18.

Chapter 15 is very thorough and treats all three definitions of an acid, but the price of the detailed coverage is a loss of clarity. The chapter is so dense that many students will be unable to read it in its entirety. Chapter 16, on the other hand, is well done. Here the writers deal with pH and titrations, and they use diagrams and photographs to good advantage. They anticipate that students will have difficulty in discerning how to work pH problems on a calculator, so they give a detailed example with all the keystrokes spelled out. While they do not show how to calculate the pH during a titration -- which they cannot do, because they have not introduced equilibrium constants yet -- they provide a good section about titration curves and indicators; this section includes a diagram that relates the idea of an equivalence point to the titration of a strong acid with a strong base, and then to the titration of a weak acid with a strong base. But in their zeal to cover all combinations, the writers also give a confusing account of the titration of a weak acid with a weak base -- a case that most textbook-writers probably would have omitted.

The next chapter, 17, is an overview of chemical thermodynamics and kinetics. Then chapter 18 furnishes an introduction to chemical equilibrium and the idea of the equilibrium constant, including a discussion of the acid-ionization constant, Ka. This discussion, however, is entirely qualitative: The writers define Ka but do not perform any Ka calculations. Instead, they talk at length about dissociation, buffers and hydrolysis. The result is uninspiring and possibly confusing to students. Then, oddly, the writers return to quantitative matters; the next section of chapter 18, "Solubility Equilibrium," includes algebraic solutions to solubility-product problems, presented fairly clearly.

A Disappointment

The extensive "Elements Handbook" at the back of Modern Chemistry offers basic chemical information about selected elements, along with an eclectic array of vignettes that relate certain elements (or their compounds) to natural processes, to scientific research, or to current technology. The presentation is lively and is enhanced by colorful artwork. My only real disappointment came when I read, in the section about halogens, a discussion of "Fluoride and Tooth Decay." The discussion is largely factual, but it closes with a mysterious allusion to some unexplained "opposition to fluoridation," followed by this lurid report:

One anti-fluoridation organization claims that fluorides can cause or contribute to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, miscarriages, stillbirths, and disabling childhood diseases. Although little scientific evidence exists for such claims, we do know that the intake of too much fluoride can cause fluorosis, in which teeth become mottled . . . .

Why don't Holt's writers identify and describe the "anti-fluoridation organization" that has made those claims? And if the organization's claims are not supported by evidence, then why do the writers pretend that the claims are worthy of inclusion in a science textbook? Do the writers think that a chemistry book will be more salable, in some school districts, if it uses hearsay to paint the worst possible picture of fluoridation?

Although I've carped about some of the feature articles in Modern Chemistry, I've also seen some articles that seem quite appropriate. One of these is an excerpt from "Travels with C," by the remarkable chemist and writer Primo Levi. In "Travels with C," Levi imagines the history of a single carbon atom that lies for eons in a limestone ledge, then is incorporated into a molecule of carbon dioxide (when the limestone is calcined), and then is carried on the wind, for many years, until it enters a leaf, is struck by sunlight, and is "inserted in a chain of life." Another fine article, in the chapter on nuclear chemistry, is an excerpt from Ruth Lewin Simes's recent biography of Lise Meitner. Headlined "An Unexpected Finding," the excerpt describes Meitner's critical role in interpreting Hahn and Strassman's early work with nuclear fission.

On balance, Modern Chemistry is a sound text that reaches out to students by providing good illustrations, clearly written explanations and some thought-provoking feature articles. To my eye, its chief weakness is that the writers, in their more complex passages, lapse into chemist-speak. A teacher who can avoid these passages, or provide translations that students will understand, should find Modern Chemistry to be a solid teaching text.

A Demanding, Enjoyable Text
Suitable for an Honors Class

Max G. Rodel

Holt has done a nice job with the 1999 version of Modern Chemistry. This big book, more than 900 pages long, covers a lot of material and covers it in a clean, straightforward way, with a minimum of gobbledygook or oddball diversions. The narrative text is clear and easy to read, the chapters are intelligently laid out, and the book as a whole impresses me as a reader-friendly product.

Modern Chemistry has no introduction or preface, and there is nothing to identify the intended audience. I infer, however -- from the book's size, scope and style -- that Modern Chemistry is meant chiefly for use in introductory college courses. This impression is strengthened by the fact that eleven of the twelve "Reviewers" listed near the front of the book are people from colleges or universities. (The twelfth is a consultant who works for a private company.)

As a high-school book, Modern Chemistry seems to be most suitable for use in an honors course.

Standard Content

Most of the material in Modern Chemistry is presented in 22 chapters, grouped into seven large units, that occupy 724 pages. This material spans all the standard topics of basic chemistry, starting with properties of matter and progressing through atomic structure, chemical bonding, reactions, gas laws, solutions, kinetics, equilibria, and so on. Two chapters near the end introduce organic chemistry, and the last chapter deals with nuclear chemistry.

Each chapter includes sample problems with their solutions worked out, and each chapter ends with a set of exercises for the student. In most cases, a chapter has 40 to 60 of these exercises, divided into several categories. Under "Reviewing Concepts," the student finds multiple-choice questions and some questions that can be answered by writing equations, definitions or short paragraphs. The exercises called "Problems" require the student to handle chemical equations, numerical calculations, and the like. The "Mixed Review" exercises build on material that the student has learned in previous chapters.

After those basic exercises, the student confronts some "Critical Thinking" tasks -- for example, evaluating hypothetical experimental results or postulating why real measurements might vary from theory. Next, usually, there's a "Technology and Learning" problem that demands the use of a graphing calculator, then one or more exercises that require the student to consult a section of Modern Chemistry called the "Elements Handbook." (I'll tell more about this later). Then there are "Research and Writing" exercises, usually requiring some library research, and finally a set of "Alternative Assessment" items that typically require the student to design and perform investigations at the laboratory bench or in the field.

Whew! The sets of exercises in Modern Chemistry constitute a major feature of the book, and they are impressive. The more difficult exercises in each chapter will challenge even the most gifted student.

With rare exceptions, the illustrations in Modern Chemistry have been chosen and used thoughtfully. An exception is the spectacular star-burst image on the first page of the chapter titled "Liquids and Solids." This picture is unlabeled, and I had to consult the list of photo credits, on the last page of the book, to learn that the picture shows a sculpture made from icicles. I was slightly disappointed, but I still was struck by the beauty of the image.

The sidebars and the special articles in Modern Chemistry are few but good. They contribute real knowledge, and they make interesting reading besides. My favorites are the "Chemical Commentary" interludes, all of which have been extracted from other sources. "Travels with C" is a fictional odyssey of a lone carbon atom. "Logic in the Laboratory" is a Socratic dialogue between a chemistry student and his tutor. And "A Chemical Mystery" -- written a few years ago for The Journal of Chemical Education -- casts Sherlock Holmes as a chemical sleuth. What a pleasure to read!

A Valuable Innovation

I've already told that Modern Chemistry includes an "Elements Handbook." Now I must say a little more about it, because it strikes me as an important and valuable innovation. If any other chemistry book has such a feature, I have not seen it.

The "Handbook" is a self-contained section, bound into the book after the last numbered chapter. It fills some 60 pages and is divided into eight subsections, each of which covers a family of elements from the periodic table: the alkali metals, the alkaline earth metals, the transition elements, the boron family (B, Al, Ga, In and Tl), and so on. A typical section begins with a list of characteristics that are shared by the elements in question -- for example, alkali metals "do not occur in nature as elements," "form colorless ions, each with a 1+ charge" and "are strong reducing agents." Next, there are descriptions of some representative reactions and some analytical tests. Then the remainder of the section is given to short "Applications" articles that show how our knowledge of specific elements is reflected in technology, in environmental affairs, or in other realms of scientific inquiry.

These "Applications" pieces are almost always factual and sober. For instance, topics such as mercury poisoning (page 747) or carbon-monoxide poisoning (page 760) or the role of iron in human metabolism (page 749) are described objectively, without attempts to contrive artificial "relevance" or to engage in alarmism.

However, when Holt's writers turn to "Fluoride and Tooth Decay" (page 783) they disseminate unsupported claims which make the fluoridation of drinking water seem sinister, and they issue the alarming statement that "It is now known that [ingestion of] high concentrations of fluorides are dangerous to human health." This statement is irrelevant and silly. Any substance, if it is ingested in indefinitely "high" doses, is "dangerous to human health"! My guess is that the writers tossed in their sour tidbit about fluorides to appease members of the anti-fluoridation subculture -- but whatever their reason may have been, they have made page 783 the weakest page in the book.

Despite that anomaly, Modern Chemistry is a good textbook -- well written, well organized and comprehensive. It is, in my judgment, one of the best texts available for use in a high-school honors course, and it gets my enthusiastic recommendation.


Ronald P. Drucker is a physical chemist. He teaches general and analytical chemistry at City College of San Francisco, and he is a co-director of that institution's Science Scholars program, which encourages members of racial minorities to pursue biomedical careers. He also represents City College in a collaborative that seeks to improve the education of math teachers and science teachers. The collaborative is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Max Rodel is a consulting environmental chemist and a registered environmental assessor in state of California. His major professional interest is the chemistry of natural aquatic systems, including the fates of pollutants. He lives and works in Mill Valley, and he regularly reviews science textbooks for The Textbook Letter.

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