Despite the two-week delay, I have been reading. Despite the new job, I have been reading. Despite the rocky road that is my relationship, I have been reading. So here we go.
Title: Caveman Chemistry
Author: Kevin M. Dunn
Genre: Popular science
What originally gave me the seed of the idea that would become “After the After” was a book I read a few years ago: The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell. In fact, that book was also a huge influence on the reboot of Otherworld I did in 2015, and it’s the only work I’ve called out by name in the 30+ stories of that series. But The Knowledge was itself inspired. It has a very extensive bibliography, and one of the hardest entries to track down was this one, Caveman Chemistry.
I’m glad I finally did, because this book was worth every minute. Divided into 28 chapters, each focusing (more or less) on a single invention, Caveman Chemistry takes the reader through the entire history and prehistory of chemistry. Experiments throughout the book encourage you to get your hands dirty—I didn’t, but that’s a temporary state of affairs. Charcoal, soap, dyes, homebrewing…Dunn has done the world a great service just by compiling this text.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. One, the writing style makes one think of mad scientists from ages past, and I have to wonder if the author had huffed a few too many fumes before he sat down at the computer. The text itself is loaded with quotations, including some from quack sources such as the Hermetic alchemy treatises. Introductions in each chapter are done by “figments” supposedly representing the four elements (or masters thereof), but more likely belonging to the individual voices in the head of a schizophrenic.
Two, though Dunn doesn’t shy away from giving the formulas and preparation methods for some very dangerous chemicals, he wimps out when the time comes to talk about gunpowder, cowardly disguising the proper ratios. (For reference, the simplest to remember is a 6:1:1 mix of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur, respectively.) Making a batch of ethanol potentially tainted by poisonous methanol? Fine. Supporting the 2nd Amendment? Apparently that’s a no-go. Add in the constant remarks about “sexism” in older chemistry texts and stuffing women into what has historically been a masculine pursuit, and it’s clear where the author falls on the political spectrum.
Fortunately, that doesn’t detract from what is otherwise a very useful, very enlightening, and very fun book. Caveman Chemistry is not only worth a read, it’s worth trying for yourself. Even if you aren’t planning on creating a post-apocalyptic DIY video series.