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CE editor reviews surface scientist’s autobiography

By Chemical Engineering |

An American Scientist. By Gabor A. Somorjai with Mitch Jacoby.

Archway Publishing. 1663 Liberty Drive, Bloomington, IN 47403. Web: archwaypublishing.com. 2013.
250 pages. $27.95.

Reviewed by Scott Jenkins, Chemical Engineering magazine, New York, N.Y.


For those working in the chemical process industries, addressing the immediacies of work makes it difficult to ponder the scientific discoveries and technological advancements that led to the current state of the art. A book like the autobiography of the Hungarian-born scientist Gabor Somorjai reminds us that current technology has been shaped by a wide range of prior work.

On one level, Somorjai’s autobiography is the story of a remarkable life spent in science — Somorjai is a decorated researcher who survived Nazi-occupied Hungary as the child of a Jewish family and eventually made a harrowing journey out of Soviet-era Hungary to the University of California at Berkeley, where he began studying chemical phenomena at surfaces. Providing historical context along the way, Somorjai illustrates in his book the many ways in which basic science research in the decades after World War II shaped the modern world.

On another level, the book is the story of science itself, exploring the process by which scientific information is acquired and eventually applied to industrial problems. Using the post-war progress of surface science as an example, Somorjai illustrates how basic research in the behavior of molecules at surfaces ultimately led to significant improvements in fields such as catalysis, tribology, microelectronics, energy storage, bioengineering and others.

Somorjai’s book does an admirable job of succinctly describing the technical details of numerous scientific experiments and the implications of their results without letting the explanations obscure the thems of the narrative. Among the themes are the importance of human relationships and collaboration in advancing science. Somorjai makes it a point to give credit to an impressive network of colleagues and collaborators for research success. Another theme apparent in Somorjai’s book is the preciousness of the scientific method as the mechanism by which incremental advances are made, questions are answered and thinking is changed.

Those with interest in the history of science will enjoy the book for its ability to chart a path outlining the progress of a key multidisciplinary field of science over time. Looking backward at the ways earlier work has shaped our present understanding of current technologies can be illuminating for the road ahead.

Fuel and Combustion Systems Safety: What You Don’t Know Can Kill You! By John R. Puskar. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 111 River Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030. Web: wiley.com. 2014. 346 pages. $89.95.

Environmental Forensics for Persistent Organic Pollutants. Edited by Gwen O’Sullivan and Court Sandau. Elsevier Inc., 225 Wyman Street, Waltham, MA 02144. Web: elsevier.com. 2014. 424 pages. $199.95.


Activated Sludge Technologies for Treating Industrial Wastewaters: Design and Troubleshooting. By W. Wesley Eckenfelder and Joseph Cleary. DEStech Publishing Inc., 429 North Duke Street, Lancaster, PA 17602. Web: destechpub.com. 2013. 234 pages. $89.50.

Foams: Structure and Dynamics.
By Isabelle Cantat, Sylvie Cohen-Addad, Florence Elias and others. Oxford University Press USA, 198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Web: oup.com. 2013. 288 pages. $89.95.

A Real-time Approach to Process Control. 3rd ed. By William Y. Svrcek, Donald P. Mahoney and Brent R. Young. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 111 River Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030. Web: wiley.com. 2014. 360 pages. $180.00.


Process Integration and Process Intensification: Saving Water, Energy and Resources. By Jiri Jaromir Klemes. Walter de Gruyter Inc., 125 Pearl Street, 3rd floor, Boston, MA 02110. Web: degruyter.com. 2014. 300 pages. $840.00.


Fire Safety Management Handbook. 3rd ed. By Daniel E. Della-Giustina. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London, W1T3JH. Web: crcpress.com. 2014. 279 pages. $89.95.


Lees’ Process Safety Essentials: Hazard Identification, Assessment and Control. By Sam Mannan. Elsevier Inc., 225 Wyman Street, Waltham, MA 02144. Web: elsevier.com. 2013. 570 pages. $125.00.

Scott Jenkins

Editor’s note: If you are interested in writing a book review for this column, contact Chemical Engineering senior editor Scott Jenkins by email at bookshelf@chemengonline.com.

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