A Guide to the New Chemical Age. Hugh D. Crone. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986. 245 pp. $39.50 HB, $14.95 PB.

There are roughly as many atoms on Earth now as there were 50 years ago. All the chemist can do is rearrange these to create new molecules and materials. Chemists have been synthesizing new substances at an exponential rate in the last half-century. The materials affect our lives in every conceivable way. From the vinyl floor in the kitchen (or the polyurethane varnish on the hard-wood floor) to the aspirin in the medicine chest, the chemist can produce things that lead to more comfortable and longer lives. The same chemist can also provide substances that kill and maim, such as the nerve gases, thalidomide and dioxin, the highly toxic contaminant of Agent Orange.

We live, like it or not, in what author Hugh D. Crone calls the...

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