Global famines have dropped the population to 1 billion people and global civilization has collapsed. In an effort to save future civilization some time, you want to provide some information to kick start civilization's regrowth.

You have to choose exactly three books or articles on chemistry

By virtue of a print-on-demand press and a generous internet connection (and minimal scruples about copyright law), you can get your hands on the text and diagrams of most any book/article in existence.

The best book choices will:

  • Give future generations stronger pointers for where to go looking for further knowledge. For example, Mendeleev's periodic table helped kick off the discovery of many elements because other chemists knew that there was something to find.
  • Save them some the trial and error of fumbling around on their own.
  • Accommodate the mathematical and engineering knowledge of the world in 1800. If we knew it in 1800, they have access to it.

Printing off all the chemistry articles on Wikipedia or chemrxiv.org won't satisfy because...reasons. Only actual books will satisfy.

Preserving the books is a solved problem. You're responsible only for picking the three books. These won't be electronic copies either.

Note to responders: While, it's true that three books is arbitrary, the number was chosen as it forces hard choices about which books are really worthy. There are two extremes at play: the utterly mundane, "give them normal undergraduate textbooks" and "compress an entire field down to three books". The first isn't noteworthy, while the second is impossible. Try to push your selection of books further towards the highly comprehensible master-works of the field.

This is part of the Three Books series on essential books for restarting civilization. You can find other topics below:

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ This question is being discussed on meta. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 4:42

2 Answers 2


I don't know exactly about the other two, but one would be the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. This is a monster of a book is ~2600 pages of very small type, weighing about 8.5 pounds, listing physical constants and properties recorded to the best know decimal places.
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It is literally the product of hundreds of years of scientific experiments and measurements. While it would be invaluable to someone with an understanding of chemistry trying to restart an industry, it would likely be almost useless to someone not understanding what this big book of numbers is all about, so the other two should be books that teach chemistry concepts and methods.

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    $\begingroup$ And less than $200 USD on Amazon! Amazing! $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ So... Maybe an intro level high school chemistry textbook and an intro level college chem textbook? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ @JakobLovern, I'd go with a college-level textbook to cover theory, and a good industrial-chemistry or lab-technique manual to cover practice. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ Definitely use this if you want to go the Canticle for Liebowitz route, where society reverts to a Medieval mindset and knowledge is something handed down from the ancient past. Only, this time, the ancient knowledge handed down really is infallible (with the possible exception, at most, of a transcription error or two) and impossible to disprove. It will even turn out to be more accurate than any stumbling attempts to carry out the rituals in the third text, whose purpose is clearly to demonstrate the perfect accuracy of the Tome. $\endgroup$
    – Davislor
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ I actually gave a copy of this book away last weekend to someone who literally wanted it because it would be good if they needed to restart chemistry after the apocalypse. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 6:39

What makes a good book?

I argue that whatever is currently being used as a textbook now is not very important; there are some assumptions of modern society or culture that these textbooks may make that we do not understand, being immersed in said society and culture. To recreate chemical knowledge, you need to inspire the sort of experimental genius that motivated Dalton and Lavoisier and Mendeleev to invent modern chemistry in the first place. Basically, I take the approach that you don't want to give a putative chemist a beaker, you want to teach him to science.

I will also argue that books of facts and numbers are not important either. Lists of empirical values of atomic weights or reaction rates or anything are better off experimentally recreated. What you need is a summary of the progress of knowledge over time.

Finally, you don't need the chemistry books to be correct! If there are errors in them, they need to teach their students how to find said errors. Modern chemistry textbooks may contain errors that simply no one knows about!

What books do we need?

First we need a book that is going to inspire the atomic and elemental theories that are the basis of modern chemistry. We need this so that the experimental basis underlying the atomic theory of chemistry is available. For this I choose A new system of Chemical Philosophy by John Dalton (which to my unending surprise you can buy at Walmart). Not only will this book provide the basis for why the atomic theory is valid, it will also provide hints on how to experimentally verify this.

Second, we need a book that talks about the mathematics behind chemical reactions. For this subject, the pioneering work would be On the Equilibrium of Heterogenous Substances by Willard Gibbs. This work lays a theoretical basis for understanding the energy transactions of chemistry, along with concepts like enthalpy and entropy and free energy. This work is probably the best way to get the underlying base knowledge for your future chemists to develop the laws of thermodynamics. Note that this work will require extensive knowledge of calculus, which I don't see handwaved in the question but should presumably be assume to develop alongside chemistry.

Lastly, we will want some insight into experimental methods. Science of Synthesis : Houben-Weyl Methods of Molecular Transformations is a reference work of organic chemistry methods dating back to 1909. This is an ideal reference; it will teach our future chemists how to perform experiments, allowing them to experimentally create the results that we have with modern chemistry. Ideally I would have found a series that covered inorganic as well as organic chemistry, but this is the best I could find. There are 48 volumes, so it is possibly cheating to call this a 'book'.

Since you can't summarize a hundred years of experiments in anything less than an encyclopedia, an alternative is a summary bridging the gap between the 19th century and developments as far as modern undergrad chemistry course. For this purpose, I choose General Chemistry by Linus Pauling. I own this book myself, in its most recent 1970 revision, and can attest to its depth and breadth. This book will take the student from the experimental basis of chemistry up to the modern era.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the thermo references, I was considering listing Perry's Chemical Engineering Handbook just for that reason. Also Pauling's work was my first go to. Glad someone beat me to it! $\endgroup$
    – Meridian
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ The suggestion of a reference manual of results was a very pragmatic one, but this suggestion of how-to books does have one great potential advantage. Future generations will remember the scientific method, not be handed down an infallible sacred tome that’s always more accurate than whatever experiments mere mortals manage to throw together. $\endgroup$
    – Davislor
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 4:48
  • $\begingroup$ I love the part about Calculus (and by implication Physics). You need incredible amounts of Mathematics and Physics to support the Chemistry. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ The question has been clarified with additional details. I'm not sure if the changes will invalidate your question, but wanted to give you a heads up in case they did. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ In fact, specifically stating 1800 in the question makes several of the suggested books invalid! $\endgroup$
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 16:02

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