pierre laszlo

Salt | Grain of Life Review By David MacInnes

Pierre Laszlo. Salt: Grain of Life. Translated by Mary Beth Mader. New York: Columbia University Press. 2001. xxv + 192 pp. $ 14.95.

Review By David MacInnes

Pierre Laszlo, a chemist from Belgium and France, has taken a series of vignettes about different aspects of salt and woven them into an interdisciplinary tour de force. In Salt: Grain of Life, he uses the viewpoints of many disciplines to show the relationshipof salt to society, history, economics, politics, and science. For example, in chapter 3, "Harvesting, " he begins by explaining the claim of the French Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu that only the labor of human beings creates lasting wealth. He then moves to a Chinese proverb to support this claim : "Without salt, there’s no end to blandness. " After showing the Chinese ideogram for salt, Laszlo explains the proverb using a cooking analogy and concludes by saying that "humankind is what imparts flavor to the world and each of our lives will be justified only by the strict standard of exactly what effort we have made to make our existence flavorful. "

At this point Laszlo has only just begun to warm to his subject. He goes on to describe how salt is harvested from seawater and salt marshes and to explore the history of salt harvesting on the French coast and in french Canada. He discusses Balzac’s Human Comedy, showing how its setting mirrors that of pre-Columbian America. From there we move to Onondaga Lake in upstate New York and its history of salt harvesting. We see how the lake was polluted by those who turned the chemical salt into other useful chemicals, such as washing soda from salt and lime. This chapter ends with a discussion of the desalination of seawater and the role of government in supplying its people with fresh water and salt.

The next chapter, "The Abuse of Power, " is illustrative of the entire book. It starts with a section on salt and foods, considering the relationship between salt and love as well as cooking. It then moves to a discussion of nomads and transportation ; we see how salt led to the introduction of camels, caravans, and canals. Laszlo also notes the role of salt in India’s struggle for independance and in Holland’s revolt against Spain in the 16th century.

Other chapters dive into the science of salt, from biology to chemistry to physics, including observations on the history and philosophy of science. We learn about animals that can live in extremely salty water, alchemists whose work with salt prepared the way for chemistry, and the role of salt in the age of plastics. Laszlo concludes his examination of salt and science by discussing saugrenu, a French expression meaning literally "to add one’s grain of salt. " Linked to the title of his book, saugrenu is shown to be central to the philosophy of science. Laszlo redefines the word to mean an unexpected event or phenomenon that expands accepted knowledge and compels us to rethink the world.

Laszlo ends with a consideration of salt and myth. He starts with the use of salt in liturgical texts such as the Bible, then moves to myths in Europe and Aztec America, and the dives into a consideration of saltcellars. His focus in this section is on how salt helped people become aware of life’s meaning. The concluding chapter in it is called "Ethics and Politics."

I judge this book to be a very good read. The science is clearly explained and up to date. Science is integral to Laszlo’s points, but other perspectives are also important. The translation is clear, but the choice of words makes one very much aware that the book was written by a European. The text is well documented, with a complete set of notes for each chapter. This is a book to read slowly, savoring each chapter, rereading where necessary. Laszlo’s words encourage you to think, digesting each chapter before moving eagerly on to the next. It was my favorite book of the year.


David MacInnes
Guilford College

hemical Heritage, Summer 2003, 21 (2), pp. 46-47.