Books to Basics
Why the latest edition of a classic – McNair’s Basic Gas Chromatography – has become more – not less – relevant with age
Nicholas Snow | | Opinion
I remember purchasing my first copy of Harold McNair’s Basic Gas Chromatography in 1988 – it was essential reading, as I had just joined the research group of its author! Back then, fused-silica capillary columns had been around for less than a decade, so most GC was still performed using packed columns. The format – a small handbook with that lovely green cover – made it an erstwhile laboratory companion, which we used in conjunction with university courses in analytical chemistry and in ACS short courses. There were no online options, and no other books provided the simple information that analysts needed to get started in the laboratory. Instead, most books on GC were comprehensive tomes or research monographs – hardly ideal for getting to grips with the field. Today, I am honored to have joined Professors McNair and Miller in writing the latest edition.
In those days, the only way to get information was from books or through face-to-face courses. What’s more, very few US universities taught GC, and fewer still provided comprehensive training. Basic Gas Chromatography brought a “what you need to know to get started” framework that any scientist could follow; coupled with the original intent to package the book with new instruments, it represented something that continues to be of value today. In fact, a simple book like Basic Gas Chromatography is still a must – if the operator intends to be a scientist...
Today we recognize that everyone has different learning styles, abilities, and preferences. Books have had to evolve to survive. Many readers today prefer “e-books.” Of course, hard copies still exist, but are often not the first choice. There is also a plethora of websites on the topic – some good, others bad – and it is often difficult for a new user to tell the difference between the two. One must concede that not all books are perfect, but they are expensive to produce and tend to undergo a very high level of scrutiny and care in production, which is (or should be) a testament to the quality of information they provide.
Accordingly, books still add value – they’re home to the human side of science. Research articles and online training materials are necessarily dry and terse. In stark contrast, books express more of the intent and feeling of the authors in their original words. They tend to be written more expansively and accessibly than research papers, and they still provide the basic information that practitioners need – alongside reminders for experts, essentially providing the foundations that allow us to understand and use the research literature and user manuals.
It’s also an interesting and worthwhile pursuit to go back and read the books from the early GC authors – or indeed, any other subject of interest. They embody the true pioneering spirit and thinking that provided the foundation to our discipline today. McNair’s Basic Gas Chromatography, for example, has much value. The book provides a quick manual on how GC works, gets users “under the hood,” and helps them to get started on developing and optimizing methods – and troubleshooting. At the very least, it provides the language of chromatography and reminders of the fundamentals; in my mind, it should be packaged along with every GC instrument.
The original version was first published in 1966 and sold for $10. In today’s market, that equates to roughly $80. The e-book for Basic Gas Chromatography is available instantly on Amazon for about $52 – a 30 percent discount on the ‘60s price… And a steal, if you ask me!
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