WHAT IS CHEMISTRY? by Peter Atkins


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Atkins (Chemistry/Univ. of Oxford; Reactions: The Private Life of Atoms, 2011, etc.) presents a rounded view of chemistry in hopes of dispelling the noxious fumes produced by the high school classroom.

Here is chemistry as seen through chemists’ eyes, taking into account the fundamental chemical properties and processes that play in the backs of their minds while they work. The author sings the praises of the science while intoning chemistry’s dark side, for to abjure chemistry—as if that was possible—would be an express lane back to the Stone Age: “no metals, no fuels except wood, no fabrics except pelts, no medicines except herbs, no methods of computation except with your fingers, and very little food.” In a voice at once owlish and inviting, Atkins scans the periodic table to introduce the structure of atoms, the compounds of carbon and the many other elements. He is happy to drop little bombs along the way—“That [quantum mechanics] remains largely incomprehensible is admittedly an irksome deficiency”—and even in those moments when readers may feel like he has left them dangling (“Broadly speaking, there are energy advantages in an atom acquiring a complete cloud layer”), Atkins eventually circles back to underscore his points. With light-handed skill, the author ushers chemistry into the everyday world, from the fabrication of dyestuffs to the potential heat in firewood to why breathing carbon monoxide results in suffocation. Atkins also wisely addresses popular concerns about chemistry, including the construction of the tools of war and the environmental costs associated with the chemical industry, which in turn leads to a discussion of the prospects for a “green” chemistry and the responsibilities that attend “this Merlin-like ability to conjure with atoms.”

A concise introduction to chemistry that has an alchemy all its own.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-19-968398-7
Page count: 152pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2013


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