Skip to main content

Reactions – Peter Atkins ***

Like any other medium, from newspapers to blockbuster movies, popular science books tend to follow trends. I’m delighted to say that this is a book that breaks most of the current trends – it is probably the most different popular science book I’ve seen in a number of years.
Firstly, it concentrates on chemistry, the Cinderella of the sciences (at least from the point of view of popular science writing). If you aren’t dealing with the elements, chemistry generally gets a very rough ride. But Peter Atkins gives us a book that is as purely focused on chemistry as it’s possible to be.
Secondly, it bucks the trend that you either do a nicely illustrated book at a simplistic, for-anyone level, or a largely non-illustrated book if it’s for the more sophisticated audience. The illustrations (and beautiful they are too) are key to this book, yet it’s not a lightweight read in any sense of the world.
What Atkins aims to do is to present us with the fundamentals of chemistry in a new way. We start of gently with the nature of water, precipitation, redox reactions, combustion, acids and bases and the like. Over time, though, things build up until by the end we’re dealing with sophisticated organic reactions (admittedly in a rather more summary fashion) and reactions that involve light.
That reference to ‘redox reactions’ is the clue that this is not a book that is going to appeal to everyone. The nature of oxidation and reduction, which Atkins gradually shifts from its traditional meaning to the movement of electrons, is something a popular science book is likely to cover at a fairly summary level, but here we get quite meaty. I originally intended to do a degree in chemistry before switching to physics (though it’s a long time since I did any), yet I still found the book as a whole quite hard work. Its ideal audience would be chemistry students towards the end of their school career before moving on to university. It covers the groundwork beautifully, and I learned things I’m sure I never knew. But I can’t see many people sitting down and enjoying this as a purely recreational popular science book. As such it’s the chemistry equivalent of Cox and Forshaw’s The Quantum Universe.
Atkins has a great turn of phrase. I loved remarks like ‘Dissolution is seduction by electrical deception.’ It’s almost worth reading the book for these alone. Funnily enough, the real let down for me was those gorgeous illustrations. They show the structure of the molecules undertaking the reactions. But the trouble is there is no labelling – they rely on size, position and colour alone – and it is very difficult to work out what’s going on in them. This isn’t helped when the same colouring is used to mean different things in different diagrams. The idea of basing the book around these illustrations is great, but they would need significantly more development (or even better to be turned into animations in an iPad version of the book) to really do the job.
Overall then, a beautifully presented book, a great and largely overlooked subject and some excellent writing, but one for the chemistry student rather than the general reader.
Hardback:  
also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…