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What is Chemistry?
What is Chemistry?
Peter Atkins
Oxford University Press, USA, 2013
152 pp., $19.95

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Science in Focus: Chad Tatko

It's Elemental

A beguiling introduction to chemistry.

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Modern chemistry occupies a revered and feared space in humanity's collective consciousness. At times it is a wonder, as when seen through life-saving medicine; at others it can be a terror, as in the case of chemical weapons. But in daily life, chemistry is mostly incomprehensible. It is dominated by exotic glassware, sophisticated equipment, and unintelligibly named compounds. Just read the back of a shampoo bottle and see if the small print inspires you to study chemistry. As a professor of organic chemistry, I can attest to the struggle that comes with mastering the discipline. I see each year another crop of talented young minds confused, afraid, and, at times, defeated by chemistry. It is a mature discipline that demands you understand the concepts and theories from the classroom while also gaining the tactile skills to be proficient in the laboratory.

Perhaps what makes What Is Chemistry? so engaging is that Peter Atkins has attempted to do the near-impossible: make chemistry easy, or at least accessible. In doing so he has put together a charming text that seeks to provide the reader with the full range and scope of chemistry's power without becoming mired in the technical minutiae. Modern life is increasingly dependent on chemistry, and Atkins helps the novice speak the words of the discipline and value its complexities.

At its heart, chemistry is about molecular change. Atkins starts with chemistry's humble beginnings in the days of alchemy but, with tantalizing brevity, introduces matter and subatomic particles. The focus quickly comes to the prime mover for all chemical transformations, the electron. The book moves from there to energy, the molecular currency that dictates which of the many possible reactions are spontaneous. In dealing with the methods of chemical reactions and their analysis, Atkins must make choices to include only the most significant pathways or instruments, but these are carefully made to the benefit of the reader.

The story of chemistry is a rich one, from the ancient understanding of the four original elements, earth, air, fire and water, to the refinements of the periodic table. Along the way battles have been fought, industries invented, and diseases abated. Indeed, my favorite section of the book comes at the end, where Atkins considers the future of chemistry. Despite the great role of chemistry in the modern world, the story is still being written as to how it will change for the next generation.

If the barriers to understanding chemistry seem too high, this book offers a beguiling entry to the language and artistry of the chemical science. Consider it your catalyst to seeing the molecular world with new eyes.

Chad Tatko is assistant professor of chemistry at Calvin College.

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