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

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Science in Focus: Neil Gussman


What Is Chemistry?

A central science.

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If you think chemistry is evil and chemists are conjurors in the pay of Satan—or if you regard it as a boring cousin of the sciences that really matter—you should read this book. In this slim volume, Peter Atkins considers and answers all the major objections to chemistry, then shows the marvelous world chemists create. The first sentence of the preface: "I hope to open your eyes and show you a fascinating, intellectually and economically important world, that of chemistry." And he does just that.

In seven 15-page chapters, we survey chemistry from its alchemical beginnings, through how chemistry works, to the new material world chemists have created, to chemistry's future. In the teaser for the opening chapter (each chapter is headed by a concise summary), Atkins writes, "chemistry is a central science, drawing its concepts from physics, illuminating biology," saying more in a handful of words than many writers can convey in a page.

Then he shifts tone completely. Chapter 1 begins: "Greed. Greed inspired humanity to embark on an extraordinary journey that touches everyone today. The particular variety of greed I have in mind was jointly the quest for immortality and the attainment of unbounded riches." The alchemists who are the predecessors of modern chemists never achieved of their lofty goals, "but ceaseless tinkering with matter … provided them with a considerable familiarity … from which a real science—chemistry—was to emerge."

I work in a museum of the history of chemistry. In the last decade, I have listened to several theories of how modern chemistry grew from alchemy. Atkins says, "The principal instrument of the transition … was the balance. The ability to weigh things precisely put into humanity's hands the potential to attach numbers to matter." The balance led to proof that atoms exist. And thus a science was born from a craft.

Readers familiar with Atkins will recognize the next four chapters as condensed versions of previous books. If Chapter 2 leaves you hungry for more on atoms and molecules, the books Periodic Kingdom (1995) and Molecules (2003) should be your next purchases. Atkins' Four Laws That Drive the Universe (2007) offers a more leisurely exposition of the subject of Chapter 3. I have not read his 2011 book Reactions, but after reading Chapter 4, I will.

In Chapter 5, Atkins surveys instruments. In 14 pages he leads us from titration to the many ways computers have changed lab chemistry. After a quick explanation of the influence of spectroscopy, he declares NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) "perhaps the single most important" analytic technique. He adds that NMR had a name change to MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) because of the aversion most people have to anything "nuclear." Explaining biochemical instruments and how our bodies regulate the millions of chemical reactions inside us, Atkins says, "The mechanism of the whole body of an organism is modulated by its marinating molecules."

In the last two chapters, Atkins tells us of the achievements of chemistry and its future, subjects so broad that the delicious specificity that he deploys to delightful effect in the first five chapters goes soft on the edges. This is so in part because Atkins both celebrates chemistry's achievements and admits its faults. He begins the sixth chapter saying chlorine makes clean water possible; without it, city life would be short and dangerous. Near the end of the chapter he faces the conflict of chemistry in the world:

Pandora's box has always been thus: meddling with Nature invariably entails risk. Chemists meddle at the very roots of material Nature, taking atoms she provides and recasting them into compounds that are alien to her and which, intruding into her ecosystem, can upset the fine balances of life. With this Merlin-like ability to conjure with atoms come responsibilities.

Lucid, witty, authoritative, often aphoristic, this is popular science at its best: the work of a first-rate scientist who draws on a lifetime spent unlocking the secrets of nature.

Neil Gussman is the strategic communications and media relations manager for Chemical Heritage Foundation, a library and museum in Philadelphia.

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