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.
Review by Brian Clegg