Beer-swigging gorilla territory

Designing the Molecular World
February 10, 1995

In his introduction Philip Ball asserts that "according to the fossilized wit of Oxford, the chemist (invariably male) is a dour clod with long hair and dirty hands - a formidable beer-swigger perhaps, but a social gorilla". This may be unfair on Oxford, chemists and even gorillas, but one can agree that chemistry as an intellectual discipline does not possess the allure of cosmology or the mysteries of the living cell. No great conceptual revolutions are in sight. Steady but unspectacular progress is made step by weary step. Even if crew-cut and with clean hands, chemists are worthy people, useful perhaps - but where is the intellectual beef? In this book Ball goes a long way to supplying the answer.

Designing the Molecular World is divided into three parts. The first surveys the principles underlying the study of chemistry. There are chapters devoted to molecular structure, to the dynamics of chemical reactions, to spectroscopy and to the structure of crystals. Clear diagrams and interesting examples make for an entertaining exposition of the molecular world. The treatment of the mysteries of chemical kinetics is particularly good. On the other hand, it is a pity that the statistical interpretation of entropy is hardly mentioned, since that is essential to understand the second law of thermodynamics and thereby the imposition of a direction on time.

Attention is paid to the importance of enzymes in facilitating chemical reactions but there is no discussion of the natural evolution of enzymes into perfect catalysts, and the section on enzyme electrodes for glucose sensors is some ten years out of date.

The second part of the book describes a number of topics on the frontiers of chemical research. The design and creation of new materials is an underlying theme and we learn about such topics as host-guest chemistry, conducting polymers and high-temperature superconductors. The connections between chemistry and other disciplines such as materials science and biology are explored. Polymers, liquid crystals and colloids are described within the theme of molecular organisation. The ability of the chemist to create entirely new molecules and structures is stressed and exemplified.

The final part of the book, entitled "Chemistry as a process", explores the implications and underlying chemistry for more complicated systems. A fascinating chapter discusses the origins of life. There is a chapter on fractals, chaos and oscillating reactions. The links are interesting but the section on oscillating reactions would have been easier to understand if graphs showing the periodic variation of the intermediates with time had been included. Similarly the beautiful red and blue spirals of the Belouzov-Zhabotinsky reaction can be explained by concentration space diagrams. The final chapter is more mundane and describes the chemistry of the environment and of the climate.

Overall this book is a tour de chimie of great interest and fascination. The selection of topics is judicious. The breadth of the connections with other disciplines, from the mathematics of fractals to the artificial pancreas, is impressive. The level of description and illustration is suitable for the non-specialist and, perhaps, if enough Oxford fellows read the book, the master of University College will cease to be regarded as a dour beer-swigging gorilla.

John Albery is master of University College, Oxford, and was formerly professor of physical chemistry, Imperial College, London.

Designing the Molecular World: Chemistry at the Frontier

Author - Philip Ball
ISBN - 0 691 00058 1
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 376pp

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