Chemistry is a core science that contributes to a wide range of scientific careers, from materials engineers through biology to environmental science. Not surprisingly, then, there is a growing demand for courses providing chemical background for non-specialist chemists. The four books under review are aimed at providing comprehensive coverage of the basics of chemistry for this non-specialist market. To a large extent they all succeed, delivering an encyclopaedic romp through what is clearly a very large field.
Access to Chemistry by Alan Jones, Mike Clemmet, Avril Higton and Elaine Golding provides the lowest level and briefest introduction among these texts, following on from GCSE science. Unlike the other three texts, this one is not aimed at the vast North American general chemistry market but rather at students with an interest in acquiring some background knowledge in chemistry. The text is designed for self-study, with regular brief diagnostic tests associated with each study "unit" and typically four or five units making up each "module" (chapter). Only a minimal amount of mathematical ability is required for this material and a study unit is provided on basic mathematical concepts. The text avoids many of the basic technical definitions of chemistry (for example, words such as enthalpy), choosing rather to illuminate the concepts with real-world examples. Coverage includes basic physical and organic chemistry, with sections on atomic structure, basic ideas of bonding, reactivity, equilibrium, acids and bases, organic structure and simple functional groups. Presumably to restrict cost, only two colours have been used in the production of this book; black for the basic text and a rather glaring red for the somewhat-too-large section headings. There are relatively few figures and diagrams, with the restricted colour scheme lending a cartoon-like character to some of the illustrations.
Chemistry: Molecules, Matter and Change by Loretta Jones and Peter Atkins is by comparison a much more substantial and professional textbook. This fourth edition retains the same basic format as the successful previous editions with new extended examples and improved graphics. The full-colour presentation is interesting and lively with a good use of colour to emphasise the structure of the text. Each chapter contains many clearly worked examples and is followed by a large number (typically over 100) of exercises and problems. The exercises are grouped by subject and include a number in each chapter aimed at integrating material. The content is focused on the nature of matter at the molecular level and how it reacts, and is extended to provide comprehensive coverage of the traditional North American general chemistry syllabus (including the obligatory chapter on nuclear chemistry). There is a distinct bias towards a physical chemistry approach, with specific descriptive coverage of inorganic chemistry occupying only three chapters and organic coverage restricted to a single chapter. In spite of the sound physical basis the mathematical demands are fairly minimal. Descriptive writing is clear, accessible and interesting. Dynamic and interactive material is delivered with the text in the student media package that consists of two multimedia CDs developing visualisation and problem-solving skills. A companion website specifically developed for this text provides further exercises and interactive material.
The third text, by Martin Silberberg, is also aimed at the American first-year science market. In its second edition, Chemistry: The Molecular Nature of Matter and Change is comprehensive and up to date in its coverage. The full-colour presentation is compact but still attractive with solid and well-written text. Each chapter has clear contents and aims at the beginning and is followed by a substantial number of classified problems. The conclusion of each chapter rather overflows with review material, including a summary of key points, a recap of key terms, a summary of key equations and relationships, a summary of key figures and tables and solutions to follow-up problems. The worked examples are notable in that every solution is followed by a formal check; in the simplest case merely working out the problem with rounded numbers but often deriving the same solution by a different route. This commendable approach must to some extent balance the blind dependence on calculators so common among students today. This text is also notable by the high level of integration of the material, which has been achieved in such a way that breakdown into conventional blocks of physical, inorganic, and organic chemistry is not readily accomplished. That said, the balance is very much in the American style, with a substantial portion of the text dealing with chemical reactions, bonding and equilibria, complemented by a descriptive tour of the chemistry of the main group and transition metal elements, but only a brief nod towards organic compounds.
General Chemistry with Qualitative Analysis by Kenneth Whitten, Raymond Davis and M. Larry Peck provides a third substantial book attacking the, presumably vast, American market. This is a mature and polished sixth edition, with a strong inorganic bias relative to the other books under review. The bright and colourful text is carefully organised to aid both the student and teacher involved in the course with a large number of worked examples and chapter-by-chapter exercises. The pedagogical approach is extended to the use of colour coding of chemical concepts such as oxidation/reduction and repeated sidebar references to the recommended multimedia CD (not supplied). Another innovation in this edition is the inclusion of a number of stereo images that may be viewed with the special glasses supplied. These stereo views were successful in creating a realistic 3D effect, but were not fully exploited to tackle the serious problems with visualisation that many students have. Rather than see 3D pictures of both CH4 and CF4 in a single orientation (differing only as the F atoms are green!) it would have been more helpful to see several orientations of a tetrahedral shape, or perhaps the relationship between the 3D shape and the conventional 2D chemical representation. There are strong links to the practical laboratory throughout the text with the qualitative analysis chapters being virtually supplementary material to a series of practical experiments.
All three American-style texts offer tremendous value for money and will support much of the chemistry content at advanced A level and early university level in the UK, although all are insufficient in the area of organic chemistry. Access to Chemistry is somewhat less impressive in both its presentation and scope but may address a need by some non-A-level students to progress beyond GCSE.
Peter Hamilton is reader in physical chemistry, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.
Access to Chemistry. First Edition
Author - Alan Jones, Mike Clemmet, Avril Higton and Elaine Golding
ISBN - 0 85404 564 3
Publisher - Royal Society of Chemistry
Price - £15.00
Pages - 396