Ease from atoms to DNA spice

Fundamentals of Chemistry. Third edition - Chemistry. Third edition - Chemistry - Chemistry
March 2, 2001

All these texts are for mainstream freshman courses in the United States. I have to declare at the outset that I write for that market and regard these books, to varying degrees, as competitors. Therefore, I will tread cautiously in this review because I do not want to lay myself open to the charge of misuse and self-propagation. Each text will be regarded as a serious and well-meaning attempt by author and publisher to satisfy a particular demand and it will reflect on how they, as a class and as individuals, approach the challenge.

We have nothing quite like a US freshman course (south of the border, at least), although we are drifting towards it as A-level standards decline and universities are forced to reconsider the provision of topics that were previously taken care of at school. As far as I am aware, though, no university course has to start at quite the same low level as these texts, which have an explanation of the existence of atoms and simple starter chemical nomenclature. But, I expect it will come.

The freshman courses for which these texts are designed are taken by all students embarking on a scientific education and particularly those aiming at medical school. However, the standards aimed at in such courses are far from uniform, with some schools providing an honours course for chemistry majors, distinct from the general chemistry course for those who regard chemistry merely as a foundation. These books are targeted at the latter, mainstream type of course.

Even within the general type of course there are wide variations in standard, and publishers (and their authors) have a clear idea about the level of their particular text. Some texts really do start close to the ground and rise only a little way above it. Others start low but move at a brisk pace and cover a great deal of ground in the 1,000 or so pages. Broadly speaking, the shorter the book and the larger the pictures, the lower the level. In line with these criteria (and counting honestly), the level of the four books under review rises from David Goldberg, through William Masterton and Cecile Hurley, then John McMurry and Robert Fey, topping out at Martin Silberberg.

The enormous size of the US freshman market (about 300,000 students) and the non-trivial price that can be charged for an adopted text (about $100), means that the publisher has an incentive to gamble, and each of these four-colour books represents an enormous investment of money and resources. That is probably most true of Silberberg, who has an extensive, imaginative and well-executed art programme. But each book is only the tip of a publishing iceberg, for each one is accompanied on the journey through its short life by a flotilla of lesser, supportive craft. The recycling time is typically three years, not because the principles of chemistry are evolving so fast, but because the well-organised secondhand market in the US quickly sidelines publishers and authors financially unless they bring out a new model with slightly different specifications, page numbers and so on.

No general chemistry text is thought worthy of respect unless the publisher has shown confidence in the project by launching an instructor's manual, a test bank, transparencies, a student's study guide, a student's solutions manual, a variety of workbooks, lecture notes, laboratory manuals and, inevitably, electronic media. Broadly speaking, these four texts are accompanied by a total of 54 supplements of various kinds, more or less evenly spread over the books.

Because enrolment for US freshman courses can be enormous, there is a strong impetus to reach out to the students and to monitor their progress by making the supplements, and in some cases the texts, web-alert. That does not just mean supplying animations and quizzes of various degrees of sophistication on CD (passe) or the publisher's website (currently emerging as the dominant mode), but also making assignments, grading them, passing them back to the instructor and monitoring in a variety of ways through the use of the website. Of these texts, Silberberg and McMurry and Fay are the most web-alert, Masterton and Hurley and Goldberg the least.

All these texts draw on the great well of experience embedded in the collective consciousness of chemical educators in the US. Once again, because they have to cope in large measure with such huge numbers of students of a wide range of ability, and in many cases starting from scratch, there has emerged in the US a highly sophisticated group of people with deep and unparalleled experience in getting the material across. One disadvantage of that experience, however, is a certain blindness to international norms. This blindness shows itself in a variety of ways. At the most basic level, we meet idiosyncratic (that is, old-fashioned) use of nomenclature and units. Bravely, Masterton and Hurley use the 1-18 notation for groups; all the others allude to it, with Silberberg using a mixed scheme, while the others use Roman numerals.

Largely for reasons related to the sequential structure of American courses, organic chemistry -which typically follows the freshman year - makes little more than a guest appearance in general chemistry texts. That remains a problem for those wishing to import these texts into our system. Goldberg polishes off this most central of chemical topics in 28 pages; Masterton and Hurley manage to see it off in 21 pages; McMurry and Fay manage a more respectable 79 pages, but right at the end of the text where few instructors reach, as the rigours of their two-semester courses leave them parched and dry; and Silberberg manages about 50 pages, more centrally placed in the text (chapter 15). None of them seeks to cover anything more than elementary nomenclature and a mention of the functional groups. DNA is typically thrown in for spice.

A few years ago, debate raged in the US about the proper role of inorganic chemistry (or "descriptive chemistry" as it became known, to distinguish it from the real thing) in books of this kind. Most texts, these included, opted to blend descriptive chemistry into a matrix predominantly formed from physical chemistry ("principles"). One or two bravely, but not particularly successfully, chose to let descriptive chemistry drive the exposition. Of the four texts under review, Goldberg sticks to his title and eschews a system-atic treatment of the elements (which helps his book to be brief); the other brief book, by Masterton and Hurley, deals with the problem in two chapters, totalling 50 pages, that are divided into metals and nonmetals.

McMurry and Fay treat the periodic table in about 150 pages and Silberberg does it in about 85 pages. In all cases, the authors aim to spread a little familiarity with the personalities of the elements and to show how various elements contribute to society. Once again, these chapters are likely to be reached in a typical course only by a Hannibal-like instructor.

US general chemistry courses spend an inordinate amount of time in the numerical regions of the subject. I suspect that the preoccupation of courses, and therefore of their texts, with recondite manipulations of pH, p K a, p K b, K itself and so on, has more to do with the ease of grading numerical answers than a sense that a recondite manipulator is likely to make a good chemist. Is it really more important to spend more time on calculating intrinsically unreliable acid-base properties than learning a bit of mechanistic organic chemistry? However, exposure to such calculations does have the advantage of forcing students to the realisation that chemistry is a quantitative subject and a part of the physical sciences. That so much space is spent on such calculations, however, makes these texts an awkward fit for courses that are common in this country.

All these books have been compiled with care, commitment, enthusiasm and imagination. We have much to learn from their organisation and presentation, and all of them can profitably be used as a source of good ideas.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford.

Fundamentals of Chemistry. Third edition

Author - D. E. Goldberg
ISBN - 0 07 118075 3
Publisher - McGraw-Hill
Price - £30.99
Pages - 678

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