Every trick you will ever need up your lab coat sleeve

The Molecular World Series
February 28, 2003

The eight volumes in this new series, The Molecular World, are in effect the textbook for an Open University course (specifically S205), but their intended audience is much broader. They span much of the content found in typical first and second-year chemistry degrees in UK universities. The general strategy is to encourage self-study. There are numerous exercises in the texts and just about all of them are answered at a helpful length. Each section has learning objectives and summaries. A distinguishing feature is the close integration of the textual material with the media on CD. The texts are distinguished by four-colour art more or less throughout, and the typography is clear and inviting. Lecturers adopting the books in isolation, though, should consider whether they and their colleagues are right to invite students to spend £169 on the set.

I was slightly taken aback by the huge number of people involved in the production of the texts and the accompanying media, with about 50 acknowledged by name. All the books are edited and there are slightly odd attributions of some sections along the lines "edited by X from text authored by Y". Nevertheless, there is a uniformity of style that accommodates different approaches to the material appropriate to different topics. Readers will find themselves at home as they move from book to book.

Molecular Modelling and Bonding is an upper-level book that is closely linked with its accompanying CD-Rom. The latter has copies of WebLab Lite, a nice viewer for molecular models and a variety of molecular mechanics and molecular structure calculation software.

The text spans a wide range of levels in its 150 pages, and does so in a modern idiom. It begins with a traditional, pictorial account of hydrogenic orbitals, passes through elementary molecular orbital theory (not a mention, reasonably enough, of valence bond theory, except where some hybridisation creeps in) and ends with an account of drug discovery. The emphasis is on the presentation of the material using attractive but sometimes difficult-to-interpret computer graphics. The text might be suitable for courses on modern approaches to computational chemistry, but it would be essential to add depth by incorporating the material on the CD.

The shapes of molecules are probably their most defining feature, and the best chemists are those who can imagine in three dimensions. Nowhere is this more true than in biochemistry, where shape is almost synonymous with function. The Third Dimension explores two aspects of the third dimension in chemistry.

The first half of the book deals with the structures of crystals, starting with metals, which can be expressed in terms of the packing of hard spheres, moves on to ionic solids, where charge neutrality has to be respected and complicates matters, and concludes with molecular crystals, where the odd bumps and cavities of molecules make the prediction of structure a matter for computation rather than speculation. The second half of the text deals with the stereochemistry of individual molecules (nearly all of them organic), and gives a thorough account of isomerism and chirality.

The book's illustrations are among the finest I have seen in expositions of this topic (apart from muddling the handedness of the helices on page 86), and work spectacularly well in increasing the utility of the text.

Stereochemistry is all about visualisation, and the authors do a truly excellent job, supported as usual by rotatable WebLab Lite versions of all the structures they discuss.

The case study in this volume is apt, for it concerns liquid crystals. In these mesophase systems, structure is incomplete in some directions or is sufficiently adaptable to be modifiable by the application of an electric field, the underlying principle of computer displays. The account is a very useful adjunct to the discussion of fully organised systems in the rest of the text, and illustrates nicely how chemists have been called on to realise the modern world. The two CDs contain first-class three-dimensional images, which will certainly help people to comprehend crystal structures.

I was confident that Alkanes and Aromatics would not be for me, as it is so far from my professional interests. But I was pleasantly surprised. It starts conventionally, with a mechanistic introduction to addition, focusing on stereochemical control, and then turns to electrophilic aromatic substitution and the functionalisation of aromatic rings. Then the curtains sweep back, and we suddenly see what all this preamble has been prefiguring: we are synthetic chemists in a pharmaceutical company engaged in searching for new synthetic routes. Initially, we have to produce pseudoephedrine. However, just as in a computer game, the stakes suddenly become higher when we have to seek an economically viable green route.

The book ends, like the others in this series, with an interesting case study, which is really a study of various chemical industries, particularly the petrochemical and speciality chemical industries. The text is supported by a CD-Rom, which has a reasonably extensive database and molecular models of the structures used in the text. It is an excellent example of the integration of electronic resources and of environmental and economic considerations into what is ostensibly an introductory text on two fundamental classes of organic compound.

The CD is directed towards structures and supplies WebLab Lite files for most of the structures in the text. There is also a Java drawing package for structures and IsisDraw for producing molecular structures. The text refers to a database of properties, but this is a .pdf file, and locating the information is painfully tedious on screen but perhaps useful when printed out (at 56 pages).

Mechanism and synthesis, specifically of organic materials, is the heart of chemistry, where the skills that chemists develop turn them into magicians with matter. Mechanism and Synthesis , one of the longest and most expensive book in the series, is divided into five parts with an interesting case study on polymers. The aim of this book appears to be to build up an appreciation of the modern approach to modern techniques of synthesis, starting off gently with that all-important group of carbonyl compounds and then demonstrating the versatility of organometallic compounds and then radicals in synthesis. That is the limbering up for the serious stuff that follows, with an authoritative account of retrosynthesis and biosynthesis.

All this is done with a fast-moving style that engages the reader and brings us to the brink of an appreciation of the strategies of modern synthesis; but I note that combinatorial chemistry does not occur in the index. There is a good, systematic use of colour throughout and plenty of biographical asides to lighten the presentation.

There are two CDs, but in the review copy there were only two blobs of glue. Therefore, I cannot comment on the CDs, except to say that we are promised a lot of retrosynthetic analysis and 20 minutes of video to support the case study.

The title of part one of Separation, Purification, and Identification , "Chemistry: a practical subject", conveys the essence of this very nice introduction to the conventional paradigmatic contribution of chemistry. We can expect it to be rather dull (at least I did), so what a pleasant surprise to turn its elegant pages and discover a succinct introduction expressed in an interesting manner. Here we are told about many of the basic techniques of practical chemistry, including preparing, separating and purifying compounds; checking a compound's purity; and identifying a compound. This section of the book is well supported by one of the CDs, which has videos of laboratory techniques, chromatography, distillation, combustion analysis and mass spectrometry. I was taken aback by the pleasure of practical laboratory work as I watched these helpful clips, each one lasting several minutes and covering a lot of ground.

Part two of the text is on spectroscopy, but it is no more than a nugatory pointer to the second CD. I would have liked something more substantial in the written material, for this style does not exhibit the strength of the series - the integration of text and media. The CD contains material that should, I think, really be in print, as it is a bit slow to have background theory read to one, even when it is done as well as it is here. However, that material is supported by videos and animations of vibrational spectroscopy and magnetic resonance, and is a helpful practical introduction.

Many would argue that the core of physical chemistry is chemical kinetics, the study of the rates of chemical change. Through chemical kinetics we can identify the probable path of chemical change, currently on timescales down to about 1 femtosecond. We can also identify the optimum conditions for reactions and improve the economics of industrial production, or simply make reactions viable, by the development of catalysts. Chemical Kinetics and Mechanism reviews the principles involved.

There are two principal sections and the usual case study. The first deals with the physical chemistry of reaction kinetics, taking the reader through material on rate laws, but it is perhaps a bit thin on the kinetics of composite reactions. Once again, the CD is nicely integrated into the exposition, but I wonder how many readers will wade through all the data they are encouraged to analyse, or just take it on trust that they can carry out the calculations. However, the authors provide a neat kinetics package, which is basically a simple spreadsheet for entering time and concentration data coupled with a graphing engine and simple curve-fitting procedure.

The second part of the book consists of two sections on organic reaction mechanisms, specifically on substitution and elimination and addition. The unusual coupling of physical chemistry and organic chemistry works quite well, and readers can see how the physical chemistry of reaction kinetics can be deployed to identify reaction mechanism. The case study is a nice account of what are perhaps among the most important contributions of chemistry to industry, micro-porous catalysts.

The illustration programme in this book is a bit idiosyncratic, with whole pages taken up with slightly vacuous graphs and some big molecular models (available as WebLab files); the line art that characterises most of the other texts in the series is confined mostly to the case study.

In Metals and Chemical Change we get down to some inorganic chemistry, using the reactions of the metals as a vehicle. But the presentation of these reactions is in the context of thermodynamics, so potential readers must be alert to the presence of wolves in sheep's clothing. That could be construed as a strength, for it is appropriate to see the ramifications of the underlying principles.

The text opens with a reasonably extended account of the laws of thermodynamics. The author is a bit hamstrung by the need to avoid the calculus, but he does an admirable job of presenting the significance of enthalpy and entropy without too many distracting bells and whistles. After that, the text embarks on an extended account of metal chemistry, both main group and, to some extent, the transition metals. All this is done in the context of thermodynamics, which provides an appropriate rationalisation of what would otherwise be a tiresome collection of facts.

The case study is an up-to-date account of batteries and fuel cells, the essential component of modern mobile life in all its electrical aspects.

The CD has an extensive collection of video clips, that really brings the reactions alive.

Nowhere is the chemistry of the elements more diverse and difficult to present systematically than in the p block, the region of the periodic table on the right and the home of virtually all the non-metals. The well-produced volume Elements of the p Block is almost a mini-inorganic chemistry text, for it starts off with a summary of reaction types and bonding, then proceeds systematically through the groups of the p block (treating hydrogen as an honorary member). The authors present the material in a straightforward way, at about the level found in general chemistry texts, and they have steered clear or have failed to find a more systematic way of rationalising this diverse but interesting chemistry. The material is perfectly adequate as an introduction to this part of the periodic table, and is augmented by two case studies. One is an extensive account of acid rain, dealing with the contributions of sulphur and carbon dioxide to this problem. The second is a brief but helpful account of industrial inorganic chemistry.

The Molecular World series is an excellent contribution to chemical pedagogy. Both the Open University team and the sponsors, the Royal Society of Chemistry, should feel proud.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford, and chairman, IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education.

  • Molecular Modelling and Bonding. First edition
    Edited by E. A. Moore
    ISBN 0 85404 675 5

  • The Third Dimension. First edition
    Edited by L. E. Smart and J. M. F. Gagan
    ISBN 0 85494 660 7

  • Alkanes and Aromatics. First edition
    Edited by P. G. Taylor and J. M. F. Gagan
    ISBN 0 85404 680 1

  • Mechanism and Synthesis. First edition
    Edited by P. G. Taylor
    ISBN 0 85404 695 X

  • Separation, Purification, and Identification. First edition
    Edited by L. E. Smart
    ISBN 0 85404 685 2

  • Chemical Kinetics and Mechanism. First edition
    Edited by M. Mortimer and P. G. Taylor
    ISBN 0 85404 670 4

  • Metals and Chemical Change. First edition
    Edited by D. A. Johnson
    ISBN 0 85404 665 8

  • Elements of the p Block. First edition
    Edited by C. J. Harding, R. Janes and D. A. Johnson
    ISBN 0 85404 690 9

The Molecular World Series

Editor - Coordinating editor L. E. Smart, edited and designed by the Open University
ISBN - 0 85404 655 0 (complete set)
Publisher - Royal Society of Chemistry
Price - £169.00 (complete set)
Pages - -

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