Handy tools for GUT-level thinking about molecules

Physical Chemistry. First Edition - Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences. First Edition
February 24, 2006

Grand universal theories (GUTs) attempt to answer Stephen Hawking's famous question: "Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?" Chemistry gracefully occupies the middle ground of the universe, between energetic particle play at one extreme and galactic grandeur at the other. Not only do the GUTs of physical chemistry - thermodynamics, kinetics, quantum mechanics, symmetry and statistical mechanics - form the explanatory backdrop of all chemical science, but they have played key roles in the search for cosmological GUTs.

Physical Chemistry by Thomas Engel and Philip Reid is a well-polished treatment of these themes, modulated by a sophisticated guidance system for students and teachers. Its target audience is undergraduates in chemistry, biochemistry and chemical engineering. The significance of each topic is discussed first, and then the subject is described in words and illustrated with colour diagrams and examples.

Topics are reinforced with a list of pertinent jargon, by questions relating to the key concepts and by a lavish number of problems. Each book supplies an access code to a special website, and each chapter is supplemented by web-based simulations, animations and problems. All these features will be a godsend to students, teachers and lecturers alike. The book displays a good balance of the abstract and the practical. The superb illustrations of nanoscale machining, the section on lasers, the chapter on computational methods and the neat orbital-based treatment of polyatomic molecules are all worth special mention.

Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences has been written for students of the life sciences, including biology and biochemistry. Its four main sections cover biochemical thermodynamics, the kinetics of life processes, biomolecular structure and biochemical spectroscopy. The text contains a variety of instructional devices to assist understanding and assimilation; worked examples, exercises, discussion questions and projects. Additional support is provided in a website. Fascinating case studies showing the outworking of physical principles in real biological situations are among its strong points. In short, the book has all the clarity and rigour associated with texts by Peter Atkins.

However, biologists should be aware that he and his co-author eschew descriptive approaches, and mathematics is an essential component of the mix. Complex algebra, together with differential and integral calculus, appears almost from page one. To sugar the mathematical pill, the reader is gently taken through numerous worked examples called "illustrations"; but whether this will charm the muse of the average biologist is a moot point.

Biologists like colour and 3D images. The book's black-and-white format makes the displays of enzymes and biological structures appear flat and lifeless. However, it has much to recommend it for teaching chemistry students about biology; and this may prove to be its main niche.

John Walton is professor of reactive chemistry, St. Andrews University.

Physical Chemistry. First Edition

Author - Thomas Engel and Philip Reid
Publisher - Pearson/Benjamin Cummings
Pages - 1061
Price - £40.99
ISBN - 0 8053 3842 X

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