Problem solver's primer

Chemical Principles
February 26, 1999

This bright and colourful book is clearly aimed at the US university foundation chemistry market, so it attempts to encompass the full range of chemistry typically taught in these courses. It follows the general format and appearance of the earlier Atkins/Jones collaboration Chemistry, Molecules, Matter and Change but is pitched at a significantly higher level. In UK terms it is largely post A level and will contain a great deal of material that appears in the first year of an honours chemistry programme. The tone throughout is very much an informal learning dialogue, with margin asides highlighting links with other sections, explaining details or providing related trivia.

This is very definitely a "doer's" book with a large selection of problems at the end of each chapter. The text is littered with worked examples that are followed by two self-test questions. The level of detail given in the workings of the example is about right, with the correct units and number of significant figures being a matter of course. Unlike many books, the worked examples begin with a short strategy section that describes in words how the problem will be tackled. This pause before diving into solving the equations is an excellent idea to move students away from the ever-popular rote learning method - "this is an example of how to answer this type of question" - and encourages students to assess whether their answers are reasonable.

Any text that attempts to cover such a broad range of chemistry must make a selection of topics and level. Chemical Principles is dominated by a large section of traditional physical chemistry - some four times larger than that devoted to inorganic and organic chemistry. Physical chemistry is covered fairly comprehensively, with solid sections on the basic ideas of quantum mechanics, chemical bonding (including interactions in liquids and the structure of solids), thermodynamics, equilibrium and kinetics.

The inorganic chapters describe the typical chemistry of the various groups and link nicely to the ideas of bonding and structure. The relatively short section on organic chemistry moves from naming simple hydrocarbons to simple reactions with their mechanisms and then to polymers, proteins, carbohydrates and DNA in a mere 70 pages. This section will fall well short of the first-year content in a mainstream chemistry programme in a UK university, as will the coverage of spectroscopy, with the techniques of infrared, electronic, and NMR spectroscopy being treated in asides of a few pages each.

There is an interesting section of so-called fundamentals at the beginning, which is basically a 100-page gallop through sections of very basic (what is a mole?) chemistry. It is hard to see the relevance of this section other than as a review - it is certainly not enough to enable a novice to cope with the rest of the book.

This book will be popular with lecturers when it matches the content of their particular first-year chemistry courses. For students who are struggling to cope with the higher level of problem-solving demanded at university, I imagine it will be very popular indeed.

Peter Hamilton is reader in physical chemistry, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London.

Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight. First Edition

Author - Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones
ISBN - 0 716 73596 2
Publisher - Freeman
Price - £26.95
Pages - 908

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