Speedy formula cuts to chase

Statistical Mechanics
February 28, 2003

The fundamental tenet of physical chemistry is that we may start from the foundations of quantum theory and calculate the properties of matter that we can touch or hold. But molecular quantum theory is used mostly to predict properties of single molecules, whereas most experiments are made on large assemblies of molecules. The challenge of statistical mechanics is to bridge this gap, and it is such an important topic that it is treated in every textbook of physical chemistry. So we should ask: do we need another book? The answer is yes, because statistical mechanics is mathematical, abstract and perceived to be difficult for undergraduate chemists.

This book differs from others on my bookshelf in its aim to move as quickly as possible to a presentation of useful formulae. It is a textbook and not a mathematical primer. All of the standard topics are covered and, more unusually, there is space for treatment of liquids and quantum ideal gases.

The text is an excellent read. Every paragraph contains reflective insights on the physical significance of the formulae and their underlying motivation. This makes a subject that is notorious for its difficulty seem simple.

The price of this approach is that the statistical foundations are not as clear as in more openly mathematical but less expository texts. This is a significant loss, and so I do not think that this should be the first textbook on this topic read by undergraduate chemists. For that purpose, perhaps Andrew Maczek's excellent Statistical Thermodyamics still makes the simplest guide.

However, the simplicity, depth of insight and the unusual range of topics in Benjamin Widom's Statistical Mechanics should make it compulsory reading for educators and students alike when they seek to go beyond the first steps of statistical mechanics.

Trevor Rayment is reader in physical chemistry, University of Cambridge.

Statistical Mechanics: A Concise Introduction for Chemists. First edition

Author - Benjamin Widom
ISBN - 0 521 81119 8 and 00966 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00 and £18.95
Pages - 170

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