The Cinderella of chemistry

Introduction to Synthetic Polymers
February 10, 1995

Polymer science has often been the "Cinderella" subject in many chemistry departments. Looked on as being too applied and dealing with ill-defined materials, it is only recently that it has started to be introduced as a serious course. This creates a need for a good, inexpensive textbook. It is clearly with this in mind that Ian Campbell's Introduction to Synthetic Polymers was written.

This book is aimed at undergraduate students in chemistry, and the author has deliberately avoided the temptation of trying to cover too many different types of polymer. Rather, he has concentrated on the principles behind structure-property relationships and polymerisation methods. At the end of each chapter is a stimulating set of problems, often culled from recent literature. While the answers are not included, original sources are usually given, allowing the student to look up the original paper if necessary.

The first section of the book includes a historical and current industrial perspective, illustrated by some interesting anecdotal stories. However, there is a lot of detail given in the figures and graphs, which is probably wasted, as many of the polymers are still unfamiliar to the student.

The remainder of the chapter is an introduction to the main terminology and concepts of polymerisation. The information is often quite tightly packed, as in the stereochemistry section. This is partly due to having to squeeze in such a large subject as polymer science into 200 pages. It results in some sections that are very difficult to comprehend in what is otherwise a very readable work.

The only other main criticism of the text is that a few topics are introduced (for example, stereochemistry and molecular weight) without any explanation of their importance until much later in the book. The result is that students may feel that they are learning abstract concepts with little relevance to the real world. This apart, the two chapters on molecular weight and microstructure are at just the right level for an introductory book, and students should have few problems in what are often difficult areas to understand.

The chemical analysis of polymers covers such a large area that it would be impossible to do more than scratch the surface in just one chapter. Instead, three important techniques have been chosen to illustrate how structural information can be gleaned from their use. The author has assumed that the student has a working knowledge of both nuclear magnetic resonance and infra-red spectroscopy. Rather than trying to be comprehensive, a few examples from each are taken from the literature and explained in detail. X-ray scattering is wisely treated in a non-mathematical fashion and so will hold few terrors.

The first half of the section on step-growth polymerisation looks very difficult for the average student owing to the mathematics and wordy explanations. My guess is that most readers will skip over this part. Similar problems arise in parts of the next chapter on radical polymerisation.

All the preceding topics in the book are drawn together very well in the chapter on polymer properties, where the relevance of much of the previous work is explained clearly. As remarked earlier, it is perhaps a pity that the author left most of this interesting information until so late. The final part of the book is a look at some fascinating new polymers and polymerisation techniques, including conducting, thermally stable and liquid-crystalline materials.

Several of the mechanisms in the figures are poorly drawn and could do with revising. The appendix consists of a comparison of common versus systematic names for some important monomers. Unfortunately, many of the systematic names given are slightly wrong and in two cases totally unrecognisable. However, these are small criticisms and do not detract from the overall worth of the book. There is also a useful list of references for further study.

This book would make a very good conventional undergraduate text for a first course in polymer science and, given the cost of most scientific works, it is very reasonably priced. While it is not as comprehensive as some costlier alternatives (for example, J.M.G. Cowie's excellent Polymers: Chemistry and Physics of Modern Materials), it is hard to beat for value.

Stephen C. Moratti is a lecturer in chemistry, University of Cambridge.

Introduction to Synthetic Polymers

Author - Ian M. Campbell
ISBN - 0 19 855398 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £13.95
Pages - 213pp

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