Weak link in the chain

Applications of Markov Chains in Chemical Engineering
November 3, 2000

There is an important role for Markov chains in many chemical engineering problems, but this is not a book I can recommend. There have been attempts at humour in some well - known textbooks, and some are even funny. But this book is greatly diminished by the irrelevant and perverse references to paintings and the Bible. The publisher should really have convinced Abraham Tamir to write two much shorter books: one on Markov chains in chemical engineering and the second on Markov chains in art, literature and religion.

The book is organised into four main chapters dealing with fundamentals, chemical reactions, chemical reactors and other chemical processes. I found the fundamentals chapter very difficult to follow. I did not have a prior background in Markov chains, and I was keen to find out about them. Sadly, the constant interruptions for Escher, Magritte, tennis and a biography of Yitzhak Rabin put me off completely.

Having taught reaction engineering for some while, I hoped to be more at ease with the next two chapters. Instead, although I found less distracting material, I was left with some serious technical questions that are either not posed, or are ignored or left unanswered. Chapter three, on chemical reactions, is also far too long and contains too many examples that are only minor variations or developments on previous examples. At one point, huge lists of equations and vast matrices are written out in full to the accompaniment of fewer than a dozen words a page.
It was when I reached chapter four that I began to lose the will to live. At a time when so much progress is being made in the computational fluid dynamics of real reactors, a chapter devoted to residence time distributions seems odd. W e are subjected to examples of compartment models, again too many and too closely related.

I had hoped to find some simple demonstrations where applications of Markov chains are clearly superior to alternative approaches. I would have expected some counter - examples to serve as a warning to those who may become infatuated, deluded or bewitched by these fascinating methods. Sadly, this book avoids all comparisons with alternative approaches, favourable or otherwise. It does make some passing references to the chaotic dynamics that result from some of the examples used, but the attractors are presented more as objets d’art than useful features of dynamical systems.

A popular website selling books advertises more than 20 on Markov chains. This is the only one of those books to claim to concentrate exclusively on applications of direct interest to chemical engineers and is the most expensive. I am unlikely to recommend that our library purchases a copy, but it might be quite fun to leave one lying open on a staff room coffee table.

Norman Kirkby is senior lecturer in chemical and process engineering, University of Surrey.

Applications of Markov Chains in Chemical Engineering

Author - Abraham Tamir
ISBN - 0 444 82356 5
Publisher - Elsevier
Price - 238 euros
Pages - 616

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