Formulas for riches and fame

November 27, 1998

How can chemists turn base elements into gold? Well, they could emulate Peter Atkins and start writing phenomenally successful textbooks. Kam Patel reports.

A few weeks ago, at his Royal Institution office, the author Peter Atkins sat down in a chair that once belonged to Michael Faraday, the scientist who revolutionised our understanding of electricity and magnetism, and read the proofs of a chapter on electrochemistry for his latest textbook. It was, he told me later that day, an inspiring experience.

Atkins has had phenomenal success as an author of chemistry textbooks. He has also written several books for the wider public, including the controversial Creation Revisited , which championed the power of scientific logic and rationalism over religious belief.

A professor of chemistry at Oxford University, Atkins's bestselling work is Physical Chemistry (1978), now in its sixth edition. He declines to reveal exactly how many copies of the book have been sold, pointing out that his publisher, Oxford University Press, regard the sales figures as a "trade secret". But some indication of the incredible popularity of Physical Chemistry among students worldwide is that in the UK alone, first-year sales of new editions exceed the total number of students studying chemistry and closely allied disciplines at degree level. This cohort is 14,400 strong, and last year new entrants on courses in the field totalled 4,300. The reason why Physical Chemistry has a "market penetration" far in excess of 100 per cent is that it is often a recommended text for subjects such as chemical engineering, materials science and metallurgy. In North America, surveys have revealed a market penetration of around 60 per cent, while for the rest of the world the figure is nearly 80 per cent. The book has been translated into a dozen languages. No wonder its author has become a millionaire.

It is widely acknowledged that Physical Chemistry broke new ground. Atkins says: "What I was trying to do was interpret the mathematics so people could understand it, respond to it and see what it was telling them about physical reality. Other physical chemistry texts at the time just laid out the mathematics and you could take it or leave it, and increasingly the young were leaving it. I have tried to keep that original theme of interpretation alive through successive editions." However, Atkins stresses that a prime objective was that this should not be at the expense of intellectual rigour: "You want to be stern in the way you unroll the subject but be accessible. That is the ideal balance."

One of the delights of writing textbooks for Atkins is the chance to explain better with each new edition. "We expect our students to learn physical chemistry in three years. It has taken me 20 years to get Physical Chemistry to its current state. It's like being an undergraduate forever," he laughs.

New editions of Physical Chemistry have emerged every three or four years. But the days when Atkins could write all or much of the book himself have long gone, because of the demands of new technology. "Any self-respecting science textbook now has to have one or more CDs and so the labour involved in the production of books has doubled from what it was when I started." His Chemistry: Molecules, Matter and Change for instance, has ten supplements accompanying it, including two CDs. They contain animations of rotating molecules. But while Atkins believes the medium is extremely useful to students, he feels it is still immature: "There is an inbuilt frustration with electronic media - people always expect more than can be delivered and textbook CDs are no different in that respect."

Nevertheless, by writing the core of the book himself he ensures there is a "unity". "Not only do I do all the words but also all the illustrations. I find that quite important. It means there is no artist between my imagination and what appears on the page. The drawings are a relaxation from the writing but they do take hours and hours."

Atkins can and does write anywhere; armed with his laptop he often zooms off with his wife Susan Greenfield for working holidays in exotic locations. "The ability, the freedom to work, say, on a desert island somewhere is very attractive. As to fame... well maybe in the chemical community, but it is certainly not intended."

The downside to his success is that he has had to give up original research. This was, he says, a "great sadness". He keeps up with advances in his field more by reading reviews than primary literature and maintains an enormous correspondence: "People have a warm feeling towards Physical Chemistry in particular and write to me with unsolicited advice, which I find enormously helpful."

Lest it be thought that Atkins, who owns a famed honey-coloured Rolls-Royce, lives the life of Riley, constantly Lear-jetting from one sun-kissed beach to another, he points out that he works very hard and that book writing has to be juggled around his professorial commitments at Oxford. He starts work at 6.30 am, carries on until 7 pm and works on Saturdays and Sundays as well. Usually there are three books on the go with two dominating his mind.

He has devised a number of strategies to deal with the workload. When the college bell strikes 2 pm, for example, he stops writing, even in mid-sentence, and immediately turns his attention to the other book. "If you stop in mid-sentence, your thought is already formed so that when you come back to it you just roll on until the bell strikes again." And he always starts writing a new edition on December 26 because he finds Christmas a ghastly affair: "I like to purge it by doing something I like. All my books start on Boxing Day."

Atkins recognises that the pressures on textbook authors are far greater than 20 years ago. "I think it is very difficult for those starting out now to fit in something that is most likely to be, initially at least, a secondary and time-consuming activity. But if they decide to take the step, they should listen very carefully to all the advice that is given to them and act on it. I rely enormously on feedback of all kinds, from students, lecturers, publishers and editors."

He certainly had plenty of feedback on his uncompromising Creation Revisited . "There are many scientists who are devout and I find that an extraordinary conjunction of attitudes. I still do not understand how you can be a remarkably successful scientist and yet still believe in religion and all that nonsense. Religion is a dreadful disease of society and I think science liberates people from the world's religions - some obviously far worse than others. And if there is anything I can do to help that liberation I will do it."

Inorganic Chemistry by D. F. Shriver and P. W. Atkins will be published next March. See article "News bottles for some new wine" for Atkins's review of Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine's textbook.

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