Reactions: The Private Life of Atoms
Oxford University Press (2013)
As a general rule, an author shouldn’t apologise for how uninteresting a topic is, especially when that excuse is within the first paragraph of their popular science book. In his new book, Peter Atkins does say just that, setting a mixed tone for the exploration of the world of chemical reactions that follows.
The book itself begins with simple descriptions of precipitation, oxidation and reduction reactions, at a level recognisable to A-Level students. From here, it progresses to more esoteric accounts of the Wittig and Friedel-Crafts reactions. Each page is littered with 3D representations of the molecules under discussion.
While reading, I kept pondering who the book is aimed at. Its rather academic style would suggest undergraduate chemistry, or curious students of other sciences, but its rudimentary investigation of each topic doesn’t lend itself well to in-depth study or analysis.
Atkins comes into his own when, after explaining a reaction, he gives some relatable examples from everyday life. For example, after discussing free radicals and combustion processes, he succinctly, explains why natural gas burns with a blue flame if there is plenty of air, but with a smoky yellow flame if the air supply is restricted. These descriptions kept reminding me of that seminal work of popular science, Six Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman. Unfortunately for Atkins, the similarities end there.
It succeeds in being a good accompaniment for the chemistry student or keen autodidact but fails utterly in being an engaging work of popular science. If chemistry isn’t your thing, stay well away.