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This is a popular book on organic chemistry, a celebrated one at that, this being the second edition, substantially revised. The first was published in 1987. It is one of those almost legendary books of the publishing history, a technical book on a highly technical subject that somehow managed to reach something close to a large readership.
Ironically, the reason is not so much in the drawings of the molecules, but in the text. Peter Atkins covers a wide range of interesting molecules and shows how they are related, and he makes their properties semi-accessible to the general reader. I say, "semi" because, frankly for this chemistry-challenged person, seeing two-dimensional shapes of the molecules helps me to understand them only slightly. I suspect for those more conversant with chemistry, the drawings (new for this edition) will be valuable. To me, the mystery of why a certain shape and elemental composition should result in a nutritious substance whereas something else with only the slightest change should be poisonous is not dispelled.
He begins with "Simple substances," oxygen molecules, nitrogen, our air and its pollutants. He ends with the very complex DNA and RNA. Along the way he enlightens us about so many of the chemicals and foods and consumer products we use in our daily lives from soaps and gasoline to fats and oils, to painkillers and street drugs. His style is very readable and he has the welcome knack of being informative about interesting things. Here are some examples:
Baking power releases carbon dioxide to leaven baked goods in two separate bursts. "The first burst occurs at room temperature as a result of the action of the moistened tartaric acid...The second...is due to the action of the aluminum salt, and it occurs at high temperature." (p. 24)
One of the differences between synthetic and natural vanilla (vanillin) is that the natural is "weakly radioactive," the former having been made from coal tar, "from which the radioactivity has long decayed," while the latter picks up some radioactive carbon-14 atoms captured from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. (p. 154) (Of course natural vanilla is also more expensive.)
Lemons originally came from northern India and were introduced into the Mediterranean region about a thousand years ago. (p. 155)
"Initially, a young white wine may have a greenish hue from the chlorophyll...molecules that survive fermentation." (p. 176)
Window glass allows UV-A rays to pass through but blocks UV-B rays. (p. 180) I had always wondered about this because I had gotten conflicting information from different sources.
There's a Glossary and many full color illustrations and photos on glossy paper in addition to the color-coded drawings of the molecules, some of which are very beautiful. There's an Introduction in which Atkins explains the difference between elements and molecules, between atoms and compounds, and differentiates between the bonds between atoms and the forces that hold molecules together.
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on 4 December 2003
The scope of the first edition of this "classic" has been increased by including more chemicals (including new ones such as "viagra" and "prozac"!); to this extent the second edition is to be commended.
But I question the improvement of the molecule illustrations themselves. Although now produced by computer and including also stick models, the scale is smaller and the colours often hard to distinguish. For example it is often difficult to differentiate between the black of carbon atoms and the blue of nitrogen atoms.
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on 23 September 2004
This is a very well written book by Peter Atkins. Atkins Molecules gives a clear insight into the world of molecules and divides the book up into different sections with their own characteristic molecules. Atkins writes in such a way that the book is not approachable for chemists, but for anybody who is iquisitive about the world around them. The book describes how molecules shape the world and how synthetic polymers, are useful, but other man made chemicals can be harmful. The only problem is that the diagrams are a little confusing and i think that Atkins should have included the systematic names of the molecules as well as ther common names and formulae. Over all, this is a gem of a book.
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on 31 October 2003
Some new editions of old favourites turn out to be nothing much more than the old book in a new cover. This is different. Peter Atkins has really gone to town revising and updating this one to make it better than ever before. If you want to know what the world is made of, this is hte place to look.
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