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This is a delightful little book. In it Atkins "attempts to make the molecule familiar" to those readers who may have only a passing acquaintance with chemistry. The book consists of six chapters covering 160 molecules plus a glossary and a useful index. Numerous colour plates, colour illustrations of space filling models and line drawings highlight elements of the text beautifully. The text itself is conversational in tone, highly readable and spiced with fascinating and often amusing tidbits. While there is a logical order to the presentation, merely flipping through the pages reveals interesting facts and applications. There is abundant cross-referencing of entries within the descriptive passages.

A preliminary section provides a cursory introduction to the notions of elements, atoms, compounds, bonding and structural formulae. The description of simple substances -- argon, molecular oxygen and nitrogen, carbon dioxide, ozone, water, ammonia -- in the first chapter then serves both to make the transition from the introduction to the bulk of the material and to explore some of the compounds that we encounter constantly and inadvertently. The last section examines some molecules associated with smog, pollution and acid rain, noting at the same time that some of these compounds are of tremendous importance to industry and agriculture.

A chapter on fuels, fats and soaps introduces the hydrocarbons, methanol and the corresponding aldehydes and acids, lactic acid, glycerol, fatty acids, triglycerides and cholesterol. It concludes with sections on constituents of butter and margarine, and on soaps and detergents. The section on ethanol also describes GABA and the effect of ethanol on neurotransmission.

The chapter on polymers describes polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinylchloride, polytetrafluoroethylene, polystyrene, methyl and lauryl methacrylate, methyl cyanoacrylate, polyisoprene, poly(ethylene terephthalate), polyacrylonitrile, nylon, polypeptides, sugars, starch, cellulose and chitin. Atkins connects the molecules with everyday life from plastic bags, clothing and chewing gum through Velcro, credit cards and the Jarvik heart to hair, maple syrup and insect exoskeletons.

Two chapters deal with molecules and the senses. The first examines taste, smell and pain. Here are the artificial sweeteners, sour oxalic and citric acids, bitter molecules, the hot, the cool and the spicy. Other sections look at meatiness and barbecues, fruit and other foods, flowers and essential oils, and animal smells. The second chapter describes molecules associated with vision and colour: retinal, chlorophyll, carotene and xanthophylls, flavonoids, melanin and PABA.

The final chapter contrasts the higher and lower purposes toward which molecules serve humanity. There are analgesics, tranquilizers and stimulants, explosives, mustard gas, thalidomide, testerone and estradiol.

The book is brief and incomplete by Atkins' own admission. One could think of many more molecules to supplement this collection. There is little attempt to describe chemical change or molecular interactions, but these are beyond the book's scope. Models are not always drawn to make the structural similarities between molecules apparent to the reader and that some unlikely conformations appear. However, the author has undertaken a formidable task and been admirably successful in its accomplishment. Atkins has woven technical understanding together with the reader's everyday experience to create a book that is entertaining and informative. While physicists and biologists are prominent among the authors on bookstore shelves, interesting popular works in chemistry are rare. This account is a marvellous introduction for inquiring minds curious about the chemistry of our everyday world. It could also be read profitably by high school and first-year chemistry students as a supplementary text. One might even wish to prescribe a copy for a chemophobic friend. Even to professional chemists, it offers considerable pleasure because it captures the wonder in exploring and the delight in understanding that led us into chemistry.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Chemical Institute of Canada
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wildman, T.A.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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