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Physical Chemistry: Understanding Our Chemical World.

Physical Chemistry: Understanding Our Chemical World. Paul Monk. Chichester, West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2004, 618 pp., $44.95 (softcover). ISBN 0-471-49181-0.


I am all too aware that courses in physical chemistry are often not recalled with fond memories by those who go on to pursue careers in biology and medicine. Once at lunch with a former student and some of her young physician friends, I asked if physical chemistry wasn't one of the most valuable courses they had. After a period of quiet, one of them remarked that the textbook was good for propping up a table with one short leg, and another asked, "What is physical chemistry?"

As a teacher of physical chemistry for 40 years, using the various texts by Moore and then Atkins, Laidler, and others, I came to Monk's book with a great deal of prejudice favoring traditional ways of structuring the text. I noticed, at first glance, that Monk's approach is very different. For example, there is no chapter on quantum theory, no problems at the ends of chapters, and fewer mathematical formulas and equations, and the table of contents is a list of questions about how and why various things happen. I assumed that I would be disappointed, but as I studied the book, I found many wonderful surprises and a strong logic line. In my opinion, Monk has a deep understanding of many of the thorny issues in physical chemistry and is able to avoid the unnecessary mysteries that plague other texts.

The wonderful surprises include very useful notes on the etymology of terms, better than usual historical perspectives, many supporting insets (shaded) to add insights to the text proper, and other very good insets (boxed) on "Asides" and "Justifications". His strength with thorny issues begins with his math. His math is never thin, but it is also never broader than what is needed, and he shows strong sensitivity to the notational hurdles that bother students. For example, the confusing aspects of the notations used for partial derivatives are clarified in a simple but rigorous manner. In the treatment of interactions, he has several very useful additions to the usual way of dealing with that subject, such as the idea of long times for the duration of strong bonds and short times for the duration of weak bonds. (One could argue that such a distinction is the origin of genetics.) He avoids the ambiguity of the term "irreversible" by covering one the meanings of that term under the "minus-oneth" law, which acknowledges the one-way direction of natural processes. He treats entropy as a measure of the "spread" of energies and is able to maintain a good relationship between energy and entropy, leading to an easy and natural interpretation of free energy. Thermodynamic "activity" is presented as a "fudge factor", which is profound but unsettling, and then Monk adds that activity can be viewed as the "thermodynamically perceived concentration".

Half of the book is devoted to thermodynamics and its applications to phase, chemical, and electrochemical equilibria. The treatments are good and unusually interesting, but probably many teachers would find topics missing that they wish had been included. In the chapter on acids and bases, for example, there is very little about polyprotic acids. The chapter on kinetics is, again, well developed, but there is very little about reactions with complex mechanisms. The chapter on spectroscopy is especially interesting because of the attention to questions about common phenomena, but there is no development of models. The chapter on surface chemistry is a strong inclusion for the education of chemists. I see the book as a strong candidate for adoption as a text for a course, but not as a source for specific information for laboratory reference, especially in a medical laboratory setting. It would also likely be useful as a text for reviewing concepts and terminology.

Henry B. Hollinger

Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute

Troy, NY 12180

DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2004.042291
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Author:Hollinger, Henry B.
Publication:Clinical Chemistry
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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