Quanta, matter and change. A molecular approach to physical chemistry 

Peter Atkins, Julio de Paula and Ronald Friedman

Oxford: OUP 2009 | Pp816 | £39.99 | ISBN 978 0 19 920606 3

Reviewed by Stephen Roser

Cover of Quanta, matter and change. A molecular approach to physical chemistry

This latest undergraduate book from Peter Atkins et al  is a curious beast. At a time when most chemistry departments in the UK are struggling with many students unhappy or unwilling to engage with anything but the simplest maths, the authors have chosen to start this textbook with a detailed exposition of the principles of quantum theory. As you read on it becomes clear, however, that this is another beautifully clear, elegantly configured textbook published by the OUP.  

The stated aim of the book is to show how the microscopic world evolves into macroscopic behaviour. Thus we start with quantum mechanics and work through to the more traditional physical chemistry starting point of thermodynamics. This molecular approach to the subject is one which I guess all of us who teach physical chemistry to first-year undergraduates have thought about. The book is divided into five sections, Quantum theoryAtoms, molecules and assembliesMolecular spectroscopy, followed by Molecular thermodynamics  - the key linking chapter - and Chemical dynamics

The first section on quantum theory and molecular motion (confusingly, I think, called nanosystems) is typical of the book in being elegantly put together with good sections exploring some contemporary impacts on chemistry and biology. Much of the main text follows mathematical background for each of the chapters, which is rigorous and helpful, but again, at a high level. 

The authors talk of the 'two of the great rivers' running through physical chemistry, and the pivotal chapter of the book links classical, macroscopic thermodynamics with quantum mechanics and energy levels via the Boltzmann distribution. Partition functions appear at this stage, but then we move back to a chunk of traditional thermochemistry, before we are on more interesting ground with the second law of thermodynamics. Discussion of equilibrium is clearly helped in the context of statistical mechanics, but I think the authors have backed off from a more radical approach at this stage, and the approach taken seems less genre-shifting as we work though the book. 

Overall this is a book that I really enjoyed, was stimulated by, and will doubtless use in my teaching. The problem is that I am not so sure that the majority of my less mathematically able students would agree.