BOOK REVIEW: The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins

The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short IntroductionThe Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book succeeds in systematically exploring the topic, but it fails to do so in a readable fashion for a non-expert reader who’s looking for a rudimentary grasp of the basics. It’s true that the topic is complex and challenging (as the author argues up front,) but I don’t believe the book’s daunting nature all lands on the subject matter. I’ve read up on other difficult topics using this series (VSI,) and found some books much more approachable.

The main problem was a lack of clarity (versus precision) in the language. In other words, the author didn’t want to oversimplify or use analogies, even though those are what’s needed for a neophyte reader to build an intuitively grasp a subject. For example, while the chapters are nicely organized by the laws of thermodynamic and presented in their usual order, there’s no quick and dirty definition of the respective law given at the beginning of each chapter. A simplified definition (incomplete and imperfect as it might be) would allow the reader to gain a basic intuition of the concept. Then, the reader can tweak and expand the concept as they go. But that’s not the approach taken here. Instead, several paragraphs are taken to get around to a statement of the law in question. There was also a lack of analogies and other tools to help the reader gain a foothold based upon what they know. I suspect these tools were avoided because they are all incorrect at some level of precision, and it was the scholarly fear of imprecision that resulted in their teaching effectiveness being abandoned.

This is a great guide for people who think mathematically and / or who are looking for a quick refresher of ideas they once knew. For those who don’t have a background in science and who need verbal explanations that make an effort to be comprehensible, it’s probably not the best one can do.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins

Chemistry: A Very Short IntroductionChemistry: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Lately, I’ve been reading several of these “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] books put out by Oxford University Press. They are a good way to take in the basics of a subject in a concise and layman-friendly manner—either as a refresher or introduction. And they are inexpensive both on Kindle and at my local book seller, Blossom Book House in Bangalore. There are 400 to 500 titles in the series (and growing) and they deal with topics as broad as… well, Chemistry, to as narrow as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They’re available for subjects in the sciences, art, social sciences, the humanities, etc. This book, like most in the series, is about 100 pages long, and includes a glossary and suggestions for further reading.

As is common across the series, the writing is approachable to a non-specialist, but don’t expect Mary Roach style popular science writing. The author doesn’t use interesting stories or colorful language to make his point. The trade-off for getting a concise explanation is that you may find the book dry. I won’t say that these books—and this one in particular—aren’t for pleasure readers, but they’re for readers who take pleasure in learning–as well as those who need to get a grasp on a subject quickly (e.g. your fiance’s mother is a Professor of Microbiology and her father is one of the foremost experts on the Norman Conquest—and you don’t want to seem like an idiot—OUP has you covered.)

As the common subtitle suggests, you will only get the bare essentials. That’s truer for books with a broad scope than those of narrow scope. That is, if you read the AVSI book on “Philosophy” you are going to get less of the full story of the title subject than you will of the one entitled “Heidegger.” Of course, Chemistry is broad.

There are seven chapters in this book. The first offers background information on the history of chemistry, its scope and where it fits with respect to related sciences, and how the subject has come to be organized into sub-disciplines. The second chapter explains the basic concepts of atomic structure and bonding. The third chapter offers the basics of thermodynamics, and the fourth describes the nature of chemical reactions. The fifth chapter describes the methods that are used in the study of chemistry. The last two chapters are a bit different. They tell the reader what chemists have produced (for good and bad) and what directions the discipline is likely to take in the future, respectively.

Many of the AVSI books contain simple, monochromatic graphics, but this particular one includes only a copy of the Periodic Table. There may be points in the book that would benefit from a graphic, but I can’t say that I noticed the absence when I was reading. Let’s face it; on the microscopic level of chemistry takes place, any graphic would likely be a greatly simplified abstraction any way.

I’d recommend this for those seeking a quick guide to the subject of chemistry for those who forgot or never learned the subject.

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