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Four Laws that Drive the Universe. By Peter Atkins

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Four Laws that Drive the Universe
By Peter Atkins.
Oxford University
Press, Oxford 2007.
130 pp., hardcover
$ 19.95.—ISBN
Much to my surprise, I quite enjoyed
this little book. Having struggled myself
with the fundamentals of thermodynamics—both as teacher and student—I can
appreciate the conceptual difficulties,
and Peter Atkins has done a good job
here in helping to de-mystify the subject
and make it seem like (almost) common
sense. This is as one might expect from a
prolific author whose more formal textbooks now dominate the teaching of
undergraduate physical chemistry. The
approach is almost entirely classical.
Separate chapters are dedicated to
each of the four laws of thermodynamics
in sequence, showing how each in turn
can lead logically to the necessary
existence of quantities such as temperature (from the Zeroth Law), energy
(1st Law), and entropy (2nd Law), with
the 3rd Law drawing a line under what is
achievable in terms of temperature and
entropy. Free energies (Gibbs, Helmholtz) are introduced in a separate
chapter, despite being described
(merely?) as “… just convenient
accounting quantities, not new fundamental concepts” (p. 103). Not everyone
would agree with this, but it does make
some sort of sense in the classical
approach presented here, and the rela-
tionship between free energy and work
is handled nicely. And I guess that it is a
reflection of the power and beauty of
thermodynamics that, starting from
alternative/different postulates, one can
arrive at the same overall conclusions.
Naturally, there are some parts of
the book that I felt I might disagree
with—that6s part of the fun, especially
for the (supposedly expert) reviewer.
The treatment is almost entirely nonmathematical, and none the worse for
that, given the likely intended audience—though the introduction of an
exponential function as early as page
13 might discourage nonspecialist readers, and is perhaps unnecessary. Some of
the arguments can seem a little pedantic
and disruptive of the flow. For example,
the digression on the word “heat” might
be a little disconcerting to the newcomer, by stating that: “… heat is not an
entity or even a form of energy: heat is a
mode of transfer of energy. It is not a
form of energy …” (p.30), then reverting
to a more commonplace usage of the
term for the rest of the book. Elsewhere
(p. 45) it was nice to be reminded of
Emmy Noether6s theorem regarding the
relationship between conserved quantities and symmetry (and also nice to
discover that she was a woman), but
does that really mean “… the shape of
the universe we inhabit. In the particular
case of the conservation of energy, the
symmetry is that of the shape of time”. I
am not sure I would have followed that
if I hadn6t already encountered it elsewhere. My own understanding is that it
is the invariance (i.e., symmetry) of the
laws of physics with respect to time that
makes energy conservation obligatory.
(In the same way that spatial translational or rotational invariance leads to
conservation of linear or angular
momentum, and so forth). In other
words, it is the shape of the laws, not
the shape of the universe, that is significant here. Equally disconcerting might
be the tantalizing references to thermodynamic fluctuations and the fluctuation-dissipation theorem (p. 42), which
hint at the potentially (to some scientists) more satisfying molecular statistical approach. Molecular interpretations
don6t get much of a show here. For
example, just why is it that water has
such a high heat capacity (p. 44)? And
just where did that connection between
1 2008 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
entropy and disorder creep in (p. 66)?
OK—most of us professionals and (we
hope) our students know why, but do
And this leads on to the underlying
question regarding the intended target
audience for this book. Professor Atkins
reminds us of C. P. Snow6s famous 1950s
dictum (in The Two Cultures) that
ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics is akin to never having read a
work of Shakespeare—a reflection of
the arts-versus-science divide that still
persists to some extent more than 50
years later. But I can feel some sympathy for the nonscientists here. Thermodynamics has been a victim of its own
history: a remarkably successful product
of 19th century science, logically consistent and complete without the need to
invoke concepts of atoms or molecules.
But, as conventionally taught, and as
mostly described in this book, it is based
on abstract notions derived from the
workings of steam engines and related
devices that are increasingly unfamiliar
to present generations. Since we cannot
“unlearn” atoms and molecules, a much
more overtly molecular approach to
thermodynamics might be more helpful
nowadays for nonspecialists. Despite
these caveats, this is a nice book—an
entertaining and illuminating read for
those who have struggled with classical
thermodynamics, and a reasonable challenge for others who want to get some
grasp of this most difficult topic.
Alan Cooper
WestChem Department of Chemistry
University of Glasgow (Scotland, UK)
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200785577
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2008, 47, 3088 – 3089
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