Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The origin of Reactions

By Peter Atkins

There are three major problems associated with the challenge of reaching out to the general public with chemistry. One is its collective disagreeable memory of how in many cases it was taught. Another is the association of the subject with harmful effects on humanity and the environment. The third is what is perceived as the intrinsically abstract nature of its explanations.

If chemistry, and all its marvellous contributions to the joy of being alive, is to be appreciated by the general public in this International Year of Chemistry (and beyond), it is essential that a way be found to explain what is going on when chemists stir their mixtures, boil their liquids, distil, reflux, and shake. Showing pictures of transiently awe-inspiring colour changes and exciting bangs might attract attention, but there is no hint of the intellectual infrastructure of our subject, no sharing of the insights of which we should be so proud or, at least, show how they represent our contribution to scientific understanding.

That being so, I decided that I needed to reveal the private life of atoms, what goes on at an atomic level, what chemists hold in their mind’s eyes when they carry out a chemical reaction. Visual imagery is the key.  Computer graphics have opened up a whole new world for the communication of chemistry, with the ability to display representations of molecules, to take a viewer through the intricate maze of atoms that constitute a protein molecule, to penetrate, like speleologists, into the cavernous interiors of zeolites, and to display the intricate architecture of minerals and solids in general.

I was left with a challenge: how to present the process of chemical reaction by using only static images, how to prepare those images, and how to lead readers through them. The first part of that was easy to solve, in principle, at least: just draw them myself. There are, of course, numerous molecular graphics packages available, and I used a variety of them. However, there were certain types of illustration where I wanted a different visual effect, and for these I used CAD software. That can be a time-consuming pain, as the coordinates of every atom have to be entered, but there is the advantage of being able to choose different textured for the surfaces of atoms and to generate photorealistic (if that is a term appropriate to molecules) ray-traced images. I then imported the images into Photoshop, and messed around with them for the effect I had in mind.

The interplay of image and narrative was another challenge. First, there was the choice of author’s voice. I needed a relaxed, inviting, not an academic textbook tone. It is hard for me to judge whether I have achieved what I wanted as readers respond to styles in unpredictable ways.  But at least I tried.

The other challenge in this respect was to achieve a sense of looking in to the underworld of atoms and inhabiting that world visually. I played with various solutions. An absurd one was to resent a series of full-page images that would speak for themselves. That would be too overwhelming and my editor dissuaded me from it. Then I thought of a page of illustration accompanied on the opposing page by a description of what was going on. The trouble with that is that it would impose a rigid structure that might not work everywhere. Moreover, I sensed that it would introduce too much separation between the account and the image. In the end I came up with an original prototype design concept in which the illustrations flowed in from the corners of the pages and underlay slightly the text. That would blend the words and images and also give a sense that we were peeking at just a tiny section of the vast numbers of molecules that were going about their business.

The design decision brought in its train another problem. Before I could draw an image, I needed to know at which corner of a page it would ultimately lie, because that determined the direction of flow of its component parts. The only solution was to set the pages myself, which I did with considerable help from my publishers and using page-setting software.

That, then, is the genesis of the book. When I look at the pages I can see that what I saw in my mind’s eye might not be immediately apparent to a naïve viewer. It would help, I think, to have an external commentary on the web to which a really interested reader could turn. There are other enticing possibilities that swim across my imagination. For instance, the images could be stereoscopic: that would be easier in an electronic version that on paper, but not out of the question even on paper. The ultimate molecule visualizations are all three-dimensional anyway, so the composites could be similarly contrived. Then, of course, the images could be animated (yes; perhaps in 3D) to bring out the dynamic nature of chemical reactions that the static images struggle to convey.

However: there is my effort, and I hope it gives my readers some insight into how we chemists think, how we unravel the workings of the world, and how we contribute to understanding.

Peter Atkins is the author of almost 60 books, including Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, Four Laws that Drive the Universe, the world-renowned textbook Physical Chemistry, On Being, and Reactions: The Private Life of Atoms.

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