Friday, 30 October 2015

What is Chemistry?

On the evening of 20 October RSC Belgium members and friend were treated to an absorbing lecture from Professor Peter Atkins entitled 'What is Chemistry?' In the Brel theatre at the British School of Brussels Peter guided us through the marvellous world of chemistry and explained took how it shapes the world around us. He imparted the nine most important things you need to know to understand and study chemistry and therefore how the world works.

Most people remember chemistry from their school days as a subject that was largely incomprehensible, fact-rich but understanding-poor, smelly, and so far removed from the real world of events and pleasures that there seemed little point, except for the most introverted, in coming to terms with its grubby concepts, spells, recipes, and rules.

Peter Atkins wants to change all that. In his What is Chemistry? book and lectures he encourages us to look at chemistry anew, through a chemist's eyes, to understand its central concepts and to see how it contributes not only towards our material comfort, but also to human culture. Atkins shows how chemistry provides the infrastructure of our world, through the chemical industry, the fuels of heating, power generation, and transport, as well as the fabrics of our clothing and furnishings.

By considering the remarkable achievements that chemistry has made, and examining its place between both physics and biology, Atkins presented a fascinating, clear, and rigorous exploration of the world of chemistry - its structure, core concepts, and exciting contributions to new cutting-edge technologies.

The evening also saw the awarding of prizes in our Chemistry Challenge 2015 competition.

Peter Atkins FRSC is emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He left left school at fifteen taking a job at Monsanto as a laboratory assistant. He  studied for A-levels in his spare time and gained a place, following a last-minute interview, at the University of Leicester. There he studied, of course, chemistry, obtaining a BSc degree in chemistry, and subsequently a PhD degree on research into electron spin resonance spectroscopy and aspects of theoretical chemistry. He then took a postdoc at UCLA as a Harkness Fellow. He returned to the UK as a fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, Oxford, and lecturer in physical chemistry (later, professor of physical chemistry). In 1969, he won the Royal Society of Chemistry's Meldola Medal. He retired in 2007, and since then has been a full-time author.

He has honorary doctorates from the University of Utrecht, the University of Leicester (where he sits on the university Court), Mendeleev University in Moscow, and Kazan State Technological University. He was a member of the Council of the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He was the founding chairman of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education, and is a trustee of a variety of charities. He is a patron of the Oxford University Scientific Society.

However he most well-known as a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks. He has quite literally written the book in terms of undergraduate texts globally for Physical Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. He is also the author of a number of popular science books, including Atkins' Molecules, Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and On Being. His most recent popular volumes are Reactions: The private life of atoms, Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction and 'What is Chemistry?' the subject of his presentation on 20 October.

Peter Atkins discusses the ideas behind 'What is Chemistry' in the video below.


  1. More professors like him are needed to guide people with interests in learning furtherly about chemistry. Recently I saw an animation again which inspired me to share it with more people. The name of the animation is The Worlds Smallest movie-A Boy and His Atom (can be searched easily with the name). Chemistry is not so serious as most people think. When it comes to further chemistry area, screening libraries for drug discovery and design and many other subjects involving complicated knowledge will be very interesting for people who love challenges.

  2. I don't have a deep recognition about chemistry, but I do find it useful and necessary. I'm focusing in the field of molecular biology, and most of the time, we need look up chemical literature in order to get solutions for a certain experiment.

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