Physical chemistry for the life sciences

Physical chemistry for the life sciences 
Peter Atkins and Julio de Paula
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press | 2005 | 712 pp | ?27.99 (HB) | ISBN 0199280959 
Reviewed by Nicholas Price 

This marvellous book continues the tradition established by Peter Atkins of writing lucid explanations of physical chemistry for many generations of students. According to the authors, their aim is to provide life science students with a firm foundation for understanding the biological applications of thermodynamics, kinetics, structure and spectroscopy.  

The book contains many worked examples, helpful notes on equations and derivations, a wide selection of problems, and links to companion websites for further study. Throughout the text there are many fascinating facts such as that, while reading this book, my brain was consuming nearly 6g of glucose per hour. The authors succeed brilliantly in their aim to show that deep insights into the behaviour of biological systems and processes can be gained by applying the principles of physical chemistry. 

There are a few areas where I would have liked to see a slightly different emphasis. For example, the importance of maintaining many biological reactions (such as the hydrolysis of ATP) away from equilibrium should be stressed. Reference to ATP as an energy storage compound might convey the impression that the body stores up large amounts of ATP. In fact, a human adult will contain a very small amount of ATP (less than 100g) but has the capacity to turn over vast amounts of ATP, up to as much as 100-200kg/day. These facts could provide the basis for some interesting numerical problems. There is also considerable scope to account for how the properties of amino acid side chains (especially the pKa values) can be influenced by protein folding because this can underpin their function.  

The book seems to be aimed mainly at the North American market and I believe that many life science undergraduate students in the UK may feel daunted by its contents. It is a challenge for all who teach in this area to help build confidence among students so that they can appreciate the importance of a molecular understanding of biology. Students with a background in the physical sciences who are moving into the biological sciences will feel much more at ease with the book. It will be invaluable for those wishing to enter graduate courses in the life sciences. 

In summary, I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it without reservation to teachers and students alike. It can be hard work, but it will provide immense satisfaction, although that may not be so easily measurable in metabolic terms!