On chirality and the universal asymmetry

On chirality and the universal asymmetry 

G H Wagni?re 

Weinheim, Germany: Wiley-VCH | 2007 | 256pp | ?55.00 (SB) | ISBN 9783906390383 

Reviewed by Laurence Barron

Chirality, meaning handedness, has been a central concept in chemistry ever since Pasteur’s epoch-making separation in 1848 of the mirror-image enantiomers of sodium ammonium tartrate. It has also become an increasingly important theme in physics and the life sciences. Wagni?re, a physical chemist, exploits this theme to provide an inspiring tour of much of modern science, from elementary particle physics to the structure and evolution of the universe and to the homochiral chemistry of the life it has spawned and sustained. 

Chirality is an excellent subject for the application of symmetry principles, and these are emphasised throughout the book. As well as conventional point and space group symmetry, the fundamental symmetries of space inversion, time reversal and even charge conjugation have something to say about chirality. This symmetry viewpoint provides a rigorous unifying theoretical background to the discussion of many subtle phenomena without wallowing too much in detailed mathematics. In this respect the emphasis on the time-even pseudoscalar characteristics of phenomena, such as natural optical activity, that are uniquely supported by chiral systems, is especially valuable. Indeed the author is constantly glancing over his shoulder at parity violation, which provides the quintessential chiral influence built into the very fabric of the universe and which generates a tiny energy difference between the mirror-image enantiomers of a chiral molecule, to see what, if any, connection it has with the origin and role of chirality in the living world. 

This is an accessible, stimulating and beautifully written book that has something for everyone, with or without the mathematics, from the first-year undergraduate to the researcher at the frontiers of knowledge. It reminds us that everything in the universe is intertwined and basically inseparable. I cannot recommend it too strongly, not only to chemists, but to scientists of all disciplines.