The Chemical Educator, Vol. 5, No. 6, S1430-4171(00)06437-3, 10.1007/s00897000437a, © 2000 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.

Physical Chemistry, 2nd edition. By Robert G. Mortimer, Academic Press: San Diego, 2000. ISBN 0-12-508345-9. 1116 pp. £32.95, $79.95.


Reviewed by, Mark Cronin, Liverpool John Moores University,


There is no shortage of undergraduate physical chemistry textbooks. Nearly all cover very similar material, and they can often be distinguished only by the style of presentation—there are, after all, only so many ways of defining standard physical chemistry concepts. This book, being a second edition of a popular tome, is typical of the genre. It is divided into a number of sections, the major ones are thermodynamics, kinetics, and quantum mechanics. So, is there any good reason to recommend this, as opposed to any of the other physical chemistry textbooks, as a compulsory purchase for students?


With regard to subject matter, this is a very thorough physical chemistry text. Following a brief introductory chapter that gives the terms of reference and some basic definitions, there are eight chapters on thermodynamics, including the First, Second, and Third Laws, as well as phase equilibria, and chemical and electrical systems. A further four chapters are devoted to kinetics. Another large section of seven chapters deals with quantum mechanics, from its principles through to the electronic states of atoms and various states of molecules that are useful for spectroscopy. The book is completed by chapters on statistical mechanics, structures of solids and liquids, and theories of nonequilibrium processes.


Within this edition there are many favorite subject areas covered that I teach and many that I don’t teach. (Personally, I leave the teaching of quantum mechanics to others!) Subjects that are not discussed include solubility, partitioning behavior into immiscible systems, and the measurement of viscosity, etc., but it should be noted that I miss these only because they are personal to my teaching in pharmaceutical-based courses.


Thus, Mortimer will serve as an extremely thorough physical chemical reference for chemistry undergraduates. However, some aspects of this book do make it intimidating. It is very mathematical, many of the derivations are probably beyond the level and comprehension of most of today’s chemistry undergraduates. To make matters worse, the most “important,” or finished, equations are heavily highlighted, which immediately draws the eye to them.


To my mind this is a reference book for those students in “pure chemistry” programs. The very nature of the book, with its heavy reliance on mathematical derivation rather than textual explanation, would be off-putting to students in more-applied courses, such as those in the pharmaceutical sciences (my own area of interest). Clearly, writing an applied textbook was not the intention of the author, but we should not put off “weaker” students by forgetting that chemistry is an applied science. For instance, section 8.7 illustrates chemical reactions and biological systems by reference to the thermodynamics of ATP reactions (an excellent example). It is a shame that biological examples could not be used to illustrate other chemical processes.


Some pleasing aspects of the book include the fashionable (learning) objectives at the start of each chapter (academics the world over will be able to incorporate these into their learning materials). There is also at the start of each chapter a brief, numbered list of the principal facts and ideas to be presented. A summary is included at the end of each chapter that, more or less, reinforces the list at the start. There are several worked examples throughout the text. In addition, each chapter is supplemented by numerous exercises within the text and problems at the end. Again, these reinforce the information, and answers are provided at the end of the book. As is usual however, only the answers are supplied, not the full calculations, which may leave students (and lecturer!) bemused if they do not obtain the correct answer.


As a teaching aid, I would only be able to use this as a reference source. This would provide a very dry series of lectures, mainly based around the derivation of equation after equation without any illustrations or applications of the pure science. Also, modern educators in this field require more than a textbook on which to base their lectures. Typically, the teacher requires information either directly on overhead projector slides or downloadable into, for instance, a Microsoft PowerPoint file. Neither of these appear to be an option. Making slides of the derivations of equations would be an onerous task. Despite this, the pressed-for-time lecturer could easily use some of the copious problems and examples as the basis for coursework and examination material.


The book is well-presented and the typesetting seems to be of high quality. The textbook is generally in black and white, although red is used in the small number of diagrams (there are no pictures) and to highlight important points. There is a pleasing number of anecdotal comments in the margin area. Some of these are factual, with limited biographical details of the more eminent chemists, along with other useful learning tools (e.g., anode relates to oxidation as they both begin with vowels; whereas cathode and reduction begin with consonants). It is a shame there are not even more of these! Such anecdotal fripperies would serve to lighten the book and make it, and the science, more approachable.


So to the question of whether Mortimer’s Physical Chemistry should become a compulsory purchase for students. This is a good, solid (literally) reference textbook. At over 1100 pages, with 23 chapters plus appendices, and securely hardbound, it certainly represents good value at £32.95. Its sheer bulk means, however, that it is not a book a student would willingly carry to college as an everyday reference source! We need to keep in mind though, as we enter the new millennium and have now unraveled the human genome, teaching theoretical chemistry, some of which dates back over 200 years, will be increasingly difficult and unpopular with students. This is an excellent source of reference; however, it will leave students with any inclination to apply chemistry rather disappointed. Because of these facts this book is only likely to be a useful compulsory purchase for the “purest” and most theoretical of chemistry courses.