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Acta Cryst. (1997). B53, 737-738

Designing the molecular world: chemistry at the frontier

By Philip Ball

Pp. vii + 376. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Price $16.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-691-02900-8.

Philip Ball has written an excellent summary of the state of the art of structural chemistry for the non-specialist. He covers a broad range of topics including basic principles of X-ray crystallogrpahy, NMR spectroscopy and kinetics, and describes advances in chemistry, biochemistry and materials sciences. He writes knowledgeably and, for the most part, accurately about all these topics in a way that should be comprehensible to all. His writing is lucid and entertaining, and the book is amply and excellently illustrated. Most chemists, physicists and biochemists could benefit from reading it; although there may be little in the book of which they are not already aware, this balanced overview of the many facets of structural chemistry illuminates links and patterns of interaction that give the reader a valuable, popular, integrated summary. Besides reviewing all the currently fashionable topics: quasicrystals, fullerenes, molecular sieves, supramolecular assemblies and self assembly, self replication, chaos, fractals, the origin of life, and global warming, Ball offers speculations on future applications and developments. His comments on the reconciliation of science and spirituality with respect to the origin of life are well balanced and articulate, as is his thorough treatment of current theory and opinion on the topic. He concludes that the evidence in support of any of the various ideas is inadequate to allow an unequivocal choice among them. Experts in any given topic who quibble about the details of coverage of their own specialty are, often justifiably, accused of failing to see the wood for the trees. It is not to detract from the overall value of the work that I offer a crystallographer's quibbles. Ball refers to the techniques of X-ray crystallography as bouncing beams of X-rays off crystals and as providing only static information on molecules frozen in place. In light of this shortcoming, he asserts that spectroscopy is `perhaps the chemist's primary investigative tool'. True enough, and it is certainly too much to expect him to be aware of the subtleties of the study of thermal motion, atomic displacement parameters, and structure correlation, or the use of rapid data collection using synchrotron sources and Laue techniques to follow the dynamic details of enzyme reactions in the solid state. Something for a later edition, perhaps? More fundamentally, his description of the process of structure determination by X-ray diffraction is muddled and inaccurate (pp. 120-121). Ball states `If the unit cell contains a large number of atoms, the task of indexing the peaks is far from straightforward.' It isn't clear what he means by `indexing the peaks'. Clearly, indexing the diffracted intensities is trivial, and identifying which peaks correspond to which atoms may or may not be straightforward depending upon the resolution of the map and the accuracy of the phasing. He also has the following remarkable interpretation of the use of electron density maps: `The advantage of treating the structure in terms of an electron density map is that it allows one to bring to bear some mathematical tools that cannot be applied to a discrete atomic picture. Rather than pushing atoms about in order to match a calculated diffraction pattern to the measured one, a continuous map of electron density can be molded like clay to the right shape, using a mathematical procedure derived from the work of the nineteenth century French mathematician Joseph Fourier.' Equally fuzzy is his lack of distinction between the heavy atom method and isomorphous replacement as phasing tools, and his total disregard of the existence of direct methods. We should, however, take heart from Ball's assertion that `Today huge and complex biological structures, such as that of the virus responsible for foot-and-mouth disease, can be solved more or less routinely.' Such superficiality is perhaps inescapable in a popular work such as this, though one may point to such honorable exceptions as The Eighth Day of Creation, and does make one wonder what misconceptions one may acquire about areas with which one is less familiar. However, such misgivings must be balanced against the good that results from introducing students of all ages to an overview of current hot topics in structural science that, at least, catches the excitement of the `new chemistry'.

William L. Duax

Hauptman Woodward Medical Research Institute
73 High Street
Buffalo
NY 14203-1196
USA


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