On Being — A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

On Being — A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

Author: ChemViews

Peter Atkins is known for his textbooks in the fields of physical and inorganic chemistry. In his new book, On Being, he explores the great questions of existence from a thermodynamic and entropic view-point.

Reading this book, one can see that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is Atkins’ favorite law, says Uwe Meierhenrich, University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France, in his book review in Angewandte Chemie. The second law acknowledges that matter and energy tend to disperse and become disordered. The astonishing thing is, according to Atkins, that this natural spreading can result in the emergence of exquisite form.

In his book Atkins puts thought into space and time before the Big Bang. He interprets the formation of the universe as a separation of a formerly mixed state. To give an example: for electrical charges to exist and for the overall charge of the universe to be zero, there must be an equal number of positive and negative charges. Before the Big Bang, there was no charge. But instead of creating the charges out of nothing, Atkins hypothesizes that the formation of the universe was accompanied by the separation of ‘no charge’ into opposites. Charge was not manufactured, electrical ‘nothing’ was split into equal and opposite charges, instead.

In subsequent chapters, Atkins outlines how chemists currently decipher the reactions that form prebiotic molecules. He describes evolution by natural selection as the random generation of successful junk, instead of the purposeful acquisition of complexity. Humans are not the apotheosis of creation; they are better interpreted as the top junk churned into existence as matter and energy unwind. In his language, life is the avoidance of a certain kind of equilibrium, death is the usually unwilling achievement of that equilibrium. Atkins emphasizes that not only we are stardust, we are the children of chaos.

According to Uwe Meierhenrich, this application of the physical sciences to the great questions of being makes the book On Being ideal for expanding one’s mind. In the university’s library, however, students should choose Aktins’ textbook on Physical Chemistry.


  • Read the full book review at:
    Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2011, 50(40), 9240.
    DOI: 10.1002/anie.201104591
  • On Being. A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence
    P. Atkins,
    Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2011.
    ISBN: 978-0199603367

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