Peter Atkins

Peter Atkins was made a patron of Humanists UK for his contribution to the greater public understanding of science.

Scientist and author

We need to encourage society to escape from the grip of religion and superstition, and to allow the human spirit liberty. We should respect the awesome power of human brains, especially when those brains work in collaboration with optimism. We need to encourage, especially these days, the full flowering of the Enlightenment, the apotheosis of the Renaissance.

Peter Atkins began his academic life as an undergraduate at the University of Leicester, and remained there for his PhD. He then went to the University of California, Los Angeles as a Harkness Fellow and returned to Oxford as lecturer in physical chemistry and fellow of Lincoln College in 1965, where he remained as professor of chemistry until his retirement in 2007. He has received honorary doctorates from universities in the United Kingdom (Leicester), the Netherlands (Utrecht), and Russia (Mendeleev University, Moscow, and Kazan State Technological University) and has been a visiting professor at universities in France, Japan, China, New Zealand, and Israel.

His research was in the application of quantum mechanics to chemical problems and theoretical aspects of magnetic resonance, but with time he drifted into writing books, which now number nearly 70. The best known of these is Physical Chemistry, now in its ninth edition; it is used throughout the world and has been translated into many languages. His other major textbooks include Inorganic Chemistry, Molecular Quantum Mechanics, Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences, Elements of Physical Chemistry, and various flavours of General Chemistry.

He also writes books on science for the general public, including The Periodic Kingdom, The Second Law, Creation Revisited, and Galileo’s Finger: the ten great ideas of science. One of these books, Molecules, was described as ‘one of the most beautiful chemistry books ever written’. His most recent book of this kind  is Four Laws that Drive the Universe (2007), which has recently been reissued as The Laws of Thermodynamic - a Very Short Introduction.

In his spare time he is deeply involved in a variety of international activities, including (until the end of 2005) chairing the Committee on Chemistry Education of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry - the governing body of the subject - which has the task of improving chemical education worldwide, especially in developing countries, and encouraging and coordinating international efforts towards the public appreciation of chemistry. He also helped to organize the 'Malta' series of conferences, which bring together chemists from all over the Middle East. He has been a member of the Council of the Royal Institution and of the Royal Society of Chemistry.