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Oration for Honorary Graduate Professor Peter Atkins, Doctor of Science

[given by University Orator Dr Julian Boon at a July 2002 degree congregation]

When at Dr Challenor’s school in Amersham in the 1950s, our Honorand Peter Atkins found himself to be generally drawn towards Science and to the subject of Chemistry in particular. When you ask him “Why chemistry rather than the other sciences?” he smiles and says “Maths was too hard, biology too embarrassing and chemistry was just right, in the middle”. In any event we have good reason to be pleased that as a schoolboy he came to that view because since then he has become a scientist of international standing and has used his influence to promote the word of science wherever possible. 

Peter Atkins is a Leicester graduate who came here in 1958 to read chemistry. He stayed with us to research for his PhD in the field of magnetic resonance before moving to become the Harkness Fellow at University of California, Los Angeles in 1964. Thereafter he returned to the UK to take up the post of lecturer in physical chemistry at the University of Oxford and became a Fellow of Lincoln College. He has twice been presented with distinguished awards from the Royal Society of Chemistry. He was awarded the Meldola medal in 1969, and in 1999, he was awarded the Nyholm lectureship. He has remained at Oxford, becoming Professor of Chemistry four years ago.

Beyond his own prolific research in his specialist area of magnetic resonance he has two related passions. The first is to carry forward current scientific knowledge for the maximum benefit of posterity. The second is to make science as accessible and as enriching as possible to as wide a range of people as possible. In pursuit of these objectives he has published fifty books, all of which have been translated into numerous languages - reaching such diverse readerships as: Western Europe, China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Hungary, Russia, Romania, and Serbia.

His first textbook Molecular Quantum Mechanics was published in 1970 and this was followed soon afterwards in 1974 by Quanta: A handbook of concepts. Both these texts became standard reading and have run to multiple editions. On the basis of their success Professor Atkins was commissioned by The Oxford University Press to write Physical Chemistry which was first published in 1978 and that text is now, a quarter of a century later, in its 7th edition and has remained the world’s best selling physical chemistry textbook ever since its first publication. He was also to publish such classics as Elements of Physical Chemistry and Inorganic Chemistry and several other major texts such as Chemistry: Molecules, matter and change and Chemical Principles. In writing these texts it is no exaggeration to say that he has made a very significant contribution indeed towards preparing the minds of the next generation of scholars to take the science of chemistry forward.

With a view to broadening the appeal of science he has also written books for the non-specialist, lay-person’s readership. Among the many texts intended to inspire interest as widely as possible are Molecules, The Second Law, and Creation Revisited. In The Second Law he presents an accessible exposition of the nature and implications of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics for understanding the fundamental properties and relationships of the world around us, the spring of the world. You obtain a flavour of Professor Atkins’ commitment to promote science when he quotes another Leicester graduate C P Snow, who said that “Not to know about the 2nd law was like having never having read any Shakespeare”. His book Molecules was described by one reviewer as the most beautiful chemistry book ever written - graphically illustrating as it does the molecular components of objects in the world around us. In the Preface Professor Atkins writes “Joy may be inarticulate but reflection is empty without understanding”. This states his view that to see and admire a red rose may be rewarding, but to know also why it is red, further deepens our sense of delight. Creation Revisited and its predecessor The Creation argue that science rather than religion can explore the origins of the Universe and was described by the Times Literary Supplement as a “brilliant essay on the subject of greatest importance”. The final sentence of the book encapsulates its author’s objectives in sharing his scientific insights with us when he writes “Comprehension is moving over the face of the earth, like the sunrise”.

His efforts to bring science and chemistry to as wide an audience as possible however go even further still. He is a regular contributor to the media with articles published in the broadsheets and The Times Higher and to programmes as diverse as the BBC’s Moral Maze, Newsnight, and Horizon. His media influence extends beyond the UK. He is also a regular contributor to programmes abroad in Countries such as Jamaica, Croatia, the USA and South Africa and has participated in World Service radio and TV discussions.

Professor Atkins is Chairman of the Committee on Chemistry Education of IUPAC - the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The Committee’s brief is focussed on the improvement and encouragement of chemistry education and the public appreciation of chemistry worldwide - especially in the developing Countries.

The contribution of Professor Atkins to Chemistry and Science is by any standards truly outstanding and it is a great pleasure for us to welcome him back to the University and to honour him here today.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Peter William Atkins that you may confer upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.

Dr Julian Boon
July 2002

  • Honorary graduate Professor Atkins is a graduate of the University of Leicester and a member of the University's Court.

Professor Atkins' response to oration

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