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I took an introductory chemistry course long ago, but the rules seemed arbitrary, and I've forgotten most of what I learned. Now that I have an undergraduate education in physics, I should be able to use physics to learn general chemistry more effectively. What resources, either books or on-line, are useful for physicists to learn the fundamentals of chemistry? I'm not enrolled at a university, so official courses and labs aren't realistic.

Please note that I am not looking for books on specialized advanced topics, but a general introduction to chemistry that takes advantage of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics while requiring little or no prior knowledge of chemistry.

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Before answering, please see our policy on resource recommendation questions. Please write substantial answers that detail the style, content, and prerequisites of the book, paper or other resource. Explain the nature of the resource so that readers can decide which one is best suited for them rather than relying on the opinions of others. Answers containing only a reference to a book or paper will be removed!

Probably the best way to learn chemistry is in the lab! – Matt Calhoun Mar 2 '11 at 7:27
@Matt Thanks, but labs are in short supply at my apartment and the local library. (I updated the question.) – Mark Eichenlaub Mar 2 '11 at 20:38
@Mark-- General Chemistry - Linus Pauling I think you can get a free download on the internet- 1951 (Introduction to General Chemistry). Pauling studied with Bohr, and collaborated for a short time with Oppenheimer. – Gordon Mar 2 '11 at 20:47
@Gordon Thanks. I'll look into it. – Mark Eichenlaub Mar 2 '11 at 22:37
@Joe: for one thing, the first pass they give doesn't explain it using calculus or Legendre transforms, so the difference between internal energy, free energy and gibbs free energy is completely opaque. A little bit of knowledge of differential forms takes you a long, long way when learning thermo, and Chemists almost never do it that way, making the whole excercise a game in memorization. – Jerry Schirmer Jul 12 '11 at 0:27
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Chemistry is big. Probably your interests are not that wide. For instance one may be interested in molecules/molecular processes such as chemical reactions or in soft stuff (polymers, colloids, membranes, etc.) One may seek for microscopic interpretations of the phenomena or just try to find how complex processes depend on macroscopic variables.

Still, without knowing any details, my bet is that as a physicist, if you master Quantum Mechanics, Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics, then probably what you would like to read is a general textbook on Physical Chemistry (the application of physics to chemical problems) rather than a book on General Chemistry. The topics mostly overlap except for a lot of descriptive material that you will be happy to skip, probably, but the P-Chem book will be more focused and quantitative while using an understandable language.

As a particular suggestion, you may try the not-very-well-known book "Principles of Physical Chemistry" by Kuhn and Försterling, rather than the best known P-Chem books of Atkins, Levine and McQuarrie.

Other books that are worth of looking at in my opinion are: Engel & Reid, Physical Chemistry, and Berry, Rice and Ross with the same title (this one might be a bit too verbose).

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Quantum mechanics plays an important role in chemistry, as everyone knows, but so does thermodynamics. I highly recommend Landau, volume 5, chapters 9 and 10; but of course if you haven't read the first 8 chapters yet, you should read them as well.

I think of chemistry sort of as a set of empirical rules born out of experience in the lab. There are computer programs which use the rules of QM to compute things related to chemistry, and these programs amount to essentially writing down a system of differential equations and solving them with a numerical method. The point I am trying to make is that trying to understand chemistry from the point of view of QM can only give you a certain type of insight because QM is too fundamental. I recommend for the QM side of things, you should start with Landau, volume 3, chapters 10-13.

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Thanks, Matt. I will check these out. – Mark Eichenlaub Mar 3 '11 at 19:54

For the average person (no science background) I recommend going to MIT ocw, buying an older edition of their book (for litterally 5$ - shipping included) off amazon, and doing the course on your own. They have everything there except for homework solutions and a professor/pupils.

Note: With your background in physics, general chemistry is going to be extremely boring in the areas that overlap with physics. The area of chemistry furthest from physics is probably organic chemistry (it boarders with biology).

The vast majority of chemistry that is neither biological nor physics-related is merely computing how chemicals react together. A little of that is touched on in general chemistry, but much more detail is examined in later courses such as Quantitative Analysis (that is what my school called it - a 3rd year course usually).

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Videos from Khan Academy is an excellent way to brush up the basics of chemistry

One major advantage here is that you can watch only the parts you know you have forgotten and save time on the trivial things.

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Thank you for the link, but this looks like it's almost exactly what I'm trying to avoid. I watched the video on Van Der Waals forces, and it was a bunch of silly hand-waving about electrons being "sometimes closer and sometimes further away." There was no indication why the London dispersion force should be attractive rather than repulsive, how it scales with the distance between atoms and where that scaling comes from, how strong it is and why it's that strong (other than "it's weak"), etc. In short there was very little insight, just a repetition of what they tell you in high school. – Mark Eichenlaub Mar 2 '11 at 22:21
@Mark: doing anything much more complicated than that is going to be hard--look at the physics treatment of a single electron hydrogen molecule to see what I"m talking about. – Jerry Schirmer Mar 3 '11 at 14:25
Khan Academy is for babies. – user1631 Jul 11 '11 at 16:58

I do not know any chemistry-for-physicists textbook, but Chemistry: The Central Science is a good textbook that gives a general picture of chemistry. I do not know what do you mean by "that takes advantage of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics".

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Oregon State University offers a pretty complete gen chem sequence online, as well as organic and inorganic. (No P-chem yet.) There are condensed lab courses for the gen chem sequence, three days each, taught on campus in Corvallis.

I took the first two gen chem courses, as well as the associated labs. I really, really loved them. Happy to answer any further questions. Will take the last gen chem course this summer.

BTW I've already got a bachelor's degree (in computer science), so I may have some idea of where you're coming from.

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