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Professor Peter Atkins

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow stirred things up recently with the publication of their book “The Grand Design.” Apparently some of the theologically inclined were offended by the book title and the publicity where Hawking was quoted as saying ’It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’ He also upset some philosophers with his statement in the book “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (see The Grand Design — neither God nor 42 and An unnecessary being?).

Now it looks like Professor Peter Atkins will soon be the centre of a similar controversy. His new book On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence in the next few months (17 March 2011 in the UK and May 1 in the USA).

The publishers say:

“In this short book Peter Atkins considers the universal questions to which religions have claimed answers. With economy, wit, and elegance, unswerving before awkward realities, Atkins presents what science has to say. While acknowledging the comfort some find in belief, he declares his own faith in science’s capacity to reveal the deepest truths.”


“Scientist Atkins looks at the deepest questions of philosophy and religion, from a scientific viewpoint. Each chapter explores a grand theme, such as Origins or Death, to show what science has revealed about the topic. Written with wit, irony, elegance and a rigorous exposition of science, with Atkins sets against mythologies old and new. For anyone interested in the deep questions of nature.”

Peter Atkins is a chemist – famous for his textbooks (eg., “Chemical Principles
andPhysical Chemistry“). But he also has also written some very good popular science books (for example Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and Four Laws That Drive the Universe“). He is a very clear writer and a good debater. He is also uncompromising in his defense of science.

As this year is the International year of Chemistry its probably fitting that Atkins should be taking up this fight now.

During March he will be giving a lecture The limits of science at the Royal Institute of Great Britain. In this he will examine “several of the great questions of existence to see whether science is confronted by a brick wall, and if not, then what it reveals.”

It sounds like he will be quite provocative. He presents some of these ideas in a recent Guardian Science Weekly podcast (see Science Weekly podcast: The birds and the bees (X-rated version).

So I guess in a few months the theologians and philosophers will have forgotten about Stephen Hawking. The will instead be accusing Peter Atkins of “scientism.”

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