Hydrogen: The Essential Element by John Rigden


Goodreads: Hydrogen: The Essential Element
Source: Library
Published: 2003


Rigden explores key advances in physics by focusing on the hydrogen atom.


In Hydrogen, John Rigden attempts to bring the beauty and elegance of physics to the general reader through a brief survey of some of its greatest puzzles, theories, experiments, and applications.  Along the way he introduces his audience to a host of famous names from Niels Bohr to Albert Einstein, imparting a personal element to a discipline too often considered detached and cold.  Rigden’s enthusiasm for his subject permeates every page, and even readers who consider themselves allergic to science may find themselves unexpectedly excited at the prospect of a new discovery or baffled by a particularly odd observation.

I find it difficult to say whether Rigden actually succeeds in his goal of introducing physics to the general reader.  My sense is that he provides enough information and enough background that the general reader could indeed follow along, at least getting the main points.  However, even a little background in physics or chemistry is guaranteed to help, just so that having an assortment of names like the Balmer series, the Bohr model, and the quadrupole moment of the deuteron do not become overwhelming.  (Don’t be alarmed if you forget everything from your introductory high school course on classical physics, however–this book focuses on the birth of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.  Newton will only get you so far.)  A few figures illustrate the text, but they seem to be present mainly for those who want them and not because they are indispensable for understanding.  If readers find they do not want to look at energy state diagrams, they can continue on reading and still get something from the book.

Perhaps Rigden’s greatest achievement in Hydrogen is not explaining physics to the general public, however, but in providing an illustration of how science works.  Depictions of scientists in popular culture show men and women who live in a world of absolutes where everything is neat and pretty and all the numbers always add up.  In reality, science is often confused and messy.  Rigden’s very subject–the development of wave mechanics, the birth of quantum electrodynamics–shows how scientists were aware for decades of gaps in their knowledge and how gaps still exist in their current models for understanding the world around us.  The biographies he inserts show scientists who stumble upon great discoveries by pure luck (though, of course, intelligence is still needed to recognize significant data when one sees it) as well as scientists who worked fruitlessly for years because they relied on wrong assumptions.  The hydrogen atom, Rigden likes to remind his readers, reveals amazing secrets about the world, but also cautions us to be humble in our search for knowledge.

Hydrogen is a great book for those interested in learning more about physics and some of its most startling discoveries.  Rigden employs an engaging writing style that he couples with some witty observations in order to make his topic come alive.  Some of his stories may change the way readers look at physics.

2 thoughts on “Hydrogen: The Essential Element by John Rigden

  1. DoingDewey says:

    This sounds like a really good book! I’m more likely to read science books about biology but I often find myself thinking that one of the most valuable things these books can do is make science more human and accessible. I don’t think a lot of people know what scientists do on a daily basis, so books like this give valuable insight, especially to students who think they might be interested in doing science. Great review!


    • Krysta says:

      I haven’t read a lot of popular science books about chem/physics yet, but I thought this one did a pretty good job of balancing hard science with the personal stories. Even though I’d heard of a lot of the discoveries, I hadn’t learned exactly how they occurred–there’s always more to learn, right? Actually, my favorite part is always when I find out a bunch of famous people knew each other. I don’t know why. I just think it’s kind of cute to see them sending each other letters and stuff. 😀


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