The concept of writing a book about hydrogen --- mere hydrogen, that seemingly most trivial of atoms --- is brilliant. John Rigden did it. As he says in his acknowledgments, when one Nobel-laureate physicist heard of the plan his immediate reaction was to tease: "That's nice ... that's nice. Where did you get that idea? Did Rabi give it to you?" (Rigden had earlier written a biography of I. I. Rabi, another renowned physicist.)

The thesis of Hydrogen: The Essential Element is that deep insight comes not from complexity but from simplicity. To understand the true meaning of a theory, focus it on a well-defined system. Compare calculation with experimental evidence, and pursue any disagreement relentlessly out to as many decimal places as can be observed. Accept no approximations.

That philosophy, as Rigden shows in chapter after chapter, is how humble hydrogen managed to catalyze the development of spectroscopy, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, quantum electrodynamics, cosmology, and low-temperature physics. The study of hydrogen also led to countless practical applications, including medical technologies such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

Hydrogen is an inspirational book about the history of science, but unfortunately it falls short of greatness. The prose is often repetitive and uninspired, far below Isaac Asimov's standard for even a minor magazine essay. Many of the illustrations are fuzzy reproductions, only loosely coupled to the text. A simple timeline or quantitative depiction of precision versus time, for instance, would have saved space and made the point clearer. Tables of data are left hanging without proper explanation of apparent inconsistencies among numbers. Aggressive editing could have unleashed a much shorter, sharper volume.

And there are typos --- e.g. on page 219 where "... the 1,000 degrees from 1010K to 109K...." is off by almost seven orders of magnitude. Oops!

But enough quibbling; Hydrogen is redeemed by dozens of apt insights and lovely moments. For instance, consider the end of Chapter 13. The aforementioned I. I. Rabi invented key magnetic resonance methods in the 1930's, in order to measure the nuclear properties of hydrogen. A few months before he died in 1988 Rabi was hospitalized and underwent an MRI procedure. Rigden writes:

Once inside the apparatus, Rabi saw a distorted image of his face reflected in the shiny metal cylinder surrounding him. Rabi looked at his image. "It was eerie," said Rabi. "I could see myself in this thing. I would never have dreamed that my work would come to this."

(see also VulnerableTheories (17 May 1999), QuestionAuthority (18 Jan 2000), HighPrecision (16 Jul 2002), ...)

TopicScience - TopicLiterature - 2003-02-04

(correlates: HighPrecision, John Archibald Wheeler, StreetSongs, ...)