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Yale Scientific

John S Rigden

Hydrogen, the essential element

Hydrogen is the simplest of the elements, and is also the most abundant in the universe. Hence it is often studied by physicists and cosmologists. The stories of some of these investigations form the basis for John Rigden's book Hydrogen, the essential element. Each chapter looks at the work of one scientist, or a small group, and explains how the work they did relates to this element. Thus we are taken through the development of quantum mechanics and see the technologies which this lead to such as nuclear magnetic resonance and atomic clocks. The last few chapters look at recent developments, such as Bose-Einstein condensates, antihydrogen and exotic hydrogen-like atoms.

One might expect a book entitled Hydrogen to be primarily about the chemistry, and indeed it is in the chemistry section of my local library. But this book has very little chemistry, rather it is primarily about the physics of hydrogen, with some chapters on cosmology.

I found that the linking of the different chapters to one element gave a central thread to the book, which made it more interesting than a sequence of unrelated essays. However, I still found it a bit dry, and possibly it is more suited to physics students wanting to learn some history of their subject, than to the general reader

Product Description

Seduced by simplicity, physicists find themselves endlessly fascinated by hydrogen, the simplest of atoms. Hydrogen has shocked, it has surprised, it has embarrassed, it has humbled--and again and again it has guided physicists to the edge of new vistas where the promise of basic understanding and momentous insights beckoned. The allure of hydrogen, crucial to life and critical to scientific discovery, is at the center of this book, which tells a story that begins with the big bang and continues to unfold today.

In this biography of hydrogen, John Rigden shows how this singular atom, the most abundant in the universe, has helped unify our understanding of the material world from the smallest scale, the elementary particles, to the largest, the universe itself. It is a tale of startling discoveries and dazzling practical benefits spanning more than one hundred years--from the first attempt to identify the basic building block of atoms in the mid-nineteenth century to the discovery of the Bose-Einstein condensate only a few years ago. With Rigden as an expert and engaging guide, we see how hydrogen captured the imagination of many great scientists--such as Heisenberg, Pauli, Schrödinger, Dirac, and Rabi--and how their theories and experiments with this simple atom led to such complex technical innovations as magnetic resonance imaging, the maser clock, and global positioning systems. Along the way, we witness the transformation of science from an endeavor of inspired individuals to a monumental enterprise often requiring the cooperation of hundreds of scientists around the world.

Still, any biography of hydrogen has to end with a question: What new surprises await us?