Cover: Hydrogen: The Essential Element, from Harvard University PressCover: Hydrogen in PAPERBACK


The Essential Element

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674012523

Publication Date: 11/30/2003

Academic Trade

288 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

23 halftones, 13 line illustrations, 2 tables


Rigden’s easy narrative style provides one of the most accessible descriptions of the importance of laboratory experimentation in developing our current understanding of fundamental physics that I know of. Also, he demonstrates how theorists have at times led the way, sometimes with jumps of intuition, sometimes with reliance on fundamental notions like symmetry and sometimes with sheer stubborn persistence. Finally, readers will particularly benefit from seeing extremely important practical technologies that the original experimenters may never have dreamed of. For a picture of how physics really progresses—with gritty details filled in, along with ingenious experiments and glimpses of physicists who push the forefronts of knowledge—Rigden’s brief ode to hydrogen is a refreshing alternative to some of the speculative musings dominating the physics sections of bookstores.—Lawrence M. Krauss, The New York Times Book Review

John S. Rigden…has taken on the challenge and produced an accessible, congenial book for the general reader… His book deserves praise for introducing a wider audience to the rich story of hydrogen.—Peter Pesic, American Scientist

Rigden is deeply enamored of physics, physicists and the historical anecdotes that bind them together. These passions are reflected in Hydrogen’s format—short essays about different aspects of the hydrogen story, focusing on its physicist-heroes… Great stories, beautifully told… Rigden has done physicists a service with his touching love letters to their favorite atomic quarry.—Graham Farmelo, New Scientist

There is almost magic eloquence in the practice and insights of science at its highest orders—which when transformed into the written word can produce splendid literature. A recent effort to do just that is Hydrogen… For many reasons, this book grabbed me from the start and held my attention to its finish… For its literary quality, its memorable parade of scientific superheroes and the richness of its material, this is a book I heartily recommend.—Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun

Rigden writes well and admiringly of the characters involved and emphasises the benefits of pure research.—Steven Poole, The Guardian

There can be no understanding of either the microscopic world or the cosmos at large without an understanding of hydrogen. Rigden’s book is, on one level, a history of this most basic element, from its discovery in the 18th century to today’s cutting-edge experiments… But Rigden is also telling us the story of modern physics… If you love physics, you’ll enjoy this book. It is thoughtful, clever and rich in detail.—Dan Falk, National Post

These chapters clearly demonstrate that hydrogen is an effective vehicle for presenting a good deal of modern physics… This book is part history of science and part primer on fundamental physical concepts. Moreover it includes interesting vignettes about the scientists involved in these various discoveries, especially I. I. Rabi, the subject of an earlier biography by the same author… The book is well written with clear explanations and good references. It should be accessible to an educated lay audience and of particular interest to chemists.—A. Truman Schwartz, Journal of Chemical Education

What this slim biography of 280 pages lacks in size, it more than makes up for in scientific revelations. Its subject, hydrogen, beneath a mask of simplicity, is clearly an element on the move. Such is the importance of this primordial element, that its biography mirrors that of the universe. As science—at least the modern physics part of it—is such an international enterprise, and is not carried out in a social vacuum, the book subtly provides a brief history of the world… If you are an admirer of progress in science, this book is for you.—Dozie Azubike, Materials World

Justly acclaimed for his lucid biography of physicist I. I. Rabi, Rigden here shifts his focus from person to problem, chronicling how one enduring conundrum—that of explaining the element hydrogen—has challenged two centuries of brilliant scientists… Readers will marvel that in its very first square, the periodic table holds so much science, so much history, so much humanity.—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

A prominent physicist once said, ‘to understand hydrogen is to understand all of physics.’ That is perhaps a bit of an overstatement; but it is no exaggeration to say that John Rigden’s eminently readable book is a unique guide to the overwhelming role in science and technology of that simplest of all elements—from the origin of the universe itself to the most recently created lab sensation, the Bose-Einstein condensate. A book to be treasured by laypersons and experts alike.—Gerald Holton, author of Einstein, History, and Other Passions

Using the leitmotif of the hydrogen atom, John Rigden gives us an elegant review of the development of modern physics. This simplest of all atoms provided the challenge to Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Rabi, Ramsey, and the other founders of 20th century physics. As the leading character, it carries the plot gracefully even to the subtlest of corrections provided by the quantum field theory of the 1940’s and the most recent breakthrough by Dan Kleppner and his students in the late 1990’s which earned some of those students the 2001 Nobel Prize for the observation of Bose-Einstein condensates. The writing is lucid and accessible, and should be easy going for the lay reader who enjoys his science with a minimum of mathematics. It is quite astonishing that the story loses almost none of its drama and coverage when filtered through the efforts to really, really understand hydrogen.—Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate of Physics, 1988

John Rigden has chosen a great subject. Hydrogen truly has been the essential element in the evolution of our universe, in the development of the early quantum theory of atomic structure, quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, nuclear magnetic resonance, and the creation of the atomic clock, and in many other discoveries and theoretical advances. In telling the story of this simplest of all atoms, Rigden gives us, in effect, a history of physics in the twentieth century. This fascinating book will captivate scientists and general readers alike.—Norman Ramsey, Nobel Laureate of Physics, 1989

Awards & Accolades

  • A Discover Magazine Best Science Book of 2002
Common Reads: First-Year Experience [picture of open book]

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