Hydrogen: The Essential Element / Edition 1

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Overview

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?

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

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

National Post

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

Baltimore Sun

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

New York Times Book Review

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

New 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

American Scientist

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

The Guardian

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

Materials World

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

Journal of Chemical Education

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

Gerald Holton
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.
Leon Lederman
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.
Norman Ramsey
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.
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
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.
National Post - Dan Falk
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.
Baltimore Sun - Michael Pakenham
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.
New York Times Book Review - Lawrence M. Krauss
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.
New Scientist - Graham Farmelo
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.
American Scientist - Peter Pesic
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.
The Guardian - Steven Poole
Rigden writes well and admiringly of the characters involved and emphasises the benefits of pure research.
Materials World - Dozie Azubike
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.
Journal of Chemical Education - A. Truman Schwartz
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674012523
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2003
  • Edition description: First Harvard University Press Paperback
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,420,755
  • Product dimensions: 4.84 (w) x 8.76 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Meet the Author

John Rigden is Adjunct Professor of Physics, Washington University in St. Louis.
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Read an Excerpt

HYDROGEN
The Essential Element


By John S. Rigden

HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0674007387



Prologue


Hydrogen is the most important constituent of the universe.

—Gerhard Herzberg


The heroine of this book is nature's simplest atom, the hydrogen atom. With one exception—the helium atom—hydrogen is the mother of all atoms and molecules. The hydrogen atom consists of a single electron and a single proton; the proton is the nucleus of the hydrogen atom and serves as the electron's anchor. The universe is teeming with hydrogen: every cubic centimeter of dark interstellar space, essentially void of any other known matter, contains a few atoms of hydrogen. At the other extreme, every cubic centimeter of the planet Jupiter's interior contains in excess of 10 million billion billion (1025) atoms of hydrogen. And every star, throughout its long life, illuminates its cosmic neighborhood with light that originates with the burning of the atom that dominates its material composition—hydrogen.

    One must not dismiss this chemical element because of its simplicity. In fact, it is the simplicity of the hydrogen atom that has enabled scientists to unravel some of the mysteries of nature. This humble atom has consistently surprised the most distinguished (and confident) scientists and contributed to our understanding of the natural world.

    This book, however, is more than a book about the hydrogen atom. It is a drama, written for the general reader, in which the intriguing hydrogen atom plays a starring role. Each chapter unfolds a particular episode in which hydrogen has led scientists to new scientific insights.

    Collectively, the twenty-three chapters that follow reveal much about the conduct of science. On one level it is a focused story that chronicles the hold the simplest atom has had on the minds of the world's greatest scientists over the decades reaching back into the nineteenth century. Niels Bohr, Arnold Sommerfeld, Otto Stern, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Harold Urey, I. I. Rabi, Norman Ramsey, Edward Purcell, Felix Bloch, Willis Lamb, Daniel Kleppner, and Theodor Hänsch all have advanced and refined knowledge of the physical world through their fascination with the hydrogen atom.

    On another level, the story of hydrogen reveals how science is conducted. Physical theories are created to provide explanatory schemes whereby the observed world can be understood with quantitative precision. Those theories that capture the support of scientists are those that allow detailed predictions to be made and lead to new insights into the natural world. Good theories are simple theories that unite disparate realms of experience. Physical theories, however, must always yield to the demands of experimental data. Experimental facts are incontrovertible. If they are not accommodated by theory, the theory is held in question. Theories, good theories, are not quickly abandoned. Strenuous effort is exerted to refine a good theory so that experimental facts can be explained. In the final analysis, however, experimental results, once tested and retested, once verified by independent experimental methods, ultimately rule. Dirac's theory was elegant and beautiful, but in the face of data from Lamb and Rabi, it fell short. Their data then became the stimulus for the more powerful theory of quantum electrodynamics.

    The experiments on the hydrogen atom chronicled in these chapters demonstrate the significance of precise measurements. Although all scientists seek to refine their experimental procedures to minimize the uncertainties in their measured results, uncertainties of several percent are typical. However, to expose shortcomings in theories and to test their limits, precise results are often necessary. The hydrogen atom has been the premier physical system for challenging theoretical constructs and precise measurements are the sine qua non when hydrogen is the subject of investigation. Furthermore, precise measurements can reveal unexpected results. In Rabi's series of experiments to measure the magnetic moments of the proton and deuteron, uncertainties were reduced from 26 percent to 0.7 percent. With the improved precision, evidence for a new property of the nucleus, the quadrupole moment, was found lurking in the data.

    Through the example of hydrogen, we have also seen how basic science may lead to practical applications. Basic science typically operates far from the technological applications that predictably follow. The objective of basic science is to learn how the world works. Nonetheless, the knowledge gained through basic research and the methods developed to probe the natural world frequently hold within them the potential for very practical and welcome uses. The magnetic resonance method discovered by Rabi and his group of students led to nuclear magnetic resonance at the hands of Purcell and Bloch, which in turn led to the powerful medical diagnostic tool of magnetic resonance imaging. Ramsey's and Kleppner's hydrogen maser clock is an integral part of the technology of global positioning systems, which have manifold applications.

    When nature's ways are understood, applications follow that can be used for good or bad, for peace or war. Consider the fusion of hydrogen. Einstein's relativity theory, basic physics at its best, showed how nuclear fusion could produce vast amounts of energy. Applications were soon understood. On the one hand, for example, it was understood that the fusion of hydrogen occurs in the Sun and its energy nurtures life on planet Earth. On the other hand, the fusion of hydrogen can occur in a bomb and its energy can inflict devastating destruction. The hydrogen bomb is an important part of the hydrogen story and it could have been the subject of a chapter in this book. I decided against it for two reasons. First, the prominent theme of the following chapters is how the hydrogen atom led to new basic scientific knowledge. The fusion bomb does not fit into that theme. Second, there is a vast literature on the hydrogen bomb and another chapter seemed hardly necessary.

    Science is an international enterprise, which the examples in this book make clear. Although communities may differ enormously in their cultures, their religious convictions, their artistic expressions, and their political structures, in the arena of science, the world's diverse human groups are unified. There is no German science, no Asian science, no Hindu science. Bose was Indian, Einstein was German, but the two came together as scientists and predicted a new form of matter—the Bose-Einstein condensate, which was eventually verified by American scientists.

    This book further illustrates how science itself has changed over the decades. The early chapters typically have one name associated with them. In earlier eras, science was such that an individual could work alone and make significant contributions. The experimental apparatus was relatively simple, could be constructed by one scientist, and put together on a laboratory table. As science progressed through the twentieth century, however, it became more specialized, and the experimental apparatus required became more complex. Many talents are now required to conduct an experiment and science has become a group activity. Many scientists have measured the Rydberg constant and could have been identified along with Hänsch. Four experimental physicists were identified with the discovery of the Bose-Einstein condensate, and no one was identified with the discovery of anti-hydrogen simply because many scientists at different laboratories were involved.

    The hydrogen atom has intrigued physicists because its simplicity allows conceptual models to be created and then tested against experimental data. The inherent logic of a conceptual model is expressed mathematically and the simplicity of the hydrogen atom permits the resulting mathematical expressions to be solved exactly and compared directly with experimental data. This is physics at its best.

    At various times in the history of physics, there has been a tendency for physicists to believe that the time to unravel the final mysteries of nature was at hand. In response to this malady, I once wrote a short piece entitled "H Stands for Hydrogen ... and Humility." (This piece, I am told, hung for a period on an office wall at CERN, the high energy physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.) In the essay I raised a cautionary note about claims that we were nearing a "grand unified theory" that would explain all physical interactions or that we were nearing a complete understanding of such momentous questions as how the universe began. "The hydrogen atom," I wrote, "still beckons."


Excerpted from HYDROGEN by John S. Rigden. Copyright © 2002 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Prologue

1. In the Beginning: Hydrogen and the Big Bang

2. Hydrogen and the Unity of Matter: The Prout Hypothesis William Prout, 1815

3. Hydrogen and the Spectra of the Chemical Elements: A Swiss High School Teacher Finds a Pattern Johann Jakob Balmer, 1885

4. The Bohr Model of Hydrogen: A Paradigm for the Structure of Atoms Niels Bohr, 1913

5. Relativity Meets the Quantum in the Hydrogen Atom Arnold Sommerfeld, 1916

6. The Fine-Structure Constant: A Strange Number with Universal Significance Arnold Sommerfeld, 1916

7. The Birth of Quantum Mechanics: The Hydrogen Atom Answers the "Crucial Question"
Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli, 1925-26
• Paul Dirac, 1925-26

8. The Hydrogen Atom: Midwife to the Birth of Wave Mechanics Erwin Schrödinger, 1926

9. The Hydrogen Atom and Dirac's Theory of the Electron Paul Dirac, 1928

10. Hydrogen Guides Nuclear Physicists: The Discovery of Deuterium Harold Urey, 1932

11. Hubris Meets Hydrogen: The Magnetic Moment of the Proton Otto Stern, 1933

12. The Magnetic Resonance Method: The Origin of Magnetic Resonance Imaging I. I. Rabi, 1938

13. New Nuclear Forces Required: The Discovery of the Quadrupole Moment of the Deuteron Norman F. Ramsey and I. I. Rabi, 1939

14. Magnetic Resonance in Bulk Matter (NMR)
Edward M. Purcell and Felix Bloch, 1946

15. Hydrogen's Challenge to Dirac Theory: Quantum Electrodynamics as the Prototype Physical Theory Willis Lamb, 1947

16. The Hydrogen Atom Portends an Anomaly with the Electron I. I. Rabi, John E. Nafe, and Edward B. Nelson, 1946

17. Hydrogen Maps the Galaxy Edward M. Purcell and Harold Ewen, 1951

18. The Hydrogen Maser: A High-Precision Clock Norman F. Ramsey and Daniel Kleppner, 1960

19. The Rydberg Constant: A Fundamental Constant Johannes Robert Rydberg, 1890
• Theodor Hänsch, 1992

20. The Abundance of Deuterium: A Check on Big Bang Cosmology David N. Schramm, 1945-1997

21. Antihydrogen: The First Antiatom

22. The Bose-Einstein Condensate for Hydrogen Satyendranath Bose, 1924
• Albert Einstein, 1925
• Eric A. Cornell and Carl E. Wieman, 1995
• Daniel Kleppner and Tom Greytak, 1998

23. Exotic Hydrogen-like Atoms: From Theory to Technology Epilogue

Notes

Acknowledgments

Credits

Index

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