Book Review: ‘Hydrogen’ by John S. Rigden

Hydrogen: The Essential ElementHydrogen: The Essential Element by John S. Rigden

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

At the start of this book, I thought it was geared at a more general audience. I think that might have been the aim, given the frequency of well-written summaries at strategic points in the text—shortly before the focus shifted to a new principle, usually—but I wouldn’t recommend this one to someone who didn’t take any physics in high school at the very least. Although I can’t imagine why you’re interested in this book if you don’t have any background in physics whatsoever. This is a lot heavier on the hard science than the more philosophical vein of physics books. (A good litmus test: do words like “partial differentials” scare you?)

The focus of the book is, as you may have guessed from the title, the significant  discoveries in physics made with the hydrogen atom. In reality, the focus ends up almost entirely on quantum mechanics (the ideal gas law never even comes up; I have no idea if that was with hydrogen, but it’s the one classical physics thing I can think of that would’ve used hydrogen at all). Anyway, quantum physics is immensely cool and since the more you learn about it, the less you actually understand, it’s good to have books on the topic that are written at a fairly high level.

You don't need to be a physicist to appreciate how awesome hydrogen is. (From 'Watchmen' by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons)

You don’t need to be a physicist to appreciate how awesome hydrogen is. (From ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons)

Some background in physics notwithstanding, Rigden interprets data and papers (including both academic and other correspondence) for his audience. It’s a good level for people like me, who’ve stared at the Balmer series long enough as part of third-quarter light/modern physics but didn’t get in so deep that we learned about fine and hyperfine structure. There is no derivation of equations (which does, admittedly, make it seem as if discoveries happen spontaneously at times), but there is discussion of certain constants and the components of some formulae for the mathier crowd. Although, yeah, you’re not going to learn the process for defining the Rydberg constant in terms of other fundamental constants.

Rigden balances discussion of theory and experimentation—can’t have one without the other, after all—with short blurbs of biographical information preceding a more involved discussion of how an answer was got at, sticking to more easily swallowed information like the materials and circumstances surrounding the lab. Overall, though, the tone of the book is fairly dry. It’s a dense read, not least because the matter can be conceptually challenging, and I read this in chunks because there were points where I needed to sit and digest.

That said, a sense of humor slips in from time to time, and in the latter chapters as we move into the modern era, personal touches become more evident.

As we reach the current state of quantum mechanics, a few chapters on other scientific disciplines influenced by hydrogen enter the picture—astronomy (cosmology?) being the most notable. Rigden acknowledges that his approach is physics-oriented, and that chemists would have plenty to add to the narrative, but we know this from the beginning so chemists (and the odd lover of chemistry) shouldn’t be mad. He does happen to run the American Institute of Physics, which I’m hoping is a giveaway for you.

One theme that he opens and closes on, but that doesn’t have as much of a presence in the text, is that there’s always more to learn from hydrogen. Assuming that we are on the brink of discovering a single unified theory of matter is both arrogant and unlikely. There will always be blips in the data.

I leave you with this quote from the book:

Like Prometheus, chained to a rock, physicists were intellectually chained to the rock of their erroneous prediction. Fortunately, an eagle did not feast daily on their livers.

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