The story of the hydrogen atom, a 15-billion-year evolving drama

On Books

May 12, 2002|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

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: The Essential Element, by John S. Rigden (Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $28). For many reasons, this book grabbed me from the start and held my attention to its finish.

Rigden is director of special projects at the American Institute of Physics, and author of Rabi: Scientist and Citizen. He views hydrogen as the original seed of the cosmos - persuasively, sometimes passionately and ultimately convincingly.

In his prologue, he declares hydrogen to be "nature's simplest atom" and, with the exception of helium, "the mother of all atoms and molecules." The nucleus is a single proton, anchoring a single electron. Every cubic centimeter of the darkest outer space contains a few hydrogen atoms, he relates, and one cubic centimeter of the center of Jupiter has more than 10 million billion billion of them. Hydrogen makes up 90 percent of the total elemental substance in the entire cosmos. "Every second, 600 million tons of hydrogen are fused into helium in the core of the sun," he writes.

FOR THE RECORD - In the "On Books" column in Sunday's Arts & Society section, the publisher of Hydrogen: The Essential Element by John S. Rigden was incorrectly identified. The publisher is Harvard University Press.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Each of the book's 23 chapters relates an episode in which scientists have found some new insight into hydrogen. Except for a few speculations in ancient history, the tale begins in the early 1800s, with the hypothesized recognition of the existence of the atom, but swiftly moves toward the 20th century.

Rigden is a formidable historian - there are dozens and dozens of characters in the book, including a tribe of Nobel laureates. Albert Einstein turns up in 1905, age 26, with an early paper on quantum theory. Almost every one of the characters is dealing with the unknown, the pursuit of elusive knowledge and discovery - what is an atom? How to demonstrate that electrons exist?

These are interesting, quirky people. Paul Girac, who in 1932 was appointed to the Cambridge University chair once occupied by Sir Isaac Newton, was so taciturn, so unchatty, that fellow scientists throughout the world came to agree to define the unit of silence in physics as "the dirac." Fun people!

(Well, that might be overstating it a trifle, but many show a sense of irony.)

These physicists and mathematicians - it is hard to draw a clear line between the disciplines - came from all over the world and from backgrounds ranging from penniless to highborn.

They find often-inexpressible loveliness in the best of their work, responding in terms one would expect more from artists or poets than from men - there is not a woman cited in the book - dealing with abstractions of science. Niels Bohr wrote to Arnold Sommerfeld about the latter's 1916 paper on relativity and the quantum idea: "I do not believe ever to have read anything with more joy than your beautiful work."

There is often eloquence in Rigden's own language: "Forces make things happen. Forces speed things up and forces slow things down. There are attractive forces and repulsive forces. An attractive force pulls magnetic decals to the refrigerator door and pulled Comet Shoemaker-Levy into the churning surface of the planet Jupiter; a repulsive force pushes two strips of scotch tape apart after they are stripped from a table top. In the arsenal of physical concepts, force is one of the most important."

The story is about the nature of material and force, of mass and energy. Rigden keeps it solidly rooted in the hydrogen atom, because of its simplicity. This book is not pure entertainment. It is full of challenges, and points at which reading it demands discipline and concentration. Rigden is a scholar, and makes scholarly demands. He does not often wander into literary ornaments, but he has an acute sense of the intricate personalities, the workings of minds of his characters.

So Hydrogen doesn't always rattle along like an espionage thriller, though there are more clues and more surprises, more detours and lost trails, than in any James Bond novel I remember.

Rigden introduces from time to time mathematical formulas that to understand fully would require comfort with analytical calculus. They are set out, however, in a manner that lets a reader breeze by them, accepting Rigden's clear-enough explanation of why they are important.

Lurking behind them is a clear story of the immense energy and industry of the minds of these physicists and mathematicians who were driven to extraordinary feats by something that could only be called an incurable love of knowledge.

The book is essentially an exploration of the development of physics in the 20th century. The device of presenting it as a sort of biography of hydrogen becomes a bit of a put on. The title seems to me no more or less appropriate than to name a history of orchestral music in the 19th century A Above Middle C. And why not?

Strict creationists will not adore this book - it is a 15-billion-year evolutionary drama.

Still, there is among many of these genuine geniuses a sense of the spiritual. Higden writes: "It is a wonder that mathematics can be used so powerfully to express the content of nature's laws. Mathematics is a product of mind and is independent of the outside world; thus, mathematicians can create great new mathematical systems without any thought given to planets revolving around stars, ... neutrons firing in the brain of a youngster, or a physicist reflecting on why mathematics works as it does to express the laws of nature so efficiently. ... This mysterious relationship between mathematics and physics prompted James Jeans to suggest that the Great Architect of the universe is a mathematician."

So for its literary quality, its memorable parade of scientific superheroes and the richness of its material, this is a book I heartily recommend.

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