Book Review: Let There Be Light: The History of Light from Atoms to Galaxies (Second Edition)

This second edition of “Let there be light: the history of light from atoms to galaxies” is, like the first edition, a delightful book. Light, or more generally electromagnetic radiation, is the vehicle the authors use to traverse the broad subject of physics, and they do so in a humorous, gentle but serious way. Although many of the topics have been revised, and the latest chapter updated to address the rise of the Higgs boson, the book has lost none of the appeal of the first edition. While the presentation is at a level suitable for third-level students, there are many things in the book that can whet the appetites of bright high school students engaged in their first serious study of the subject. Additionally, second- and third-level physics teachers will find ideas and anecdotes galore to spice up the teaching process.

The book has a nice and light narrative flow, with excellent illustrations, photographs, and occasional well-chosen “historical interludes.” However, the topics are treated with a good degree of rigor. In the second edition, most of the mathematical derivations, which appeared as appendices to the chapters of the first edition, have been replaced by verbal descriptions, and the key mathematical statements are presented on “blackboards”, all to make the book look good. more accessible to the public. general reader. At the risk of being considered decidedly outdated, I admit I regret the removal of the mathematical appendices. Physics is well served by mathematics, and the serious student learns to appreciate the precision and clarity that mathematical analysis can bring to a subject.

The book attempts, quite successfully, to show an underlying connectivity between the seemingly disparate issues facing the student embarking on a study of physics. It also places the issues in historical context, emphasizing the many human endeavors that have contributed to our remarkable modern understanding of the physical world. Showing due respect for the human endeavors that have led to great discoveries, without unnecessarily burdening the student, is a delicate matter.

For example, we cannot expect a young student to follow Planck’s tortuous journey to his discovery of the quantization of the energy of the atomic linear harmonic oscillator (as so well described in Malcolm Longair’s recent book “Quantum Concepts in Physics”). . With the benefit of hindsight, one can simplify the story to a much more student-friendly one, but one runs the danger that a phrase like “Planck’s discovery of the quanta of light” (as quoted in the Preface) find your way into the narrative. The story is correctly told on pages 18 and 19, and due credit is given to Einstein, who in 1905 extended Planck’s idea of ​​quantization to light itself.

For the true physicist, there is a wonderful beauty in physics. This book is very sympathetic to this point of view, and ends by quoting Abdus Salaam on the faith of all physicists: “the deeper we search, the more our amazement is moved.” This may be the book that allows the struggling student to glimpse the beauty that makes serious study of physics worthwhile.

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