This second edition of “Let There Be Light: The Story 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, friendly yet serious way. Although many of the topics have been revised, and the last chapter updated to take into account the appearance 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 juniors, there is much in the book that can whet the appetite of bright seniors who are 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, light narrative flow, with excellent illustrations, photos, and the occasional well-chosen “historical interlude.” However, the issues are treated quite rigorously. In the second edition, most of the mathematical derivations, which appeared as appendices to chapters in the first edition, have been replaced by verbal descriptions, and key mathematical statements are presented on “blackboards,” all to make the book more user-friendly. accessible to the public. general reader At the risk of being considered decidedly old-fashioned, I admitted that I regretted 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 topics facing the student embarking on a study of physics. It also places themes in historical context, emphasizing the many human endeavors that have contributed to our remarkable modern understanding of the physical world. Giving due respect to the human efforts that have led to great discoveries, without unnecessarily hindering 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 energy quantization of the atomic linear harmonic oscillator (as described so well in Malcolm Longair’s recent book “Quantum Concepts in Physics”). . With the benefit of hindsight, one can simplify the story to a much more readable one for the student, but there is a danger that a phrase like “Planck’s discovery of light quanta” (as quoted in the Preface) find your way in the narrative. The story is told correctly 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 wonderful beauty in physics. This book is very sympathetic to this point of view, ending by quoting Abdus Salaam on the faith of all physicists: “the deeper we search, the more our wonder is excited.” This may be the book that allows the struggling student to glimpse the beauty that makes serious study of physics worthwhile.