Sunday, 3 March 2013

Neils Bohr and the Quantum Atom – Helge Kragh ***

This is a bit of specialist one. If you don’t have a physics degree, don’t bother to read any further. Neils Bohr and the Quantum Atom is not intended to be popular science (if you want a more approachable book, try Abraham Pais’s Niels Bohr’s Times), but I was very interested to read it as it’s a subject that is close to my heart.
Bohr himself tends to be underrated – he tended to come across rather badly when public speaking, and some of his quasi-philosophical pronouncements on the nature of quantum physics were painfully obscure. But we must not forget the huge contribution he made to kick-starting quantum theory, starting with his key development of the quantum model of the atom.
Although the book does plunge into equations on a number of occasions it is primarily a historical narrative of the development of Bohr’s model of the atom, including a fair amount of biography, from his early thoughts at Manchester in 1912 to its full fruition and subsequent transformation by the new quantum mechanics in the 1920s. I would be lying if I said that reading it wasn’t quite hard work – but if you really want to get a feel for the detailed process of the development of one of the key foundations of twentieth century physics, the book is unparalleled. There is a lot of detail – but this is about real science, not the sanitised version.
Overall, if you are the right reader (and I was), very satisfying.
Review by Brian Clegg

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