Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light by Bob Berman
Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light is a wonderfully smooth and lucid tour of the electromagnetic spectrum by Bob Berman, whose engagingly accessible prose makes this an excellent introduction to the topic for non-scientists.
Berman divides his exploration into two basic parts: how were the various types of light waves discovered and how do they impact our daily lives. Why light? Because, as Berman says, “photons constitute 99.9999999 percent of everything. The universe is literally made of light.” Seems kind of important then, and it’s hard to imagine a better guide to its ins and outs than Berman here.
Zapped opens with a general overview of optics — how we perceive light — and light’s form (both wave and particle), explaining how wavelength and frequency interact. The optics section, as happens frequently throughout the book, offers up some interesting tidbits, such as why we see green more readily than other colors (the reason the highway system uses green signs) or why many animals see a violet rather than a blue sky. Chapter three begins the deep dive into the spectrum, which moves steadily through infrared (originally known as “calorific rays”), ultraviolet, radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, and gamma rays. Berman makes stops along the way to explain the mundane (sun screen) and the cosmic (time dilation). Beyond explaining the what’s and how’s, Berman tries to deal with some myths and/or ameliorate some concerns non-scientists might have about light (or the more scary term — “radiation”), such as are microwave ovens dangerous or can cell phones cause cancer. One big surprise is an unexpectedly open-minded section on ESP, which I believe is a first for me in my physics readings.
Berman doesn’t dive too deeply into the physics and there’s next to no math here. The only time we get a somewhat dense section, he wisely tells the reader to stop and go back and re-read to make sure they have the foundation down since the next section would be building on that prior knowledge. I can’t say I learned a lot of new material in terms of the physics itself. And certainly some of the anecdotes regarding the scientists are familiar — Herschel’s accidental discovery of infrared waves, the fortuitous melting candy bar that led to the microwave oven, the fact that Marie Curie’s notebooks are still too radioactive to read without protection. But that doesn’t make them any less captivating, and for those who don’t regularly read popular science, those stories will be brand new.
Despite not getting a lot of new physics information (not that I was expecting to get much new — it is established science after all), I found Zapped’s details, such as that bit about the road signs or the animals’ vision of the daytime sky, to be wholly fascinating. And while Berman’s prose style doesn’t leap off the page, it’s never anything but fluid, clear, smooth, and engaging, with never a hint of either academese or condescension. Making him the perfect tour guide on this journey.