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American Institute of Physics



Book Review

Invitation to Contemporary Physics , 2nd edition

Quang Ho-Kim, Narendra Kumar, and Chi-Sing Lam
World Scientific Publishing, River Edge, NJ, 2004
482 pp., $103.00 hb
ISBN 981-238-302-6

Reviewed by Michael Blaszkiewicz

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book coverWho doesn't like to receive an invitation? This aptly named book is definitely an invite and not a dry introduction-to-physics text. Quang Ho-Kim, Narendra Kumar, and Chi-Sing Lam, each with more than 30 years' experience in physics research, generate considerable excitement about current-day, cutting-edge physics research. This book is a must-read for those wanting to put their finger back on the pulse of physics research today.

In this update of the very popular Invitation to Contemporary Physics, first published in 1991, the authors discuss 10 topics of importance in current physics research: symmetry, lasers, superconductivity, chaos, black holes, elementary particles, cosmology, Bose–Einstein condensates, nanostructures, and quantum computing. The last three topics are new to the second edition and are presented in their own chapters. Taking on the challenge of imparting knowledge of these areas with minimal use of mathematics, the authors use a refreshing, conversational writing style. The result is an informal learning atmosphere that draws the reader in. The reader is left with an understanding of the basics of the field and, more important, with a road map of where the field is going. The authors provide numerous examples of how physics research is being applied to real-world applications, such as new laser developments that will allow even higher density DVDs, spintronics for next-generation quantum computers, and Bose–Einstein condensate-based atomic clocks for even more precise global positioning systems.

Although the book accomplishes the goal of generating excitement and reader interest in the topics, it has its faults. In a few chapters, the conversational language is excessive to the point of being wordy, resulting in awkward sentence structure and unnecessarily difficult reading. The authors choose to explain some difficult concepts without using figures, whereas easier concepts receive unnecessary figures. Some figures are not as easy to understand as one might hope. For example, an “S” is used in one figure to denote both the superconductor and the magnetic South Pole. Italicized words are strewn throughout the book; unfortunately, few, if any, turn up in the glossary section. The authors provide problems to be solved at the end of some, but strangely not all, of the chapters. Symmetry, superconductivity, Bose–Einstein condensates, and chaos have no problem sections.

Frustratingly, the book has its share of cliff-hangers: partially developed concepts explained away as either a topic not for further discussion or, condescendingly, too complicated to understand. The authors mention recently created Bose–Einstein condensate atom lasers, but we are not told who created them or where they were created. The authors could remedy these situations by providing more references for those interested. In keeping with contemporary technology, some of the references the authors provide are Internet Web site links. Unfortunately, at least two of these links are already broken.

In addition, some older chapters were given only a cursory update. The chapter on superconductivity stands out in this regard. Some college students reading this book may not have been born at the time of the “recent” superconductor discovery of Bednorz and Mueller in 1986. Also, the multiple-author approach is evident in slight style differences. This book could benefit from chapter-to-chapter consistency in the use of footnotes, problems to be solved for each chapter, and quantity and quality of references.

Despite these drawbacks, Ho-Kim, Kumar, and Lam successfully create a relaxed learning atmosphere, teach difficult topics, and generate reader excitement and interest in important research areas. Many guests will accept this invitation to contemporary physics.


Michael Blaszkiewicz has been an industrial physicist working in R&D since 1993 at Siemens in Munich, Germany, the Westinghouse Science and Technology Center, and Bayer MaterialScience in Pittsburgh. He has industrial research experience in electronic ceramics, nuclear materials, and polymer physics.