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Beam – Jeff Hecht ***

Beam‘s subtitle is ‘the race to make the laser’ and this was a story that was crying out for a good popular scientific history. Not only is there really interesting physics behind the laser, there was a genuine tense race, strong personalities, bizarre problems with security clearances and more to make for a gripping story.
I’ve come rather late to Beam (first published in 2005) because, frankly, the book doesn’t seem to have been very visible – and I’m afraid I can understand why. Although there are all the elements of a great story there, Jeff Hecht is probably not the right person to tell it. On the physics side, while there is a lot of detail of the precise excitation processes required for masers and lasers, there isn’t really enough background on quantum physics to give it context.
As for the story itself, the book suffers from kitchen-sink-itis. Hecht seems to feel it necessary to mention ever single tiny contribution to the research, whether or not it had a direct impact on the key players. And though the story really does get interesting when, for instance, we get onto Gordon Gould’s you’d-laugh-if-you-didn’t-cry security problems that meant he wasn’t able to read his own work, much of the storytelling gets horribly bogged down and repetitive, making it hard to follow the narrative.
The final problem is limiting the book to the race to create the first laser – it would have had a wider interest if Hecht had brought in the development of the solid state lasers we all have littering our homes in CD players and the like.
All in all, there is plenty of good stuff here, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has told the story in such detail, but you have to work quite hard to get to the nuggets.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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