Books: Stretching the boundaries of science courses

Dec. 1, 1995
The aim of this book is to introduce advanced high school students and beginning college students to lasers as tools in scientific research.


Laser Experiments for Beginners, Richard N. Zare, Bertrand H. Spencer, Dwight S. Springer, and Matthew P. Jacobson, University Science Books, Sausalito, CA 1995, 232 pages, $26.50 paperback.

The aim of this book is to introduce advanced high school students and beginning college students to lasers as tools in scientific research. One of the primary attractions of this book is the relative sophistication of the wide range of measurements that can be carried out with relatively inexpensive and easy-to-assemble optical and electronic components. The experiments are carefully written and rated with respect to the experimental and conceptual degree of difficulty and the most appropriate format (project-based laboratories or classroom demonstrations). The authors have taken special pains to explain safety precautions for the low-power lasers and chemicals used. They include many references and have carefully documented sources of equipment and supplies.

The experiments and demonstrations are built around five themes: light scattering from disordered systems, diffraction and light scattering from ordered systems, the refraction of light, the electronic structure of matter, and photochemistry. Each theme is prefaced by an introductory section that discusses the theory and physical basis for the effects demonstrated. In contrast to the relative simplicity of many of the experiments and demonstrations, these introductory sections assume a stronger background in chemistry and physics (optics in particular) than possessed by most beginning students. Nevertheless, this information will be very helpful to instructors and advanced students who wish to understand the basic chemistry and physics.

Since this book most likely will be used as a resource from which instructors will select experiments and demonstrations to supplement existing courses, the overall organization and ordering of topics is not particularly critical. Nevertheless, given the laser motif, it would have been more useful to discuss the basic principles of laser operation earlier in the book, in part to encourage students to question the workings of these remarkable tools.

The classroom demonstrations and project-based laboratories focus on the use of lasers to gain an understanding of chemical systems; thus they complement higher-level laboratory texts emphasizing laser-based techniques in the chemistry curriculum, for example, Physical Chemistry: Developing a Dynamic Curriculum (R. W. Schwenz and R. J. Moore, American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, 1993). Unlike such higher-level texts, however, Laser Experiments for Beginners also will be a useful resource for introductory courses in physics and biology. A major problem in implementing these kinds of experiments in existing high school and introductory college science curricula is the persistence of rather rigid boundaries between the disciplines. For example, the experiment describing the measurement of the polarization of light scattered by albumin (p. 32) does not easily fit into the introductory curricula defined by most current science textbooks.

But such hard-to classify experiments will help students and faculty stretch across traditional boundaries. This book achieves its well-defined aims and should serve as an excellent resource for improving the laboratory experience in a wide range of introductory science courses.

Ronald L. Christensen is a professor in the Department of Chemistry, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME 04011.

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