A look at the light of our lives

Modern Classical Optics. First edition - Laser Fundamentals. Second edition
November 26, 2004

Optical physics was once thought to be the expiring leftover of 19th-century physics, about to disappear from the undergraduate syllabus: one of my predecessors as head of physics at Imperial College described it in dismissive terms as “pins and mirrors”. Yet now, courses on optics at universities across the whole world are flourishing, packed with students.

What caused all this was the emergence of the laser from a research-laboratory curiosity into the major driver of current technology. Light carries information down your telephone lines and the internet, provides the time standard from laser-cooled atoms, fixes detached retinas and so much more. Everyone (at least in the developed world) is touched by the use of lasers every single day of their lives.

So the applied side of the field receives much attention in university courses. At the same time, there is still lots to understand at the fundamental level: quantum applications in secure communications and quantum information science, and imaging aspects of optics are at the fore in current research worldwide.

Many universities offer two optics courses: a “core” course on classical optics and a final-year option on lasers. The books reviewed here are well matched for these. Geoffrey Brooker’s, based on his course in Oxford, addresses the classical concepts of interference, diffraction, coherence and imaging, along with a well-written discussion of device applications.

Undergraduates will appreciate his lively style and careful treatment of the underlying theory: it is good value, too, at a very modest price. It stands up well to rival texts (such as Eugene Hecht’s Optics ). Its strengths are the clarity and liveliness of its language, the worked problems, and the way the author maintains links with experiment. I recommend it strongly and will use it at Imperial.
William Silfvast’s well-known text covers the basic principles of laser physics and device applications at an accessible level. Developed from courses the author has given at the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (Creol) in Florida, this book has been a standard text since the first edition appeared eight years ago.

Final-year undergraduates will find his treatment of how lasers work attractive and intelligible, and beginning research students and MSc students in optics will find this a most reliable guide. It is authoritative and up to date, covering a wide field from the fundamental properties of light and its interaction with matter, through the basic ideas of gain and loss and laser amplification and laser modes, and finally on to specific laser systems.

Silfvast’s discussion of the properties and use of gas and solid-state laser systems is superb. Like Brooker, he illustrates the central ideas with worked examples and homework problems. I have used the first edition with students who like its directness, clarity and thoroughness. The second edition is one of the best guides to laser physics I know of and I recommend it without reservation.

Peter Knight is head of physics, Imperial College London, and president, Optical Society of America.

Modern Classical Optics. First edition

Author - Geoffrey Brooker
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 397
Price - £44.95 and £24.95
ISBN - 0 19 859964 1 and 859965 X

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