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Baker’s Dozen: Best 2013 Books for the Physics Fan

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It’s that time of year again, when bibliophiles scour their groaning bookcases and pluck out the best reads of the year, just in time for the holiday shopping season. Lovers of popular science books are no exception, so without further ado, here are my top 13 personal favorite physics-centric books published this year.

1. The Particle at the End of the Universe, by Sean Carroll. Okay, technically, the hardcover came out in 2012, but the paperback was released this year. And while I’m clearly biased, being married to the author, the book has been widely praised by others, and did just win the Royal Society’s 2013 Winton Prize.  And since the discovery of the Higgs boson garnered the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics, it’s a timely topic. Maybe you could combine it with A Palette of Particles, by Jeremy Bernstein, for the full Standard Model gift-giving experience.

2. The Universe in the Rear-View Mirror, by Dave Goldberg. I’m a huge fan of Goldberg’s Ask a Physicist posts at io9, and he brings that same engaging, populist, down-to-earth sensibility to his first book on the daunting topic of mathematical symmetries. That’s as esoteric as it gets, yet Goldberg grounds it all in everyday questions: “Why is the sky dark at night? Is it possible to build a shrink-ray gun? If there is antimatter, can there be antipeople? Why are past, present, and future our only options? Are time and space like a butterfly’s wings?” As Discover declared: “Mathematical symmetries lie at the heart of the answers, but Goldberg offers math-free guideposts along the way in this witty and accessible read. Tip: Don’t skip the copious footnotes, packed with geek humor.”

3. Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, by Anissa Ramirez and Allen St. John. Exploring the physics behind our most popular sports represents an entire genre of popular science writing, and this is one of the best recent books along those lines. I loved it so much, I provided a blurb: “What do you get when you pair a journalist and bestselling author with a materials scientist turned science ‘evangelist,’ and have them collaborate on a book about football? With any luck, you get Newton’s Football, a breezily informative and fun exploration of the science behind this popular pastime, from Vince Lombardi’s use of game theory to helmet design and why woodpeckers don’t get concussions.” Perfect for the science-loving football fan on your shopping list.

4. Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, by Lee Billings. This book has been getting a lot of much-deserved critical praise; it is top-notch science journalism. The ongoing hunt for exoplanets is a white-hot topic, and Billings does a fantastic job not just summarizing the science behind the hundreds of exoplanets discovered thus far, but also in tracing “the triumphs, tragedies, and betrayals of the extraordinary men and women seeking life among the stars.”

5. Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, by Edward Frenkel. You might recall Frenkel as the Berkeley mathematician who caused a ruckus by appearing nude in the indie film, Rites of Love and Math, an homage to a 1950s cult classic by Japanese director Yukio Mishima. Or perhaps you read his moving account of overcoming anti-semitism in Russia (including being deliberately failed on a crucial entrance exam) to become a mathematician. Needless to say, Frenkel’s fostered a fascinating, multi-faceted public persona that is front and center in Love and Math, which is part autobiography, part love letter to his subject; partly targeted to the lay reader, but with sufficient in-depth discussion of actual equations for those interested in digging a bit deeper. It makes for a wonderful book. Take it from Steven Strogatz, no slouch himself when it comes to writing elegantly and accessibly about mathematics: “Love and Math = fast-paced adventure story + intimate memoir + insider’s account of the quest to decode a Rosetta Stone at the heart of modern math. It all adds up to a thrilling intellectual ride—and a tale of surprising passion.”

6. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Chris Hadfield. Hadfield is the Canadian astronaut who delighted us all with his YouTube videos demonstrating, for example, what happens you cry in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station:

That’s why there’s no crying in space, people. And now he’s penned his version of a memoir; the New York Times called it “part fascinating view, part Boy Scout manual,” but it’s full-on terrific read. Per the jacket: “Through eye-opening, entertaining stories filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement-and happiness.”

7. The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics, by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky. This is based on a popular YouTube lecture series, which helped propel the book onto the bestseller list earlier this year, despite the frequent inclusion of the dreaded mathematical equations (flouting publishing conventions). It’s clear, insightful, and designed for those hardcore physics fans who’ve read all the popular treatments and now might be interested in moving out of the armchair into the real action of actually engaging in theoretical physics.

8. For those looking for something a bit more introductory in nature, Rhett Allain’s amusing yet educational Angry Birds, Furious Forces: The Physics at Play in the World’s Most Popular Game is an excellent option; it’s one of a series produced by National Geographic that includes Angry Birds Space: A Furious Flight to the Final Frontier, and Angry Birds Star Wars: The Science Behind the Saga (both by Amy Briggs). Collect the whole set!

9. Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, by Ray Jayawardhana. Sure, the Higgs boson dominated the headlines this past year, but if you’re looking for a particle that keeps physicists guessing, look no further than the neutrino. And next week marks the release of Neutrino Hunters, just in time for the holidays. Per Publishers Weekly: “With clarity and wry humor, Jayawardhana relates how Wolfgang Pauli ‘invented’ the neutrino to explain where missing energy went during beta decay . . . From deep underground in South Dakota’s Homestake Gold Mine to Antarctica’s IceCube, currently the world’s largest neutrino detector, Jayawardhana vividly illuminates both the particle that has ‘baffled and surprised’ scientists, and the researchers who hunt it.”

10. Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian, by A. Douglas Stone. Most physics fans are familiar with Einstein’s famous declaration that “God does not play dice with the universe,” objecting to a central implication of the then-new field of quantum mechanics. Suffice to say he wasn’t a fan. Yet Stone argues in this book that Einstein actually contributed as much (if not more) to the development of quantum theory than colleagues like Max Planck or Niels Bohr. It’s garnered a slew of praise, including from physicist Brian Greene: “Common lore holds that Einstein’s essential contribution to physics is relativity. But in this scholarly and accessible book, A. Douglas Stone argues convincingly that Einstein had a profound impact on the development of quantum theory.”

11. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures, by Edward Ball. The 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge had quite the colorful life, including being tried and acquitted for the murder of his wife and her lover — although most people are more familiar with his famous photographs of a horse galloping. It practically screams “rollicking good yarn,” and Ball deftly spins one in The Inventor and the Tycoon. The Washington Post declared it to be “[a] remarkable story of the alliance between the eccentric inventor of the motion picture and the mogul who built the nation’s rails. It is a story that, for all its whirling parts and divagations, tells us a great deal about the crossroads of money and art in America.”

12. The New York Times Book of Physics and Astronomy: More Than 100 Years of Covering the Expanding Universe. Edited by Cornelia Dean with a forward by Neil de Grasse Tyson. The New York Times is one of the few remaining newspapers that still maintains a vigorous science section, and these 125 articles represent the very best of the paper’s substantial archives. showcasing the work of its finest reporters. Per the book jacket, it includes “Malcolm W. Browne on teleporting, antimatter atoms, and the physics of traffic jams; James Glanz on string theory; George Johnson on quantum physics; William L. Laurence on Bohr and Einstein; Dennis Overbye on the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson; [and] Walter Sullivan on the colliding beam machine.”

13. Quantum Computing Since Democritus, by Scott Aaronson. Finally, to round out our baker’s dozen, this is the Time Lord’s favorite physics book of 2013. (He didn’t even hesitate when I asked for his recommendation.) It is the very definition of a Big Ideas Book. Per the book jacket: “Beginning in antiquity with Democritus, it progresses through logic and set theory, computability and complexity theory, quantum computing, cryptography, the information content of quantum states and the interpretation of quantum mechanics. There are also extended discussions about time travel, Newcomb’s Paradox, the anthropic principle and the views of Roger Penrose.” It’s targeted to readers with a reasonably strong grounding in physics, so it’s not exactly a light read, despite Aaronson’s trademark breezy writing style. But for those with sufficient background, or the patience to stick with the discussion, the rewards will be great.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rloldershaw 10:43 am 12/4/2013

    An important book for young physics students.

    Jim Baggott’s FAREWELL TO REALITY

    Link to this

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