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Physics With a Twist

Baker's Dozen: Sampling the Best Science Books of 2012


Every year, my former co-blogger, author Allyson Beatrice, compiles a handy list of science books for kids, just in time for last-minute holiday shopping. Sometimes I weigh in with a few highlights of my own, geared more towards adults. The books below are mostly physics-centric, although not exclusively so, and represent just a sampling of the myriad fine books published about science in this past year. (You can also find my list of the top astrophysics and space science books for 2012 over at Discovery News.)

1. The Particle at the End of the Universe, by Sean M. Carroll. We might as well get the blatant nepotism out of the way upfront. Regular readers of this blog know Sean Carroll as the Time Lord, a.k.a., my spouse. He's a cosmologist at Caltech, and also writes popular science books and articles as time permits. His latest is all about the Higgs boson's discovery at the Large Hadron Collider, chock-full of wonderful inside-baseball type stories as well as careful explications of the science.

While Sean was writing the book, he kept insisting to me that people really, really wanted to know about quantum field theory: "They just don't realize it yet." I was initially dubious, but I shouldn't have been, because Sean's explication of this tricky subject convinced me that quantum field theory is indeed a beautiful thing, and it's entirely possible to make it accessible to a non-scientist.

Yes, I am biased. So don't take my word on the many merits of The Particle at the End of the Universe. You should listen to actor Morgan Freeman, host of the Science Channel's Through the Wormhole series: "Carroll tells the story of the particle that everyone has heard of but few of us actually understand. After you read his book -- an enticing cocktail of personal anecdote, clever analogy, and a small dose of mind-bending theory -- you will truly grasp why the Higgs boson has been sought after for so long by so many. Carroll is a believer in big science asking big questions and his beliefs are infectious and inspiring."

Okay, nepotism accomplished; time to move onto the other excellent books on this list.

2. A Man of Misonceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, by John Glassie. (You can now follow "Athanasius Kircher" on Twitter.) I've been fascinated by Athanasius Kircher for years, so it was a thrill to find Glassie's book came out just in time for inclusion on this 2012 list. Its late entry means I haven't had time to plunge into its pages yet -- the only book on this list I haven't read -- but I included it anyway, because hooh boy! I can't wait.

Kircher, for those unfamiliar with the man, was a humble 17th century Jesuit scholar/priest who deserves to be rescued from relative obscurity. Why do I love Kircher so much? Chalk it up to the man's passion for scientific inquiry, and his boundless curiosity about how the world works.

And what an adventurous life the man led -- a regular Indiana Jones of the 1600s. He skirted death on numerous occasions, beginning with a boyhood leg injury that turned gangrenous. He was shipwrecked on an island while traveling to Austria, and was nearly hung by overly-ardent Protestant cavalrymen on another of his many travels. Just before Adolph, the Protestant king of Sweden, invaded Franconia and Wurzburg, Kircher fled his teaching post at a college in the latter town and eventually landed in Rome.

For his last great adventure, he traveled to southern Italy, Sicily and Malta, where he witnessed the eruption of Aetna and Stromboli, and even had himself lowered into the active crater at Vesuvius. Lowered... himself... into... an... active... volcano. The A-Man had some serious cojones. These and his many other tales of derring-do make for excellent book fodder.

3. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner. It's easy to forget, in these days of declining funding for scientific research, that Bell Labs in its heyday was a model for the marriage of science and industrial applications of research.

Starting with Karl Jansky and the origins of radio astronomy, through the invention of the transistor, and later to cutting-edge technologies like the quantum cascade laser, Bell Labs scientists have been at the forefront of scientific innovation for decades. This is an eminently readable tribute to the people who made the place a hotbed of technological progress for so long.

4. The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. It's been quite a year for statistician Nate Silver, what with his controversial predictions on the outcome of the 2012 presidential election -- which, as in 2008, turned out to be impressively accurate. Much of the controversy stemmed from the many ways those of us who aren't mathematically inclined misunderstand the science of probabilistic prediction.

Silver's book naturally talks about political predictions (Chapter 2 is entitled, "Are You Smarter Than a TV Pundit?"), but it's more about the nature of statistical modeling in general, and the difficulties one faces in trying to find a signal in all that data noise. Silver has a gift for popularizing such subject matter, making this is a highly readable mathematical adventure.

5. The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity, by Steven Strogatz. Speaking of highly readable mathematical adventures, perhaps you, like me, were enthralled by Steven Strogatz's marvelous New York Times series on math a couple of years ago. He's now spun those columns into a full-length book bound to overcome even the most hardcore mathphobe's dislike of the subject. Also check out The Calculus of Friendship, and his new New York Times series, Me, Myself and Math.

6. Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, by Alex Stone. Stone has a background in physics and a lifelong fascination with magic, specifically of the card tricks and similar illusions variety. This is an entertaining account of his passion for the topic, including some insights into a few small tricks of the trade, backroom gossip, and Stone's own observations on this exclusive circle of professionals. I should note that a few magicians have taken issue with Stone's take on the world of magic, and those looking for the revealing of magician's secrets beyond simple card tricks are likely to be disappointed. But for pure science-ish storytelling, it's an excellent yarn.

7. To The Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes, by Francis Slakey. Time for another caveat: I've known Slakey, a Georgetown professor who works in the Washington office of the American Physical Society, for nearly 20 (yikes!) years, and watched the personal transformation he recounts here firsthand -- so once again, I'm a little biased in the book's favor. It's about his quest to climb the seven summits and surf every ocean -- his own version of a "surf and turf."

Slake (as he is known to friends) has always been a gifted ranconteur, and it's a pleasure to see some of his best tales included here with his characteristic crisp, right-to-the-point delivery and self-deprecating humor. But this isn't just an adventure story: it really is a memoir of a physicist's growing self-awareness. It's recommended reading for those who naively buy into the stereotype that physicists are all head and no heart.

8. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. If, like me, you are a fan of Jim Ottivani's physics-themed graphic novels -- most recently one on Feynman -- you'll love this latest offering in the genre from Fetter-Vorm, chronicling the development of the atomic bomb under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The story is well-told, nicely illustrated, and the explication of the science behind the bomb hits just the right level for general readers.

9. Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, by Florence Williams. The title is pretty self-explanatory: this is a wide-ranging broad examination of a fundamental part of the female anatomy. But it doesn't capture how fun and engaging Williams' account is, as she explores cup size, breast milk, and how breasts change with age. Plus, science writer Mary Roach provided what has to be my favorite blurb of all time: “Florence Williams's double-D talents as a reporter and writer lift this book high above the genre and separate it from the ranks of ordinary science writing. Breasts is illuminating, surprising, clever, important.”

10. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, by Richard Dawkins. I admit that initially I was drawn to this book solely because it was illustrated by Dave McKean -- the amazing artist behind all those stunning graphic novel covers in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. But the prose measures up to the artwork: it's engaging, accessible, and addresses the kinds of down-to-earth questions a general reader might have about how we know what we know.

11. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen. This is science writing as detective story at its best, even if the subject matter is a bit harrowing. It opens with the outbreak of a Hendra virus in Australia, initially just affecting horses before jumping to humans -- and that migration of viruses (including Ebola, SARS, and AIDS) is the "spillover" of the title. It's a tough book to put down. Personally, I concur with the Cleveland Plain Dealer's assessment: Spillover is "absorbing, lively and, yes, occasionally gory trek through the animal origins of emerging human diseases.”

12. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson. There have been any number of books about John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and the many others who laid the foundations of modern computation. But Dyson not only fleshes out the complex people behind such research, he finds intriguing links between those efforts and research aimed at building better bombs -- scientific progress invariably is a double-edged sword in that respect. It's a lucid, engaging, informative and sometimes moving book.

13. God's Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, by Victoria Sweet. Sweet is a medical practitioner who started working at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital, based on an almshouse model dating back to the Middle Ages (the "god's hotel," or Hotel-Dieu, of the title). This book came highly recommended by colleagues, and deservedly so. Modern healthcare, at least in the US, is fairly pragmatic and utilitarian in its approach. Sickness and disease are problems to be solved, and the practice of medicine gives us the tools to find those solutions. And I, for one, am grateful for all that modern medicine has to offer. But Sweet's book reminds all of us that medicine is also about not losing sight of patients' humanity. It's equal parts funny and poignant, and a very enjoyable read.

Bonus Book: Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, by Maggie Koerth-Baker. This just arrived, but based on the first few chapters, Koerth-Baker manages to blend the light, populist touch one would expect from the editor of Boing Boing (and a fledgling columnist for the New York Times) with the analytical and research skills of an investigative reporter. It's all about energy: how we use it, how our current consumption is unsustainable, how no single alternative energy solution will be sufficient to solve the crisis. Rather, we'll need to cobble together a collective approach of small solutions that, in aggregate, add up to big savings.

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

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