Sneaking in at the last couple of hours of 2014, here's the promised list of Jen-Luc Piquant's favorite popular physics books of 2014 -- although as always, the definition of "physics book" can be a little fuzzy. Boundaries are for blurring, people. All in all, it was a great year for the genre, starting with:
1. The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity, by Pedro Ferreira. This was shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize, and deservedly so. Don't believe me? Take it from the Time Lord (Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, a.k.a. my beloved spouse), who blurbed the book saying, "Einstein's general relativity is a theory of unrivaled elegance and simplicity. But the history of general relativity is messy, unpredictable, and occasionally dramatic. Pedro Ferreira is an expert guide to the twists and turns scientists have gone through in a quest to understand space and time."
2. Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter. Like me, Gefter didn't set out to be a science writer; she fell in love with physics by chance, quickly going from checking coats at a Manhattan night club to rubbing elbows with some of the world's most brilliant theoretical physicists. (You can read her guest post at the cocktail party here.) Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn is part memoir, part explanatory physics -- except Gefter's writing is so well-crafted and witty, it never feels didactic. The Time Lord called it “the most charming book ever written about the fundamental nature of reality. Amanda Gefter sounds like your best friend telling you a captivating story, but really she’s teaching you about some of the deepest ideas in modern physics and cosmology. Or take it from New York magazine, which declared that the book ably demonstrates "Reality doesn’t have to bite.”
3. Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World, by Mark Miodownik. This book was also shortlisted for the Winton Prize, and it's especially nice to see materials science getting a bit of love in the popular physics book arena, which tends to be dominated by particle physics and cosmology. There's some fascinating historical or scientific tidbit on every page of this lively read. Per Discover, "Materials scientist Miodownik intertwines humorous vignettes of daily life in London with subatomic behavior to explain the feats of engineering that brought us samurai swords, skyscrapers, pool balls and even chocolate. From concrete in Roman architecture to atom-thick graphene, Miodownik builds on a historical framework to give readers an idea of future applications. Clever in every sense of the word, Stuff Matters may leave you looking at windows rather than through them."
4. What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe. It's by the creator of xkcd. Do you actually need any more reason to check out this book? Munroe explores such pressing "scientific" questions as, What if everyone pointed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? Or, What if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light? Inquiring minds need to know, and this celebration of human curiosity is a delight in that respect. Per the book's description: "In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by signature xkcd comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion."
5. The Science of Interstellar, by Kip Thorne. You've seen the movie, now read the book about the underlying science. (Go on, you know you were confused about a few things.) Caltech's Kip Thorne is the physicist who assisted Nolan on the scientific aspects of the blockbuster movie, Interstellar -- actually, the film is based on Thorne's own concept, dreamed up years ago with Hollywood producer and longtime friend Linda Obst. Per the description: "Thorne shares his experiences working as the science adviser on the film and then moves on to the science itself. In chapters on wormholes, black holes, interstellar travel, and much more, Thorne’s scientific insights—many of them triggered during the actual scripting and shooting of Interstellar—describe the physical laws that govern our universe and the truly astounding phenomena that those laws make possible." You can read a SciAm Q&A with Thorne here.
6. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, by Alan Lightman. This is a lovely, lyrical, eminently accessible collection of seven essays exploring -- well, I guess you'd call it our human relationship to our universe, and how the underlying reality is very different from what we actually perceive. In lesser hands, it might not hang together, but this is the author of Einstein's Dreams. Per the book's description: "[Lightman] looks at the dialogue between science and religion; the conflict between our human desire for permanence and the impermanence of nature; the possibility that our universe is simply an accident; the manner in which modern technology has separated us from direct experience of the world; and our resistance to the view that our bodies and minds can be explained by scientific logic and laws. Behind all of these considerations is the suggestion--at once haunting and exhilarating--that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the extraordinary, perhaps unfathomable whole."
7. The Mathematician's Shiva, by Stuart Rojstaczer. An end-of-year list wouldn't be complete without a spot of fiction, and this wittily poignant novel is just the ticket. Sasha just wants to mourn his recently deceased mother, Rachela, in peace, but it is not to be. Rachela was a mathematician, you see, one rumored to have solved the infamous Navier-Stokes equation. But apparently she took that solution to her grave to spite her colleagues, who flock to her shiva like moths to a flame, intent on finding the rumored proof for themselves. Per author Lore Segal, who blurbed the book, “Here is the rare book that invites us into the romance of pure mathematics and the very human company of those who spend their decades unknotting the abstractions that describe our reality.”
8. Sonic Wonderland: a Scientific Odyssey of Sound, by Trevor Cox. Many years ago, I pitched a book on the interdisciplinary research taking place in the field of acoustics. It was rejected. Apparently the sense was that "sound doesn't sell." Tell that to Trevor Cox, who has written a wonderfully engaging book similar in scope to the one I envisioned. He covers, among other things, "creaking glaciers, whispering galleries, stalactite organs, musical roads, squeaking beaches, groaning waterwheels, frogs that croak in Mexican waves, Mayan pyramids that produce echoes that chirp like a bird." Reviewing the book for Physics World, Philippe Blondel called this “the perfect reminder of this rich soundscape” that surrounds us. Cox explains "the science behind some of the world’s most unusual sounds. The result is a fascinating and often very personal journey that sees Cox analyze the acoustic effects of a Victorian sewer, a disused oil tank and several other peculiar locations."
9. The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe, by Dan Falk. You didn't think I, who majored in English and first encountered Shakespeare at the age of 12, would leave off this refreshing take on the Bard, did you? Falk shares my enthusiasm for both science and Shakespeare and combines both beautifully in this engaging read. Fun fact: Tycho Brahe's observatory stood a short distance from Elsinore, the setting for Hamlet, and Brahe's family crest included the names "Rosencrans" and "Guildensteren." Per Brain Pickings: "At the heart of [Falk's] argument is an ambitious effort to offer empirical assurance for what we all intuit — that art and science need each other, inform and inspire one another, and are branches from the same tree of the human longing in a universe that is more like a mirror of meaning than a window of understanding, beaming back at us whatever imagination we imbue it with."
10. Cosmigraphics, by Michael Benson. Jen-Luc Piquant is a sucker for old maps and glorious period illustrations from centuries of yore, and Benson's book is a celebration of how such works reflect humanity's changing views of the cosmos. Per the book description: "Selecting artful and profound illustrations and maps, many hidden away in the world’s great science libraries and virtually unknown today, [Benson] chronicles more than 1,000 years of humanity’s ever-expanding understanding of the size and shape of space itself. He shows how the invention of the telescope inspired visions of unimaginably distant places and explains why today we turn to supercomputer simulations to reveal deeper truths about space-time."
10. Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, by Max Tegmark. In the mood to sink your teeth into some meaty, mind-bending, kinda cray-cray sounding theoretical physics? "Mad Max" Tegmark has just what you crave. Per Publisher's Weekly: “Tegmark offers a fascinating exploration of multiverse theories, each one offering new ways to explain ‘quantum weirdness’ and other mysteries that have plagued physicists, culminating in the idea that our physical world is ‘a giant mathematical object’ shaped by geometry and symmetry. Tegmark’s writing is lucid, enthusiastic, and outright entertaining, a thoroughly accessible discussion leavened with anecdotes and the pure joy of a scientist at work.”
11. The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is, by Robert Trotta. This charmingly accessible book is ideal for someone just dipping a toe into astrophysics and cosmology for the first time, with an interesting gimmick that lends his prose the flavor of folklore or myth. Per Brain Pickings: "Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from [the most] common English words. The universe becomes the 'All-There-Is,' Earth our 'Home World,' the planets 'Crazy Stars,' our galaxy a 'Star-Crowd' — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say 'Mirror Drops'?"
12. Wizards, Aliens and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Charles Adler. Jen-Luc has a soft spot for entertaining pop culture explorations involving physics, and Adler delivers. I especially like that he broadens his scope beyond hard science fiction to explore fantasy worlds as well -- because as I've been arguing for years, even fictional worlds filled with magic and impossible things still need underlying rules and constraints to be compelling and believable. It might not be the physics we're used to, but it's still physics of a sort. Per Physics World: "Adler uses 'Fermi problems' – challenging exercises in reasoning and back-of-the-envelope calculation – to evaluate the plausibility of various concepts from science fiction and fantasy. It’s an approach that should endear his book to physicist readers, and it’s particularly pleasing to see the world of fantasy (not just 'hard' science fiction) get some scientific scrutiny."
So that's my highly selective list. There are always far more wonderful popular science books (not just physics) published each year than any one such list can encompass. So do check out some of the other "best of" lists floating around. I especially liked the selections of Brain Pickings, Science Friday, and io9 (and not just because the latter two lists including my own 2014 book offering, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self). And like io9, Jen-Luc Piquant also gives a mega shout-out to Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande -- it's her pick for the best and most important book of the year. She concurs with Time.com's assessment: "This should be mandatory reading for every American. . . . it provides a useful roadmap of what we can and should be doing to make the last years of life meaningful." Gawande's deeply moving, intelligent and thoughtful book hits us right where we live... and die.