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Blog

Which is the most significant popular-physics book?

By James Dacey

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Last Friday we expanded our coverage of the literary world with the release of the debut Physics World books podcast. The programme looks at the topic of “women in science”, and it is the first in a series devoted to physics books and the issues they cover.

I personally believe that reading about the history, the personalities and the issues surrounding science can be just as inspiring as doing the science itself. But we want to know what you think. In this week’s poll, we are looking specifically at popular science and the books that may have inspired your interest in physics. The question is:

Which do you believe is the most significant popular-physics book?

A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking
The Elegant Universe Brian Greene
A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson
Longitude Dava Sobel
The Physics of Star Trek Lawrence Krauss

To cast your vote, please visit the Physics World Facebook page.

These five titles have been taken from a list drawn up in 2008 by the Physics World editorial team to celebrate the most significant popular-physics books of the past 20 years. As we acknowledged at the time, our criteria for selecting these books was, by necessity, highly subjective. So if your favourite book is not included then please let us know by posting a comment on the Facebook poll.

In last week’s poll we looked at the issue of carbon emissions and personal behaviour. My colleague, Tushna Commissariat, had recently attended a talk by James Hansen, the US space scientist who is also well known for his advocacy of action to limit the impacts of climate change. A member of the audience had challenged Hansen on his decision to fly to the UK to talk about the need to rapidly reduce fossil fuel consumption. Hansen replied that it is already too late for his minor sacrifice to make a significant difference, and that the more important thing is to communicate the message that urgent government action is required.

We asked you the following question: Would you consider not attending a conference because it would involve a flight? And it seems that the majority of respondents share similar sentiments to Hansen, with 51% choosing the option No. My sacrifice would have no useful impact. A smaller number of people, however, may be inclined to take action, as 26% of respondents selected Possibly. I try to significantly limit my air travel. 18% of respondents said that I would take another means of transport, even if it drastically increased my travel time. And just 5% said that Yes. I would not attend, even if it could hurt my career.

And in a busy week on our Facebook page we also wanted to hear from you about a new development in astronomy. The Very Large Array, the famous bank of radio telescopes in New Mexico, is about to be renamed following an upgrade, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is asking the public to come up with ideas. We encouraged you to enter the NRAO competition, and then share your ideas on our Facebook page.

We’ve seen some creative suggestions! My two favourites were: the Eyes of Hope, suggested by Helmy Parlente Kusuma in Indonesia; and Contact, suggested by Velin Ivanov in Bulgaria. It appears that the facility’s biggest fan is Kyle Murphy in the US – he believes it should be renamed the Serious Gravitas Array because “everything about this scientific achievement is awesome”. Thank you for all your contributions.

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