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Prize-worthy books, part 2

By Margaret Harris

Well-written. Scientifically interesting. Novel.

These are the criteria we established in 2009 when Physics World started picking the year’s best physics books; and thanks to the current renaissance in science writing, we’ve never had trouble finding books that qualify.

In fact, the magazine reviewed so many good books in 2012 that we’ve decided not to rank them in a rigid top 10 list this year. Instead, we’ve drawn up a 10-strong shortlist (see below). Over the next few weeks, my colleagues and I will be trying to decide which of these outstanding books should be Physics World‘s Book of the Year for 2012.

We’ll announce the winner on 18 December during our regular books podcast, in which the genially impartial James Dacey will moderate while Physics World editor Matin Durrani and I champion a few of the books we like best.

In the meantime, though, we would love to hear your views on the shortlist. Is there a book that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest? Did we leave out your favourite among the books that Physics World reviewed this year? If so, let us know by e-mail at or vote for your favourite book from the shortlist below via our latest Facebook poll.

The shortlist for Physics World‘s Book of the Year 2012 (including brief descriptions and links to reviews).

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher
After BP’s Macondo well blew out on 20 April 2010, company experts, government scientists and a “brain trust” of physicists assembled by US Energy Secretary Steve Chu spent months desperately trying to stem the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Joel Achenbach’s book about the disaster is a fast-paced and even-handed account of how things went wrong and who did what to fix them.

The Science Magpie: A Hoard of Fascinating Facts
Books of science trivia are a dime a dozen here at Physics World‘s reviews desk. Really good books of science trivia aren’t nearly as common. Simon Flynn’s grab-bag of stories from all branches of science exudes enthusiasm, breathing fresh life into a venerable format.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
In its heyday Bell Labs produced some of the most important and ubiquitous inventions of the modern era, from transistors and gas lasers to CCDs and wireless networks. Jon Gertner’s history of this “idea factory” describes what made Bell Labs special, and why none of today’s technological giants has replicated its success.

Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution
Acclaimed science writer John Gribbin has written about Schrödinger’s physics several times before, beginning in 1984 with In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. Now Gribbin is back with a biography of the man himself, skilfully combining Schrödinger’s scientific contributions with the quantum pioneer’s often complicated personal life and his legacy for both physicists and biologists.

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters
In this polemical book, science journalist Mark Henderson argues passionately that science and critical thinking should be at the heart of public life, and he urges readers not to wait for someone else to make it happen. His book offers plenty of concrete suggestions on ways that so-called geeks can make their views count.

Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos
Biophysics has mostly been left out of the boom in popular-physics writing, so we’re pleased to have Peter Hoffmann’s clearly written book about molecular motors and other nanoscale structures on our shortlist this year. Though not an easy read (particularly for physicists who haven’t studied biology since their schooldays), it does a very good job of capturing the excitement driving current research on this increasingly important topic.

How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture and the Quantum Revival
Quantum physics has always included some pretty trippy ideas, but its mind-blowing tendencies really came to the fore in the 1970s, thanks to a loose-knit group of physicists with a passion for Bell’s inequality and (in some cases) a penchant for psychedelic drugs. David Kaiser’s fascinating history of this unlikely bunch of insider-outsiders explains how they helped revive interest in the foundations of quantum mechanics.

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog
Chad Orzel’s first book, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, made it to No 2 on our list of 2010’s best physics books, thanks to its mixture of solid physics and gentle doggy humour. So it’s no surprise that its sequel has bounded into this year’s shortlist, ears cocked and positively slobbering with excitement at the prospect of a walk through Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity.

Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics and the 300-Year Journey to the Black–Scholes Equation
In the wake of the financial crisis, physicists on Wall Street have been harshly criticized, with no less an authority than Warren Buffet inveighing against “geeks bearing gifts” and the “financial weapons of mass destruction” they created. But how did physicists get into the financial industry in the first place? George Szpiro’s book brings the colourful history of econophysics to life.

Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything
Margaret Wertheim’s sociological study of physics crackpots is one of the year’s most thought-provoking books. Well argued and suffused with dry wit, this book asks important questions about what constitutes science and who gets to participate in it.

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