Is it time for end-of-the-year lists already? At Physics World HQ, the answer is a definite “yes”, and we’re kicking off the season with our annual list of the year’s best physics books.
As in previous years, the entries on our “Book of the Year” shortlist are all well written, novel and scientifically interesting for a physics audience. They represent the best of the 57 books that Physics World reviewed in 2014, being highly commended by external experts (the diverse group of professional physicists and freelance science writers who review books for the magazine) and by members of our own editorial staff, who helped winnow the field down to a shortlist of 10.
This is the sixth year we’ve picked a “Book of the Year”, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stronger shortlist. Frankly, 2014 has been a fantastic year for science books, and for physics books in particular. You’ll see that quality reflected in the list below, where first-person accounts of the latest discoveries rub shoulders with historical analyses of the foundations of the field. There’s room in our shortlist for books about acoustic physics, exoplanets, geophysics, materials science, radiation safety and scientific ethics – plus a whimsical tour of the physics of fantasy and science fiction.
Given the strength of this shortlist, it’s going to be hard to pick a single winner. That, however, is what Physics World editor Matin Durrani and I will be doing between now and 16 December, when we’ll announce the award-winning book and discuss some of our other favourites from the shortlist in a podcast hosted by our multimedia editor, James Dacey.
In the meantime, have a nosey through the shortlist below. We’re betting you’ll find something there to intrigue and interest you – and perhaps you’ll even pick up some gift ideas for the holiday season.
The shortlist for Physics World’s 2014 Book of the Year:
Wizards, Aliens and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction
Books about the science of science fiction aren’t uncommon, but it’s rare to see the subject treated with as much flair and rigour as it is here. Throughout this book, author Charles Adler uses “Fermi problems” – challenging exercises in reasoning and back-of-the-envelope calculation – to evaluate the plausibility of various concepts from SF 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.
Serving the Reich: the Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler
Much has been written about physics in the period between 1930 and 1945, but Philip Ball’s book is more than just a good history. In exploring the actions and ethical dilemmas of three physicists (Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck and Peter Debye) working in Nazi Germany, he also argues against the notion that scientists can ever be truly “above politics” – a debate that remains intensely relevant more than 70 years after the events described in his book.
Five Billion Years of Solitude: the Search for Life Among the Stars
This book on one of the hottest topics in modern astronomy – the search for planets beyond our solar system – captures the incredible excitement of this burgeoning field without getting caught up in the hype that sometimes surrounds it. In particular, the possibility of important questions – including the ultimate one, “Are we alone?” – going unanswered for lack of funding adds a poignant note to journalist Lee Billings’ tour of exoplanet research.
Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters
This hard-hitting look at life in the “atomic cities” that produced plutonium for the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War will make compelling reading for many physicists. Those who have a professional interest in radiation safety or the nuclear industry will have special reason to be outraged by the long list of environmental crimes described in Kate Brown’s important book, which also featured in a Physics World podcast earlier this year.
Smashing Physics: Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment
If you want an insider’s account of the discovery of the Higgs boson that doesn’t shy away from real data, or from acknowledging that the road to major breakthroughs is sometimes paved with frustration, then this book by Jon Butterworth is for you. A member of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Butterworth honed his communication skills as a contributor to the Guardian newspaper’s science blog network, and was inspired to start writing by, of all things, a Physics World review. What’s not to like?
Sonic Wonderland: a Scientific Odyssey of Sound
Our reviewer (Philippe Blondel) sang the praises of this book, calling it “the perfect reminder of this rich soundscape” that surrounds us. In it, acoustical physicist Trevor Cox sets out to explain the science behind some of the world’s most unusual sounds. The result is a fascinating and often very personal journey that sees Cox analyse the acoustic effects of a Victorian sewer, a disused oil tank and several other peculiar locations. You can hear Cox talk about a few of these sounds in a Physics World podcast.
The Perfect Theory: a Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity
The nonlinear equations that make up Einstein’s general theory of relativity have a well-deserved reputation for being difficult, and are something of a niche interest even among physicists. But for theorists like Pedro Ferreira, these equations are also incredibly beautiful, and in this masterful book he eloquently explains why they continue to inspire and amaze physicists with their scope and implications for how the universe works.
Stuff Matters: the Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World
Compared to the physics of the very large (general relativity – see above) or the physics of the very small (quantum mechanics – see below), the physics of the middling, everyday world seldom gets much love in the popular-science press. Perhaps publishers think such “ordinary” stuff is too dull to get the pulses of non-specialist readers racing. In this book, materials scientist Mark Miodownik shreds that idea into little (paper) bits and puts it to the (steel) sword, while generally holding up a (glass) mirror to the (concrete) wonders of materials we use all the time.
Einstein and the Quantum: the Quest of the Valiant Swabian
Sparkling writing and crystal-clear physics make this account of Einstein’s quantum work stand out on the overcrowded shelf of books devoted to the world’s most famous physicist. Unlike many other Einstein authors, A Douglas Stone is neither a cosmologist nor a historian. Instead, he’s a solid-state physicist, and the parts of Einstein’s work that most intrigue him concern thermodynamics and the behaviour of quantum ideal gases, rather than well-known gedankenexperiments about beams of light on trains. Reading about this other side of Einstein is a real (and unexpected) pleasure.
Island on Fire: the Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-century Europe Dark
The volcanologist who reviewed this book for us, Hazel Rymer, normally has about as much enthusiasm for “yet another volcano book” as we at Physics World do for “yet another Einstein book”. But this book by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe won her (and us) over. Its subject is the 1783 eruption of an Icelandic volcano, Laki, and the wide-ranging effects it had on the Earth’s climate. Throughout the book, Witze and Kanipe skilfully interweave the science of the “bigger picture” (including modern-day climate change) with the human story of Jón Steingrímsson, a priest and early volcanologist who recorded the devastating effects that Laki’s eruption had on his parish. Island on Fire, Rymer concluded, “provides a timely reminder of how essential it is to improve our understanding of volcanic processes”.