By Margaret Harris and Tushna Commissariat
The year 2016 has not covered itself in glory. Divisive elections, various natural and human-made disasters and a depressingly long obituary roll of well-loved celebrities mean that for many residents of planet Earth, this solar orbit has been one to forget.
But if, for a moment, we concentrate solely on the year in physics, the picture looks brighter. In particular, it’s been another strong year for popular-physics writing, and over the past few weeks, we have been determining which of the 57 books reviewed in Physics World in 2016 deserve to be on our list of the year’s best.
The books that appear on the shortlist below are all well written, novel and scientifically interesting to physicists – the criteria we’ve followed since 2009, when The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo’s landmark biography of Paul Dirac, became our first “Book of the Year”. A couple of biographies appear on our 2016 shortlist, too, but they face stiff competition from books on big science, stringy science, loopy science, spooky science, jazzy science and more. There’s even a book of science infographics in the running – a first for a competition that is, naturally, dominated by words rather than images.
We’ll announce the winner of our “Book of the Year” award in the Physics World podcast in mid-December, but in the meantime, take a look at the shortlist. We think it’s proof, if you needed any, that the year 2016 had some redeeming features after all.
The Jazz of Physics: the Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe by Stephon Alexander
At first glance, physics and music may not seem the most obvious of bedfellows, but these seemingly disparate fields have much in common. Part-time saxophonist and full-time theoretical cosmologist Stephon Alexander is especially well placed to comment on both and link the two together. Indeed, his book promises to reveal “the secret link between music and the structure of the universe”. Interwoven with solid physics and personal anecdotes, the book does a admirable job of bringing together modern jazz and modern physics.
Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon
Decades of research have failed to uncover experimental evidence for string theory. Why, then, are so many physicists still keen on it? This question was first posed during the so-called “String Wars” of the mid-2000s, when the theory’s supporters and detractors clashed over its scientific implications (and its share of research funding), but it has rarely, if ever, been answered with as much clarity and wit as it is in this learned but accessible book.
Storm in a Teacup: the Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski
The laws of physics are universal and apply to almost any physical process. How corn pops, why dogs pant and even how tea sloshes around in a mug can all be explained using the same basic physics, which is precisely what University College London “bubble physicist” and TV presenter Helen Czerski tackles in her book. With comedic flair and a heady mix of topics, Czerski’s book not only explains the physics behind everyday activities, but links them together – for example the same gas laws govern popping corn and thunderstorms. Ernest Rutherford’s supposed remark that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting” has never rung more true.
Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik
A “towering figure of 20th-century science” who had both a chemical element (lawrencium) and two US national laboratories (Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley) named in his honour, Ernest Lawrence is certainly a worthy subject for a biography. Hiltzik, however, goes further, using the personal story of the inventor of the cyclotron as a means of exploring how technologically complex and hugely expensive projects became the norm in certain areas of scientific research.
Strange Glow: the Story of Radiation by Timothy Jorgensen
Do you know your millirems from your millisieverts? Can you explain why the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor led to more excess cancer deaths than the one at Fukushima, or why Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving cities while the areas around the ruined reactors are ghost towns? Are you well-versed in the risks and benefits of radiotherapy and diagnostic X-rays? If you aren’t – and perhaps even if you are – Jorgensen’s book is an excellent guide to a subject fraught with controversy and confusion.
Cosmos: the Infographic Book of Space by Stuart Lowe and Chris North
There are a lot of beautiful books about space and astronomy out there, but this one really is a cut above. The infographics themselves are eye-popping, and the captions pack a punch of their own, deftly guiding readers through elegantly presented information about space exploration, telescopes, cosmology and more.
Spooky Action at a Distance: the Phenomenon that Reimagines Space and Time by George Musser
Einstein’s well-known expression “spooky action at a distance” is one of quantum mechanics’ most easily recognized catch phrases. Used to describe entanglement – a key quantum property – and by extension the idea of “nonlocality”, this spooky action has far-reaching implications in physics today. Musser, a journalist and contributing editor to Scientific American, elegantly details the long history behind the idea of nonlocality, from its ancient roots to its relatively modern quantum interpretation and even its implications in cosmology.
Goldilocks and the Water Bears: the Search for Life in the Universe by Louisa Preston
From fact to fiction, alien worlds and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, have captured the attention of scientists and the public alike. In this book, University of London astrobiologist and planetary geologist Louisa Preston sets the stage for our search for life beyond Earth, as it stands today. By nature, astrobiology encompasses everything from astronomy and cosmology to geobiology and life sciences. Preston’s book successfully touches upon all these topics and more, as she describes how and why life evolved and flourished on Earth, and where else it may be blooming across the universe.
Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
General relativity and quantum mechanics are both good descriptions of the world, but the task of making them play nicely with each other has stumped generations of physicists. One of today’s most promising efforts to reconcile them goes by the name of loop quantum gravity, and Rovelli’s book – swiftly translated from the original Italian after his first popular-physics book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, became a bestseller last year – makes a beautifully written and persuasive non-technical introduction to this highly mathematical theory.
The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin
In most books about the early years of quantum mechanics and the subsequent race to build the first atomic weapons, Enrico Fermi appears as a supporting character, popping up with his slide rule and his famous physical intuition to illuminate one anecdote or another. In this biography, authors Gino Segrè (a physicist whose uncle Emilio was among Fermi’s first students) and Bettina Hoerlin provide a more in-depth and personal look at an affable yet intensely private scientist.