Top 10 books for 2009
Dec 21, 2009 6 comments
From a pop-up book about the Large Hadron Collider to biographies of the great and good, this year has seen the usual wide-ranging mix of popular-physics books. But how do you separate the best from the rest? Reviews editor Margaret Harris picks her top 10 for 2009
10. The Physics of Rugby by Trevor Davis (Nottingham University Press).
Unlike cricket and football, which I follow avidly, I haven't managed to get my head around rugby despite living in the UK for the past six years. The fact that I still really enjoyed this book is a tribute to Davis' enthusiasm and clear writing. From the kinematics of tackling a gazelle-like fly half to the Brownian motion of a zig-zagging runner, his book offers plenty for dedicated enthusiasts and armchair players alike.
9. First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science by Howard Burton (Key Porter Books).
Written by its founding director, this gossipy account of how Canada's Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics came into being is not without its flaws. The author's breathless "Who, me? Run an institute?" persona quickly wears thin, and as our reviewer Sir Peter Knight noted, Perimeter is not quite as ground-breaking as Burton makes out. Yet a book that tackles the messy process of scientific management is a rarity, and one that manages to do so in an entertaining way is about as common as a free quark. Kudos to Burton for doing something different.
8. Oliver Heaviside: Maverick Mastermind of Electricity by Basil Mahon (Institute of Engineering and Technology).
Heaviside may not be as well known as his 19th century contemporaries Maxwell and Lord Kelvin, but when we talk about Maxwell's equations today, it is Heaviside's tidy vector formulation we mean, not Maxwell's ponderous 20-variable original. This biography of the brilliant-but-odd electromagnetism pioneer, who gave journal editors nightmares by speckling his papers with libellous attacks on his opponents, is a great introduction to an often-overlooked figure.
7. Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb by Jim Baggott (Icon Books).
There are a lot of books about the atomic bomb. Did we really need another? Yes, argued our reviewer Jeff Hughes: thanks to a flood of specialist histories based on recently released archival material, he wrote, "there is now a place, even in such a crowded field, for a book that brings some of this fresh information together into a good, accessible general history". Atomic fills this niche admirably, incorporating new revelations about different nations' atomic programmes to tell a story that felt fresh and engaging despite its familiarity.
6. Lives in Science by Joseph C Hermanowicz (University of Chicago Press).
On the "forewarned is forearmed" principle, anyone contemplating a career as an academic physicist should read this book. Hermanowicz, a sociologist, began following US physicists' careers 15 years ago, examining how different kinds of academic institutions shape their attitudes and levels of job satisfaction. His latest book – which he summarized in Physics World's September careers section – is a dense and sometimes jargon-filled read, but its conclusions are troublingly clear: academic physicists are a dissatisfied bunch, and the more elite their university, the more likely they are to be unhappy at the end of their careers. Not exactly holiday cheer, but food for thought nonetheless.
5. 13 Things That Don't Make Sense by Michael Brooks (Profile Books).
Brooks caught a lot of critical flak for including homeopathy in his "13 things", along with the likes of cold fusion, the Pioneer anomaly and dark energy. Interestingly, about half of the people criticizing his book thought he'd been horribly unkind to homeopathy, while the other half savaged him for not being unkind enough. That's balance of a sort, I guess, but whatever you think about Brooks' conclusions and priorities, this was one of the most intriguing books of the year.
4. Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung by Arthur I Miller (W W Norton).
Early in his career, the quantum pioneer Wolfgang Pauli experienced a personal crisis. Like many other troubled residents of 1930s Zurich, he went to consult the city's most eminent psychiatrist, Carl Jung. The unlikely friendship that developed between these two impressive intellects is the subject of this book: a fascinating and, in places, almost mystical journey through both physics and psychology.
3. Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The brilliant, reclusive Russian mathematician Grisha Perelman declined a Fields Medal in 2006 for proving the Poincaré conjecture, and subsequently cut himself off from the world. A fascinating subject for a biography, you might think – and, judging from this book, you'd be right. Excellent writing and some fantastic detective work from the author in researching such a difficult subject make this one of my top picks for the year.
2. Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World by Eugenie Samuel Reich (Palgrave Macmillan).
It's tempting to describe this book as a whodunit, such is the flair of its writing and the suspenseful nature of its story. Yet "howdunit" might be a better word: after all, we learn right away that the culprit was a young physicist called Jan Hendrik Schön, who fabricated data on a massive scale and was eventually fired from Bell Labs as a result. What makes the story interesting is Reich's description of how it happened – how Schön fooled his colleagues, how competitors struggled to replicate his results, how the review process at prestigious journals failed to stop him. Top-notch stuff.
1. The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo (Faber and Faber).
This landmark biography of Dirac has attracted praise from all quarters since its publication in January, and has even made the shortlist for best biography in the UK's Costa Book Awards, which are among the country's most prestigious literary prizes. Our reviewer, Sir John Enderby, joined the chorus of commendations, recommending the book "to professional physicists and to laypersons interested in fundamental physics, as well as to anyone who finds the interaction between personality and intellectual endeavour fascinating". That description sounds like physicsworld.com readers to us, so we'll second Sir John and wish Graham luck in the Costa awards. He – and we – will find out on 5 January 2010. Meanwhile, don't forget that you can listen to a physicsworld.com online lecture by Graham Farmelo all about the life and times of Dirac via this link.
Finally, some honourable mentions: 137 Films' The Atom Smashers and Mark Devlin's BLAST! are films rather than books, but they're so good they deserved to be in here somewhere. The Atom Smashers is a compelling and oddly moving documentary about life at Fermilab in the months before CERN switched on the LHC. BLAST! chronicles the bumpy road to success for a balloon-borne telescope that very nearly ended up halfway down an Antarctic crevasse. I watched both of them late last year, and I still can't get them out of my head.
About the author
Margaret Harris is reviews and careers editor of Physics World