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Culture, history and society

Culture, history and society

The first-sentence challenge

01 Aug 2022 Sarah Tesh
Taken from the August 2022 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Whether you’re sunbathing by the sea on a beach holiday, sipping a coffee in a café on a city vacation, or burrowing into your sleeping bag on a camping adventure, there’s one thing every trip needs: a good book. In among your reading list you may have some popular-science books, but how well do you know some of the classics from the genre? Below we’ve listed the first sentence of the first chapter (not the preface or introduction, and not including opening quotes) of some of our physics favourites – see if you can connect the line with the book in the jumbled list, and keep an eye out for the answers on the Physics World website. Have fun and happy holidaying!

summer-holiday reading
(Courtesy: iStock/Liudmila Chernetska)

Book openings

1 “A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy.”

2 “No matter how hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton.”

3 “Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved.”

4 “The origin of the universe is explained in the Younger Edda, a collection of Norse myths compiled around 1220 by the Icelandic magnate Snorri Sturleson.”

5 “When I was about eleven or twelve I set up a lab in my house.”

6 “The Sun beat down through a sky that had never seen clouds.”

7 “Melvin Butler, the personnel officer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, had a problem, the scope and nature of which was made plain in a May 1943 telegram to the civil service’s chief of field operations.”

8 “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

9 “Some of the great mathematicians killed themselves.”

10 “The University of Cambridge at the end of summer with the leaves going dry is as beautiful as it must have been when the great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin was an undergraduate here in the early nineteenth century.”

11 “Katherine Schaub had a jaunty spring in her step as she walked the brief four blocks to work.”

12 “In 1978, when John Bell first met Reinhold Bertlmann, at the weekly tea party at the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, near Geneva, he could not know that the thin young Austrian, smiling at him through a short black beard, was wearing mismatched socks.”

13 “The dark clouds of war had been gathering for more than eighty years by the time the initial skirmish took place in the attic of Jack Rosenberg’s San Francisco mansion.”

14 “The coveralls in the trailer were stiff and gray with salt, crackling as we stepped into them.”

15 “In his youth Albert Einstein spent a year loafing aimlessly.”

16 “It’s hard to know where to begin.”

Book titles

A A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

B The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics by Robert P Crease and Charles C Mann

C “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman”: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman

D Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: a Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything by Amanda Gefter

E The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn by Louisa Gilder

F Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick

G A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

H How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space by Janna Levin

I The Radium Girls: the Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

J Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

K Cosmos by Carl Sagan

L Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

M Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterley

N Longitude: the True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel

O The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Susskind

P The First Three Minutes: a Modern View of the Origin of the Universe by Steven Weinberg


Looking for the answers? They’re listed below. But before you check them, why not listen to Physics World editors discuss this quiz in the Physics World Weekly podcast of 11 August? 

1 G 2 A 3 N 4 P 5 C 6 F 7 M 8 K 9 H 10 L 11 I 12 E 13 O 14 B 15 J 16 D 

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