Physics World reviewed more than 60 popular-physics books in 2010. That's more than most people will read in a lifetime, and, without wanting to sound immodest, we think it's also enough to lend weight to our opinion of the year's best. Reviews editor Margaret Harris picks her top 10 for 2010
10. The Tunguska Mystery by Vladimir Rubtsov (Springer)
Some obscure, little-publicized books deserve to remain so. This isn’t one of them. True, the book’s subject matter – a massive explosion that flattened 2100 km2 of Siberian forest over a century ago – is admittedly a little arcane, but in weaving together history, science and personal narrative, Vladimir Rubtsov makes a compelling case for why the Tunguska event deserves more attention beyond the borders of the old Soviet Union.
9. Coming Climate Crisis? Consider the Past, Beware the Big Fix by Claire L Parkinson (Rowman & Littlefield)
I seldom disagree with Physics World‘s reviewers, but in this case, I did. Reviewer Alan Robock objected to the fact that, although Claire Parkinson is not a climate sceptic herself, and her book discusses many flaws in sceptics’ arguments, she nevertheless treats those arguments seriously. Having read my share of ranting discussion-board posts, I admit that Robock had a point when he wrote that “when ‘sceptical’ scientists misrepresent the science on purpose…they should be condemned – not have their specious arguments accepted uncritically”. However, I also think that insults are unlikely to change minds, and that too many books about climate change (on both sides) are “preaching to the choir”. If we want a better-quality debate, Parkinson’s approach seems closer to the mark.
8. How It Ends by Chris Impey (W W Norton)
Rather than looking back to the Big Bang and trying to describe how life, the universe and everything began, Chris Impey chose to tackle the just-as-intriguing question of what happens when it ends. Impey defines “it” as everything from life on Earth (human and otherwise) to the solar system, the galaxy and the universe itself. According to our reviewer, Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, the result is a varied and surprisingly cheerful proof that “every good story needs an ending”.
7. Lake Views: This World and the Universe by Steven Weinberg (Harvard University Press)
A new book of essays from Steven Weinberg is always welcome, and our reviewer, John Ellis, was fulsome in his praise of this one. The subject matter in these essays ranges from science and philosophy to defence policy and religion. According to Ellis, each essay “dissects one of these subjects with the same logic, clarity and single-mindedness that his colleagues appreciate in Weinberg’s research papers”. If more of us could view such subjects with Weinberg’s cool rationality, Ellis adds, “our world and our public discourse would be the better for it”.
6. The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It by Scott Patterson (Crown Business)
After observing that he has “always been surprised that scientists in academia are not more curious about the lives of their former peers working in the ‘real world'”, Physics World reviewer Steve Hsu went on to recommend that anyone willing to buck the trend should read this pacy description of the “increasingly mathematical and technological world of high finance, and the many physicists, mathematicians and engineers who inhabit it”. Just don’t get too jealous of their high-flying lifestyles.
5. Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson (Faber and Faber)
We at Physics World have always argued that people with a physics background can turn their hands to a wide variety of careers. As it turns out, the financial physicists who feature in our number 6 book can claim an illustrious predecessor: at the age of 53, no less a physicist than Isaac Newton traded academic life at Cambridge for the chance to “wade hip deep into London’s underworld” as warden of the Royal Mint. Thomas Levenson’s account of this part of Isaac Newton’s career makes for compelling reading, and offers fresh insights into one of physics’ best-known figures.
4. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (One World Publications/ W W Norton)
Ever wanted to become an astronaut? Ever considered that boldly going where few have gone before will require sacrificing a lot of privacy, accepting a lot of hazards, and spending months in a space capsule that reeks of your fellow astronauts’ farts? Roach’s eye-opening account of the smelly, uncomfortable and just plain weird side of space exploration is equal parts fascinating and hilarious. Yet even when she’s asking a Russian cosmonaut about space-borne sex substitutes, her respect for the human beings willing to take the gross with the glorious is evident. As she writes in the introduction, “Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the line between.”
3, 2, 1…
In 2009 picking the year’s top book was easy: Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, stood head-and-shoulders above the rest, and won a Costa “Best Biography” gong to prove it. The competition for 2010 was tighter, with a cluster of books vying for the honour, and it was hard to decide between them. So with that caveat, here come the top three…
3. Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle by Ian Sample (Virgin Books/Basic Books)
A lot of ink has been spilled about the Higgs boson in the past few years, and the fact that we haven’t discovered the damn thing yet doesn’t seem to stem the tide one bit. But if you read just one popular-science book about the ubiquitous/elusive particle this year, let it be this one. (If you read two, pick up Gian Francesco Giudice’s The Zeptospace Odyssey as well – it fell just outside this list.) According to our reviewer Andy Parker, Ian Sample’s account “could be the screenplay” for a Hollywood film about Higgs-hunting. Yet Sample is also careful with the science, giving credit to physicists other than Peter Higgs and avoiding the lazy assumption that particle physics begins and ends with the boson that bears his name. So if you want to explain to a non-scientist what all the fuss is about, says Parker, “buy them this book, and get a copy for yourself”.
2. How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel (One World Publications/Scribner)
Richard Feynman once said that if you cannot explain something to a first-year undergraduate, you haven’t really understood it. The author of our number two book, Chad Orzel, pushes Feynman’s principle to its logical conclusion – and beyond – by attempting to explain quantum physics to Emmy, his dog. It’s a cute idea, and it works for several reasons. One is that Orzel’s explanations are unusually clear and concrete, and they incorporate graphs, diagrams and simple equations in a way that aids understanding, rather than hindering it. Another reason is that he draws many of his examples not from quantum mechanics’ 1920s “golden age”, but from modern experiments performed by living scientists. This is astonishingly (and sadly) uncommon for a quantum-physics book aimed at a popular audience. And finally, there’s Emmy. A talking dog will not be every reader’s cup of tea, but Emmy’s naïve-yet-revealing questions do allow Orzel to correct misconceptions and try out different explanations without appearing to talk down to the reader. Give the dog (and her owner) a biscuit, and give this book a try.
1. The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology by Anil Ananthaswamy (Duckworth/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
With big unanswered questions about dark matter and dark energy dominating current research, these are exciting times for cosmology. Yet writers who want to communicate that excitement have a problem: once they’ve stated the mind-blowing fact that 96% of the universe’s mass is a near-complete mystery to us, what do they do for an encore? Ananthaswamy’s ingenious solution was to focus on cosmology’s practical side, by taking a continent-hopping tour of experiments that aim to detect cosmological mysteries like neutrinos and dark matter. The result is a book that hovers between popular physics and travelogue, as Ananthaswamy, a consultant editor of New Scientist, writes with equal eloquence about the ethereal science of neutrinos and the (literally) cold practicalities of studying them in places like Antarctica and Siberia. He’s got a good eye for detail, too, speckling his account with the sort of anecdotes – like finding 18th-century lead for dark-matter detector shields or retrieving a string of photomultiplier tubes from the bottom of the world’s deepest lake – that bring research to life. It’s a fine story, told in an innovative and exciting way – and it’s our book of the year for 2010.
Happy holiday reading!