Reading lists

Helen Czerski on five books that opened the door to physics

Helen Czerski recommends for books that will open the doors to the beautiful depth and complexity of our physical world.

Helen Czerski
Helen Czerski, photo by Johnny Ring

If you’re interested in the way the world works, living today is like being a child in a massive sweet shop.

You can read about the engineering marvels of the world, the very beginning of the universe, the many uses of nanodiamonds, and why some lobsters are a startlingly bright royal blue. But where does a budding physicist begin when faced with this cornucopia of knowledge?

The science itself is a start, but it isn’t enough. Scientists (and the rest of us) need an understanding of the human context for all that science – the history of how we found things out, and the conflicts that were an inevitable part of that journey. It’s just as challenging, and just as important. So here are my recommendations for books that will open the doors to the beautiful depth and complexity of our physical world.

American Prometheus

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

This is a stunning book. It meticulously weaves together the many threads of the life of Robert J. Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who led the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. His life was a knot of twists and turns: the secrecy of working on the atomic bomb, a rapid catapult to fame afterwards, serious accusations of treason during the McCarthy era and then his progression to become one of the 20th century’s most insightful voices on the co-existence of science and society. Both his life and this book contain essential lessons for the physicists of the future.


Thor Hanson

As physics rushes to answer some of the biggest questions that humanity can pose, it’s easy to forget that the physics of everyday objects can be both beautiful and a genuine source of unsolved mysteries. This book enthusiastically soars through the form and the function of the humble feather, a marvel of evolutionary engineering. Aeronautical engineers are in awe of the feather structure of the Northern Cardinal, and the rest of us should be too. 

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