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 by 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.
The Character of Physical Law by Richard P. Feynman
Reading the words of Richard P. eynman is necessary part of every physicist’s education. The brilliance of those words comes from two things: his informal conversational style and the startling clarity of his thoughts. This book covers seven lectures given by Feynman at Cornell, and reaches right from the most mundane objects to the biggest thoughts about the universe. The best thing about it is that when reading this, you can imagine yourself right there in the room with him, listening to one of the best teachers of physics who has ever lived.
Feathers by 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.
Chaos by James Gleick
It was bad enough when physicists first realised that they were stuck with the fuzziness of the quantum world, that uncertainty had to be built into physics rather than banished from it. But in the decades that followed, a much quieter revolution was to follow. It turned out that even the world of classical physics, full of nice strict rules that tell you exactly what a lever or a cog is going to do, involves a degree of unpredictability. Chaos theory was the result. This book takes us into that uncertain world, the stories of the people who explored it, and the consequences for science.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
This is the classic introduction to the weirdness of spacetime, with an added bonus in the form of a minor detour into the innards of the atom. Our 3D spatial world isn’t separate from the arrow of time, and the consequences for the universe are immense. It’s also worth reading just because this was many people’s first introduction to those ideas, and you can almost feel the mind of the reader being blown as you progress through.
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Just as Freakonomics brought economics to life, so Storm in a Teacup brings physics into our daily lives and makes it fascinating.
Our world is full of patterns. If you pour milk into your tea and give it a stir, you’ll see a swirl, a spiral of two fluids, before the two liquids mix completely. The same pattern is found elsewhere too. Look down on the Earth from space, and you’ll find similar swirls in the clouds, made where warm air and cold air waltz.
In Storm in a Teacup, Helen Czerski links the little things we see every day with the big world we live in. Each chapter begins with something small – popcorn, coffee stains and refrigerator magnets – and uses it to explain some of the most important science and technology of our time.
This is physics as the toolbox of science - a toolbox we need in order to make sense of what is around us and arrive at decisions about the future, from medical advances to solving our future energy needs. It is also physics as the toy box of science: physics as fun, as never before.