2021 Physics Books | symmetry magazine


Symmetry Writer Mike Perricone returns with a summary of this year’s popular writings related to particle physics and astrophysics.

Several notable titles include explorations of what it’s like to be a woman in science, to be black in science, or to live at the intersection of the two. These books explore the quest for a “theory of everything,” a bitter debate over the Big Bang theory and the idealistic side of the scientist behind the first detection of neutrinos. They describe the life of physicist Stephen Hawking and the study of the origin of the universe, as well as the mysteries of quantum theory and the complex areas of mathematics in science.

What Are Stars Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, by Donovan Moore

In 1925, Cecilia Payne upset the scientific consensus on the composition of stars. Working with famed astronomer Harlow Shapley at Harvard Observatory, Payne marked thousands of fragile glass photographic plates to catalog the spectral lines of stars. She demonstrated that stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, contradicting the long-held assumption that the sun is made of elements similar to Earth. Although he recognized Payne, astronomer Otto Struve was later credited by many with coming to the same conclusion. It is the first scientific book by journalist Donovan Moore.

Book Cover: God's Equation

The Divine Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything, by Michio Kaku

The theorist Michio Kaku (author of Beyond Einstein; Physics of the future et al) echoes the name of physicist Leon Lederman’s popular science book The particle of God in the title of his new book, which examines the search for a “theory of everything.” His exploration spans from Greek philosophers to Albert Einstein to current supporters of the multiverse. Kaku’s money is on the theoretical framework he’s been working on since 1968: string theory. Kaku is professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York.

Book cover: Le Cosmos Désordonné

The disordered cosmos: a journey through dark matter, space-time and deferred dreams, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of New Hampshire Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is “one of less than 100 black American women to earn a doctorate in a physics department.” She writes bluntly about the experience: “I learned quickly and painfully that physics and mathematics classrooms are not only scenes of cosmology… but also scenes of society, with all the issues that go with it. follow the company wherever it goes. His love for cosmology and his unique perspective on the subject shines through this important book.

Book cover: Vera Rubin: Une vie

Vera Rubin: A Life, by Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton

Astronomer Vera Rubin – namesake of the future Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile – has always explained that she had not “discovered” dark matter. But it’s fair to say that his work was the reason the scientific community started to take him seriously. From the 1960s to the 1980s, his observations of 60 spiral galaxies, including a comprehensive study of Andromeda, produced the flood of data needed to document the existence and importance of dark matter in the cosmos. Authors Jacqueline and Simon Mitton have published over 40 books on astronomy and the history of science.

Book cover: In pursuit of the ghost

Chasing the Ghost: Nobel Laureate Fred Reines and the Neutrino, by Leonard A. Cole

In 1930, Wolfgang Pauli called the neutrino “a desperate cure”. It was a chargeless, possibly massless, and possibly undetectable “ghost” of a particle that scientists invented to preserve the conservation of energy and momentum in radioactive decay. In 1956, Fred Reines and Clyde Cowan built a detector in the nuclear reactor in Savannah River, South Carolina, which ultimately successfully discovered it. Cowen died in 1974, but Reines received part of the 1995 Nobel Prize. In this biography / memoir, Leonard Coles (The letters of anthrax), a younger cousin of Reines, talks about her parent’s life.

Book cover: The fear of a dark universe

Fear of a Dark Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics, by Stephon Alexander

By studying dark matter and dark energy, cosmologist Stephon Alexander (author of The jazz of physics) advocates a bold and ‘outside’ approach. It helps that he often felt like a stranger himself. As he explains, “Black people in scientific circles are often greeted with skepticism about their intellectual capacities, their ability to” think like a physicist. “” The title of the book is a play on the album Public Enemy Fear of a dark planet, making it possibly the only astrophysics book to feature a blurb by rapper Chuck D. A physics professor at Brown University and past president of the National Society of Black Physicists, Alexander is also a saxophonist who has released two jazz albums.

Book cover: Genesis

Genesis: The Story of How It All Began, by Guido Tonelli

From 2010 to 2011, physicist Guido Tonelli was spokesperson for the CMS collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider, one of the two experiments that announced in 2012 the discovery of the Higgs boson. In this book, he explores the origin of the universe in seven scientific eras, modeled on the seven days of creation in the biblical book of Genesis. He concludes that “the view of the world that we have gradually developed through science is actually more astonishing than anything we could have imagined before”. The late Erica Segre (1963-2021) and her husband, Simon Carnell, created an almost lyrical translation of the original Italian.

Book cover: Helgoland

Helgoland: Making sense of the quantum revolution, by Carlo Rovelli

Helgoland is a treeless island in the North Sea where in 1930 Werner Heisenberg, 23, sought both relief from his allergies and a haven where he could work on his theory of quantum mechanics. The theorist Carlo Rovelli (author of Seven short lessons in physics; The order of time, and others) validate both the difficulties and the opportunities of tackling a theory that “predicts probability, not certainty” and a reality “of relationships, rather than objects.” Another elegant translation from Italian by Segre and Carnell.

Book Cover: Hawking Hawking

Hawking Hawking: The Sale of a Scientific Celebrity, by Charles Seife

Physicist Stephen Hawking’s early work on black holes and the radiation they emit made him “the scientific equivalent of the Beatles,” writes Charles Seife (author of Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea, and five others). Over time, Hawking’s fame has grown beyond the scientific community into pop culture as well. In this book, Seife explores the contradictions of Hawkings, describing him as a tireless self-promoter, “petulant, arrogant and callous as well as warm, witty and brilliant.”

Book cover: Flashs of Creation

Flashs of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle and the Big Bang Debate, by Paul Halpern

From the 1940s to the 1960s, the heated debate over the origin of the universe was personified by the conflict between George Gamow and Fred Hoyle. Gamow trumpeted the idea of ​​a “fiery creation,” while Hoyle saw the universe as an eternal stable state. Hoyle derisively dubbed Gamow’s idea “the Big Bang,” an epithet that eventually became canon. Author Paul Halpern shows sympathy for Hoyle, pointing out that he has been overlooked for his work on the stars as generators of matter. Author of 17 popular science books (including The quantum labyrinth), Halpern is Professor of Physics at the Philadelphia University of Science.

Book cover: Maths Without Numbers

Maths without numbers, by Milo Beckman

For non-experts who dip their toes into science, math is often a hindrance. With this book, mathematician Milo Beckman makes a wide range of mathematical concepts accessible, without numbers, through pattern recognition. Beckman partnered with artist M Erazo on the book, who visualizes each concept through a collection that totals nearly 200 illustrations. Beckman’s own story is as compelling as his ideas: by the age of 8, he was already taking math lessons at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York. At age 16, he completed the second-year math streak at Harvard. After working for a handful of tech companies and banks, Beckman retired at age 19. He has since taught mathematics in New York, China and Brazil.

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