Call for Suggestions: Greatest Physics Books of the Last 25 Years
As Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance has pointed out, Entertainment Weekly is weighing in on the Greatest Books of the Last 25 Years.
Like Sean, I am a bit disappointed in their selections. Most of my favorite books of the last 25 years are not even on the list. Where is Wald (1984)? Or Sean’s own book, for that matter? In fact, there is not one science book on EW’s list — not even a popular science book!
So let me make a call for suggestions: Write in with the greatest physics books of the last 25 years.
Just to be clear, that’s (first) publications from 1982-2008. Books may be popular or technical, as long as they are great. I’ll collect suggestions for aprx. 2 weeks, and then post the results. Thanks for your help!
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I guess reprints of books published before 1982 don’t count?
Reprints don’t count. First publication date has to be >= 1982.
I’ve found each of these to be great physics books for their respective subjects:
– John Bell (1987), Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics (a collection of Bell’s papers).
– Bryon and Fuller (1992),
Mathematics of Classical and Quantum Physics.
– Halzen and Martin (1984), Quarks and Leptons.
– Narlikar (1983), Introduction to Cosmology.
– Peebles (1992), Quantum Mechanics
– Sakurai (1994), Modern Quantum Mechanics.
– Wald (1984), General Relativity.
– Weinberg (1995), The Quantum Theory of Fields.
I think part of the problem is with the very concept of this list in the first place. The revolutionary publications in physics, the ones we want to call the greatest, are not the books published 10 years after the discovery, summarizing the history of the development. They are the papers. Especially in the grant-driven world of contemporary American academic and industrial phyics, no one has the money backing the investment of timenecessary to write a a great physics *book*. The ones who write the books are professors with enough time and tenure to put a coda on their research for a year or two at a time. They’re not the ones at the front lines of the CERN project.
That said, I’m going to try to come up with a list.
Mike T. recommends:
– Ballentine (1989), Quantum Mechanics: A Modern Development (in place of Sakurai, which is too disorganized)
– Bratteli and Robinson (2003), Operator Algebras and Quantum Statistical Mechanics
– Wald (1994), Quantum Field Theory in Curved Spacetime
– Guillemin and Sternberg (1990), Symplectic Techniques in Physics
Physics for the Inquiring Mind: The Methods, Nature, and Philosophy of Physical Science
by Eric M. Rogers
It’s clear that the EW list was for general audiences and so only popular books would be eligible. Nobody here has proposed a single popular title.
A popular book rather than a text book, but it inspired me to study physics.
John Gribbin (1984), In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality
When was A Brief History of Time first published?
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (1996) “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark”
Fabric of the Cosmos
A Briefer History of Time
Chaos: Making a New Science
Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”
easily changed my life/worldview as I read it a week after my dad died. “think of all the generals and emperors who shed all those rivers of blood so that they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” i’ll remember it forever.
“The Emperor’s New Mind” (Roger Penrose). The book that inspired me to go to University!
I loved The Whole Shebang, but Timothy Ferris, as a pretty great state of modern cosmology (when it came out).
“The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins, “Wonderful Life” by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark” by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
Mostly popular books, although the first may be a bit tough for the uninitiated. Strictly speaking not all physics, but broader science. Pick what you want.
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, R. Feynman, 1988.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, B. Bryson, 2003.
The Blind watchmaker, R. Dawkins, 1986.
I’ve found “Brother Astronomer” G. Conolmagno, 2000, interesting, with it’s talks about meteors, other planets, etc., and conflicts/similarities with science and religion.
‘The Elegant Universe’ by Brian Greene
‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’ by Brian Greene
‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
‘Death by Black Hole’ by Neil deGrasse Tyson
The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking.
Perhaps a book by Richard Feynman as well, although I have trouble deciding on any particular one.
The Road to Reality, by Roger Penrose. It’s the most rigorous treatment that popular physics has ever gotten.
Come on guys, this is supposed to be accessible…
The Science of Discworld (Pratchett, Stewart, Cohen)
Six not so easy pieces (Feynman)
Guns, Germs and Steel (Diamond) – although that’s maybe more history
Not sure why you would limit your selections to Physics books. If science books are missing, I would surmise that you should put a call out for all science books.
Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
In Search of Schroedinger’s Cat by John Gribbin
Zero by Charles Seife
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (had to put this on the list somewhere)
Relativity in Curved Spacetime (Baird) ISBN 0955706807
Discussion includes Enron and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and it has a cute photo of a frog. And a ring doughnut with sprinkles.
I heard Bryson’s book in “audio book” format, and thought that it was annoyingly good (grrr). Otherwise there’s not been much recently.
I think we’re in that wierd “dead zone” between paradigms, where everyone senses that something new is coming, but they don’t know enough about what it is to be able to write a book on it.
The character of physical law, Feynman.
‘Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader’, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1995)
‘The Fractal Geometry of Nature’, Benoit Mandelbrot (1983)
‘Aspects of Symmetry, Sidney Coleman (1985)
Kip S. Thorne, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy ISBN 0393312763
Thorne’s is the definitive “crossover” book on black hole theory circa 1994. Excellent indexes. Not so great on wormhole theory, but as a general reference on black holes and their history, I think it’s probably unbeatable. Affordable, too (about fifteen dollars for ~600 pages). Buy!
I’d second Penrose’s Road to Reality — great book!
It is old, but they are still great,
The Cosmic Code (1982)
Perfect Symmetry (1985)
two of the best particle and cosmology books I have read.
a fine fine novel in the context of science rather then about science.
The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch.
Considers the four main strands of scientific explanation: quantum theory, evolution, computation, and the theory of knowledge. Weaves them together using the Multiple World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Absolutely required reading for the scientifically literate, and very easy going too.
It would seem that Sean’s book is missing from this list, so here it is:
Carroll (2003), Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity.
Has nobody read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics (2006)? It was a fascinating examination of string theory and the current state of theoretical physics research.
Great choice — Smolin’s book is a must!
I Am A Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter
Just a couple that I really liked and that are very accessible:
Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Philip C. Plait: Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”
How about a more accessible and relative book that everybody should read.
Smelling Land: The Hydrogen Defense Against Climate Catastrophe by David Sanborn Scott
This is an excellent book discussing energy systems and involving many physics concepts. Furthermore, it tries to start the public discussion on sustainable energy systems.
forgot a link: Smelling Land: The Hydrogen Defense Against Climate Catastrophe
Ditto on Penrose, “The Road to Reality.”
How The Mind Works by steven pinker
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Freakonomics by Levit & Dubner
Wald’s General Relativity, no question.
The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics
I want to second a few recommendations:
– John Bell (1987), Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
Literate treatment of one of the few real advances in QM since the 1920s.
Coming from the horse’s mouth, I’d expect this to remain on must-read lists for decades.
– Jared Diamond (1997) Guns, Germs and Steel
Fascinating arguments. Great history. Relevant conclusions.
Some people may prefer his Collapse.
– Sidney Coleman (1985) Aspects of Symmetry
Not flawless but entertaining.
– Lee Smolin (2006) The Trouble with Physics
Maybe more a rant than a classic but a well-justified and timely rant.
And something that no-one has mentioned:
– Andy Oram, Greg Wilson (2007) Beautiful Code
Good programmers discussing good programs.
As the original list of 100 books left me cold, I recommend, for both science and fiction, the novels of Greg Egan and Kim Stanley Robinson.
I’m not a physicist, but the sciences are some of my hobbies. I have no college education.
That said, I really liked “Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics”, by Martinus Veltman. It was written for readers with various levels of education, and it was the first place I had seen the “single photon/double slit” experiment explained. It had always escaped me how you could send one photon at a time, but he explained that the power output was so low that the probability was that only one photon came out at a time.
Great List! I just planned my next 7 books. Here are my suggestions:
A Brief History of Time (1998) – Stephen Hawking
I felt myself get smarter reading this one.
A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004) – Bill Bryson
Fun book that truly gives you perspective about life in the universe.
Relativity Simply Explained (1997) – Martin Gardner
Physics of the Impossible (2008) – Michio Kaku
The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless (2006) – John D. Barrow
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
Don’t think I have any pure Physics books, but here are a couple by Simon Singh which revolve mainly around Math:
1. Fermat’s Last Theorem (AKA Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem) 1997/98
2. The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, 2000
i don’t have the time to be even an armchair scientist, but i couldn’t read Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace fast enough. Great book.
Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter.
The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
As an absolute layman who’s never taken a physics class…
Chaos – Gleick
Complexity – Waldrop
The Emperor’s New Mind – Penrose
The God Particle – Lederman
Warning: extreme grumpiness ahead!
I scoff upon the tomes of Penrose and Smolin. No, really. Along with Wolfram’s doorstopper, they’re books which do more harm than good. That’s not to say they’re as bad as The Tao of Physics or The Dancing Wu Li Masters, those great woo-enablers which spurred the industry that today misrepresents both Eastern thought and modern science to find faulty parallels between the two.
Feynman’s QED is excellent. Gleick’s Chaos and Genius are quite good. (I’m very pleased that I crossed paths with Mr. Gleick and was able to tell him so.) Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy is fun, accessible and informative. The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing has a fair bit of good physics in it.
Two of my favorites:
Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988), Timothy Ferris
Excellent overview of the human story behind the development of astronomy.
Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (1993), Leonard Shlain
Bridges the arts and sciences by showing how discoveries in physics mirrored explorations in Western art.
Feynman’s got a couple of props already –And while I think the world of “The Characteristics of Physical Law I believe its pub date of 1965 blows it off this list.)
So how about the obscure but wonderful pastiche “Feynman’s Lost Lecture” put together by David and Judith Goodstein.
And as perhaps the best cautionary tale in recent physics, I have to mention my friend and former magazine colleague Gary Taubes’s book “Bad Science” about the cold fusion debacle. It reads like a cross between a novel and a train wreck. Can’t keep watching, can’t look away.
I would add the e-book “Physics! In Quantities and Examples” (by Bektas) here. Instead of covering physics topic by topic, it goes from quantity to quantity: mass, force, temperature, … This is a very refreshing approach and the explanations / examples are also quite good in my opinion. Certainly no Feynman, but I’d put in my top 5 list.