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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53 thoughts on “Call for Suggestions: Greatest Physics Books of the Last 25 Years

  1. Bryan

    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.

  2. Julia

    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.

  3. Bryan

    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

  4. Kevin Zembower

    Physics for the Inquiring Mind: The Methods, Nature, and Philosophy of Physical Science
    by Eric M. Rogers

  5. Anonymous

    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.

  6. Anonymous

    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

  7. FenwaySteve

    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.

  8. Anonymous

    “The Emperor’s New Mind” (Roger Penrose). The book that inspired me to go to University!

  9. Tripp

    I loved The Whole Shebang, but Timothy Ferris, as a pretty great state of modern cosmology (when it came out).

  10. David H. Strada

    “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

  11. Anonymous

    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.

  12. Anonymous

    ‘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

  13. Fry

    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.

  14. Hatta

    The Road to Reality, by Roger Penrose. It’s the most rigorous treatment that popular physics has ever gotten.

  15. Anonymous

    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

  16. Anonymous

    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.

    Physics Books:
    Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees
    A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
    In Search of Schroedinger’s Cat by John Gribbin

    Non-Physics Books:
    Zero by Charles Seife
    The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (had to put this on the list somewhere)

  17. Eric Baird

    Mine! :)

    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.

  18. Jamie Portsmouth

    ‘Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader’, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1995)

    ‘The Fractal Geometry of Nature’, Benoit Mandelbrot (1983)

    ‘Aspects of Symmetry, Sidney Coleman (1985)

  19. Eric Baird

    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!

  20. Anonymous

    It is old, but they are still great,

    Heinz Pagels
    The Cosmic Code (1982)
    Perfect Symmetry (1985)

    two of the best particle and cosmology books I have read.

  21. GaryO

    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.

  22. Kevin

    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.

  23. Anonymous

    How The Mind Works by steven pinker
    The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
    Freakonomics by Levit & Dubner

  24. Anonymous

    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.


  25. Anonymous

    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.

    — Tom

  26. Anonymous

    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

  27. Chan Lee Meng

    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

  28. opsec

    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

  29. Blake Stacey

    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.

    Bah humbug.

    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.

  30. kayeoh

    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.

  31. Thomas Levenson

    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.

  32. Dominik

    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.