Monday, July 7, 2014

Great physics books that aren't textbooks

Just in time for your summer reading enjoyment, I offer a brief list of books for the scientist and non-scientist, alike. For folks who prefer other media, I suggest some audio podcasts, TV shows, and even a theatrical play. And please, these are only a few, so add your own favorite physics book, video or podcast suggestions in the comments below!

In my classes, I ask students what they hope to get out of their class experience. Recently, a few of them answered with desires to change they way they think. They said: "I want to think like a physicist. Think logically, independently, creatively." "I want to be able to talk with my friends and family about deeper ideas and how the universe works." "I want to see the world through the eyes of a physicist, to see the beauty that they see." If these words sound like your own, I think you will enjoy immersing yourself in these books. I'll start with the introductory-related books, in a variety of styles, classic and recent, and end with the bigger-picture type books, the ones that will leave your mind blown.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines (2009) by Richard A. Muller.
If you purchase this book, be sure to get the non-textbook version. Dr. Muller also teaches a class of the same name at the University of California at Berkley. I found this book to be fun, easy to read and interesting. He covers topics like energy, terrorism, global warming, space and nuclear weapons. He approaches them thoughtfully and calmly from the perspective of a physicist, and all the while, addresses the reader as the future president! There are also podcasts from his class lectures from Berkley. If you like this book, I suggest you check out his recent book, "Energy for Future Presidents." Here is Dr. Muller's website for the book:

The Physics of Superheroes: Spectacular Second Edition (2011) by James Kakalios. 
Here is a book, also written by a professor, that covers mostly introductory concepts and puts them into the fanciful context of super powers. This book is cleverly done. From Aquaman to Spider-man, he discusses all kinds of super powers from classic comic book superheroes. I once saw a talk by this author and have not forgotten one of the profound things that he said: "Physics should be a spectator sport." He explained that if people who are not artists or musicians can comment intelligently on art or music, then why can't the public be informed enough to intelligently understand scientific achievements as well? Then, maybe, people would take more interest in our work. This is one of the reasons he gave for his passion for teaching physics to general audiences. I think that the beauty of science shouldn't be something we keep to ourselves. We should write for not only our colleagues but also for everyone else, share discoveries, teach others how to understand our work and processes, inspire passions and encourage young minds. I want the scientific community to invite everyone into the conversation in this way. Here is the book website, where you can also find his fun videos of the science of super powers.

Thinking Physics (1995) by Lewis Carrol Epstein.
This book calls itself "practical lessons in critical thinking." The book is organized into physics categories and is a collection of application-inspired multiple choice questions. Answers and explanations are provided right after the questions. The creativity, historical applications, sophistication yet simplicity of the explanations may surprise you. One of my favorite questions has to do with the electromagnetism explanation of the "ghost ship" signals heard on the first trans-atlantic ocean cables. There is thorough coverage of many topics in physics, both introductory and advanced. Quiz yourself!

Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2005) by Brian Greene. 
Dr. Greene is one of the most famous current physicists. A scholar and an author, he has also made a movie series out of his books, including this one, which you might enjoy. And if you ever get a chance to see him speak in public, go! You won't regret it. I highly recommend this book and his book "Elegant Universe." This book covers the fascinating concept of "space-time." He discusses ideas like time travel, string theory and cosmology. It is an engaging subject!

Contact (1985) by Carl Sagan.
I know this is a fiction book and doesn't fit into the category as well as the others. However, I still think that you will love this classic! It is written by one of the greatest (late) physicists of our time and tells an exciting and imaginative story of a SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientist. Contact was made into a movie, which starred Jodie Foster. I wish Dr. Sagan had written more fictional books in his short life. If you prefer non-fiction, Carl Sagan was an accomplished author, writing popular books, including Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Cosmos was an original television series that aired in 1980, and even to someone born in 1980, watching the episodes for the first time in 2004, I found the content inspiring and lovely. In the tradition of this great physicist, a new series with the same name recently aired. The host is Neil Degrasse Tyson. His team offers stunning visual affects not available in the original series. He brings the study of the universe back into focus for a new generation of scientists.

In addition to the videos and podcasts embedded in the list above, here are a few more alternative media sources for you to enjoy:

(Podcast) Modern Physics: From the Atom to Big Science by Cathryn Carson. I enjoyed listening to Dr. Carson's history of physics in this podcast collection. She explains physics concepts as well as historical context. What motivated critical discoveries and what social relationships hindered physics advancement? Who are the main characters in the ongoing physics story? Dr. Carson is also an accomplished author with titles like "Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere" (2010).

(Nova documentary movie) Einstein's' Big Idea (2005). This is fine story-telling. A film about the physics ideas that contributed to the famous equation E=mc^2. The story is told along side captivating and dramatic life events of famous physicists including Michael Faraday and Lise Meisner.

(Theatrical Production/play) Copenhagan (1998) by Michael Frayn. This play, which has also been made into a movie, has only three characters and centers around a mysterious meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. The strange meeting takes place in 1941 in the midst of Nazi Germany's nuclear efforts. These figures, once friends, then separated by politics, discuss their meeting; the creation of an atomic bomb hangs in the balance. The movie is a bit slow but worth watching. It would be grand to see this production live.

There are many more. Add them to the comments!
Happy reading!
-Dr. Hay

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