It’s that most wonderful time of the year once again, when we reveal our shortlist for the Physics World Book of the Year. We’ve based our choice on the 37 books we’ve reviewed over the last 12 months in Physics World, picking our favourite 10 using the same three criteria that have been in place since we launched our book of the year award in 2009. These are that the books must be well written, novel and scientifically interesting to physicists.
Quantum mechanics – from the fundamentals to the science to the history and philosophy – was rather a hot trend in pop-sci writing this year, and three books with a quantum spin have made our shortlist. Another growing theme is that of illustrated books, in a graphic novel format, and you will spot two of those on the list too.
As is the case every year, picking one winner from 10 such interesting and varied books is a tough task, but keep your eyes peeled on 17 December, when we will reveal this year’s award-winning book, via the monthly Physics World podcast. This year will mark our 10th winner, so the podcast will also feature some familiar voices of previous winners as we look back on a decade of awarding our Book of the Year. In the meanwhile, if you’d like to remind yourself of some past winners, here are a few of the previous years’ shortlists: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.
Treknology: the Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drives by Ethan Siegel
The fictional universe of Star Trek has always been applauded for its scientific touches, and has inspired countless of today’s scientists and astronauts from a young age. In Treknology, astrophysicist and science writer Ethan Siegel delves into the fact, fiction and everything in between of the physics, biology, chemistry, engineering and advanced technology depicted in the futuristic world of Star Trek. With its large format, glossy images and illustrations, and lucid writing, this book is an excellent guide to science at the final frontier.
Ad Astra: an Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet by Dallas Campbell
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which saw humankind land on the Moon for the first time. It’s no surprise then, that we have spaceflight on the brain. Broadcaster and author Dallas Campbell’s Ad Astra is our go-to reference guide to a detailed but simplified history of human spaceflight. Charming, witty and humorous, Campbell’s book is not just a historic view – it will hopefully remind all readers that the future of space exploration is bright.
Exact Thinking in Demented Times: the Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science by Karl Sigmund
The Vienna Circle was an “assemblage of some of the most impressive human beings who have ever walked the planet”, according to author and professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna Karl Sigmund. In Exact Thinking in Demented Times, Sigmund tells the tales of these giants of science and philosophy, getting into their world views and ideas. This lively and somewhat idiosyncratic book mirrors the intellectual, personal and political conflicts it describes and analyses.
Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics is Different by Philip Ball
Spooky, strange and somewhat impenetrable, quantum mechanics is often thought of as impossible to fully understand, and very difficult to explain to a general audience, especially without falling into the trap of analogies that never quite work. In his latest book, veteran science write Philip Ball tackles the “weird” label, pointing out that quantum theory simply reveals how nature truly works, absurd though it may seem to us at times. Indeed, he says, the inherent “weirdness” is in our understanding, not in nature. Beyond Weird tackles the varied interpretations of quantum mechanics – a bold and much need addition to physics literature.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
Albert Einstein once said that “time is an illusion”. In opening chapter in his new book, The Order of Time, Italian-born physicist and bestselling author Carlo Rovelli writes that “perhaps time is the greatest mystery”. Despite this, Rovelli attempts to tease meaning from humanity’s centuries-long quest for a deeper understanding of time, as he condenses complex ideas into beautifully written prose. Along with some solid science, anecdotes, history, art, philosophy and culture are what make this tiny tome yet another formidable addition to popular-physics literature from this science poet.
Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder
Theoretical physics is dead – long live theoretical physics. That is the bold rallying cry from veteran blogger, first-time book author and theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder in Lost in Math. Dissatisfied and ill at ease with many of the “big ideas” that rule the roost in fundamental physics today, including supersymmetry, string theory, branes, M-theory and extra dimensions, Hossenfelder takes her fellow physicists’ search for “beauty” in science to task. “The more I try to understand my colleagues’ reliance on beauty, the less sense it makes to me,” she writes, as she confronts physicists on why their ideas aren’t working.
The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe by Clifford V Johnson
This non-fiction graphic novel uses the teacher–pupil relationship as a format of discourse on complex topics in physics, ranging from inflation and relativity to the philosophy of science and discussions of experimentation and geometry. The artist and author is physicist Clifford Johnson and his book is The Dialogues. Over the course of 11 conversations, each intricately drawn and written by Johnson (who is a self-taught artist), you will meet a host of characters in a variety of locations, all of whom are attempting to better fathom the fundamental laws of our universe.
When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal by Philip Moriarty
It is probably fair to say that the general overlap between heavy-metal music fans and quantum science enthusiast is small, perhaps even niche. But that isn’t to say that fans of one can’t be converted to the other – at least that is what physicist and metalhead Philip Moriarty hopes to do with his first book When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11. From notes on guitar-shredding and mosh pits to Fourier transforms and nanoscience, tune in for a wild ride through physics… and turn up the volume.
What is Real: the Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
The birth of quantum mechanics proved to be a big paradigm shift for modern physics at the start of 20th century, so it is no surprise that many a book has told the tale of its key players such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger. But every good story has interesting characters lurking in the background, and telling their tale can provide an interesting shift in perspective. In What is Real? science write Adam Becker does precisely that, as he provides a wide-ranging and character-driven history of the struggle for a coherent interpretation of quantum mechanics, going into why Bohr and co’s so-called “Copenhagen interpretation” emerged victorious over, say, the “many worlds” of Hugh Everett or the pilot-wave theory of David Bohm. “The history behind the physics can guide us in our pursuits…The path that led us here can give hints about the way forward,” writes Becker, perfectly summing up why he wrote this bold book.
Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine by Hannah Fry
If you have been to a physics conference in the past year or two, there is a distinct possibility that the sessions on artificial intelligence and machine learning (no matter what physics topic the conference was focused on) were some of the most popular. With this hot trend making its way into laboratories across the world, now is the perfect time to get to grips with the language of machines. Author Hannah Fry’s latest book Hello World will help you do just that, with her anthology of algorithm-related anecdotes. Equal parts praise and condemnation, Fry makes a compelling case for how much algorithms are already an integral part of modern life.