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The Best Physics Books of 2012

Top picks from the Physics Guide's reading list

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Every year, I get a number of physics-related books brought to my doorstep by the promotional elves at various publishing houses. In addition, I follow magazines and various physics podcasts that frequently contain reviews and interviews. Here is a collection of some of my top picks from the year. Some of these are books that I've personally read and reviewed (in which case, I offer a link to the review) and others are ones that are in my "to read" pile and have

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll

Dutton/Penguin Group
In this timely book, physicist Sean Carroll dives deeply into the search for the Higgs boson and the current frontiers of particle physics. This book is an excellent choice for someone who's pretty well read in the sciences and now wants to get a grasp on the cutting-edge science going on at the Large Hadron Collider, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to someone without any science background. Carroll's writing style is clear, but he's dealing with a complex topic, and I don't feel that he particularly goes out of his way to be accessible to the novice who has absolutely no physics background. If you've ever read through popular theoretical physics books like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (and enjoyed it) or if you're an avid watcher of the Science Channel (the real science stuff, not the monster hunter programs), then this might be right up your alley.

Before the Lights Go Out by Maggie Koerth-Baker

John Wiley & Sons
In this intriguing book, the science editor of the popular website BoingBoing explores the pending energy crisis and what we can do now to prepare ourselves. Walking the reader through alternative after alternative, Maggie Koerth-Baker presents an accessible and enjoyable overview of our energy options in the future.
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Energy for Future Presidents by Richard Muller

W. W. Norton & Company

Another book on the energy crisis, this one is written from a more policy-oriented perspective. Muller is perhaps best known publicly over the last year or so for being the conservative lead researcher on a major study - funded largely by conservative organizations - that sought to analyze the broadest range of climate-related data, in an effort to determine whether or not the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change was as overwhelming as the political left has claimed. In doing so, Muller publicly vindicated the results of other scientists, confirming the very conclusion that they had expected to call into some measure of question. Overall, this of course lends a great deal of intellectual respect to Muller for his academic honesty.

Following up on that, Muller therefore has put together this book, which intends to look at all aspects of American and global energy considerations, and what our various options are to deal with them, including the political and economic pros and cons of each solution.

Paradox by Jim Al-Khalili

Broadway Paperbacks
In this intriguing book, physicist Jim Al-Khalili explores some of the most bizarre, vexing riddles in all of physics. These paradoxes push the limits of logic and reason, but for that very reason they also provide some key insights the very borders of our capacity to understand the universe.

A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

Free Press
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss explores the scientific explanation for the origin of the universe. This explanation is known as the Big Bang theory, but it (together with quantum physics) provides a means for the very laws of physics to spontaneously create an entire universe out of nothing. Several books along this line have been released in recent years, such as Hawking and Mlodinow's The Grand Design, but frankly I enjoyed this one a bit more.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton & Company
For a somewhat more expansive take on the question of the universe's existence (at least when compared to Krauss' take on it), we have this book by writer Jim Holt of the New Yorker and The New York Times. While Krauss' exploration is firmly rooted in the modern scientific explanation, Holt begins with a bit more appreciation for the philosophical foundations of the quest to understand the origins of the universe. He eventually gets to all of the same science, but it's a different path, that of a "cosmic gumshoe" (as the cover flap calls it) investigating a mystery by looking that the clues left behind. This is basically what scientists do, of course, but since Holt is a writer rather than a scientist, his approach is somewhat different ... and perhaps a bit more accessible to readers with more of a focus on the humanities.
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The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Da Capo Press
Profoundly counter-intuitive, quantum physics represents the most fundamental set of physical laws governing matter and energy in our universe, at least the most fundamental set that we know so far. In this volume, two expert physicists explore the way these laws expand up to create the macroscopic phenomena that we observe in the universe. This is a wonderful sequel (of sorts) to their earlier book Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Do We Care?), which focused on Einstein's theory of relativity.

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

Basic Books
Chad Orzel has taken a somewhat different path from that taken by Cox and Forshaw. They wrote a book on relativity and followed it up with a book on quantum physics. Orzel, on the other hand, began with a book on quantum physics and then followed it up with a book on relativity. Orzel's writing style is much more accessible to the complete lay reader - the true science novice - than many of the other books on this list.
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Space Chronicles by Neil deGrasse Tyson

W.W. Norton & Company
When it comes to communicating about science, there are few who can pull it off with quite the style of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The Director of New York's Hayden Planetarium is well known for his work as host of PBS' NOVA ScienceNOW series, and he's taking Carl Sagan's place as host of a new revamp of the classic Cosmos series (slated to appear on Fox sometime in 2013). In this book, Tyson pulls together some of his thoughts on America's role in space travel, from the scientific to more mundane considerations like how to pay for it all and how to convince policymakers that it's worth doing.
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