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Great Science Books of 2013


Looking for a new book that explores the wonders of science? This list is a great place to start ... at least for the year 2013.

1. My Brief History by Stephen Hawking

Random House
One of the most compelling figures of the latter half of the twentieth century is acclaimed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. In this slim volume - only 144 pages! - he presents a concise and compelling autobiographical account of his life, from his early years and intellectual development through his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), which has left him wheelchair-bound and largely communicating through a custom-built technology interface for decades. Despite this, or perhaps precisely because of it, he has risen to become one of the most original and inspiring thinkers within the physics community.
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2. Magnificent Principia by Colin Pask

Prometheus Books

One of the most profound works in all of physics history is the 1687 book Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica by British mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. In this, Newton laid out the basic natural principles of his laws of motion and his law of gravity. It is hard to overstate the transformative influence of this book on the natural sciences. Physicist Steven Weinberg has said "all that has happened since 1687 is a gloss on the Principia." For years, the ancient Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe had been losing ground to a growing body of evidence in support of a heliocentric model, but it was not until Newton's work that a theoretical framework existed which could bring the evidence together in a coherent way.

Despite this, though, few scientists and thinkers in the modern era have ever actually read the Principia itself, instead learning the lessons from its pages through modern textbooks which - though far more accessible - often present the concepts as well-established truths about the universe, masking the depth of Newton's brilliant insights and rigorous process to establish and prove them.

In this new book, Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton's Masterpiece, the reader is taken through this class work in terms that the modern thinker can understand, showing how it establishes significant portions of our modern approach to science. The sheer scope of Newton's explanatory achievement is laid bare within its pages. While this book is not for the faint of heart, for the true science enthusiast this book makes clear what would be inscrutable to even many accomplished physicists if they tried to read the original Principia text directly.

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3. Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton & Company
Though written by a field biologist rather than a physicist, Wilson's volume does an excellent job of capturing general advice and perspective on a career in the sciences that are applicable to any scientific pursuit. As such, this is a particularly good book for those who are looking to be inspired, perhaps upon entering into a scientific career. One of the best pieces of advice to anyone starting out, not just in the sciences, is to early on find an area that interests you but which is not well-studied by others and become an expert in it, as this is a means to establishing yourself quickly as an expert in the domain.

4. Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio

Simon & Schuster

Another great book for the scientific history buff is Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. As the title suggests, this book collects together a series of scientific blunders by some of the greatest science in history. And these aren't just little mistakes or ones which have no impact, but rather Livio focuses on fundamental errors or misconceptions that helped drive scientists to a greater understanding of the universe.

For example, Linus Pauling could have been challenged for the view held in the latter portion of his life that using large quantities of Vitamin C could vastly increase the immune system and even eliminate diseases. This, however, was largely in contradiction to the evidence, and he continued to cling to it despite this lack of evidence. And, ultimately, Pauling's apparently mistaken belief in this concept did not help push science in general forward. On the other hand, Pauling's mistaken model of the structure of DNA (which contained a fundamental chemistry error that should have been obvious to Pauling or any other trained chemist) did help push Watson and Crick to get their model of the double-helix structure of DNA completed before Pauling's model could be corrected.

The five blunders all (as the subtitle suggests) push our understanding of life and the universe forward, focusing on basic concepts from evolution, the age of the planet Earth, the big bang theory, DNA structures, and the introduction of the cosmological constant by Albert Einstein. (It is indicative that even Einstein's blunder may turn out to be correct, thanks to dark energy!)

Livio's book is not for the scientifically illiterate, but since it spans concepts from both physics and biology, he goes to great care to explain the underlying scientific principles at work in detail, making no real assumptions about a level of expertise on the part of the reader. As such, it makes for an interesting read for anyone who wants to understand some of the major events in the development of our scientific understanding of the development of the universe and life within it.

5. Time Reborn by Lee Smolin

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
From his work and advocacy for research into loop quantum gravity as an alternative to the more-established string theory to his more general attack on string theory's pervasive influence in the physics community in his 2007 book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, physicist Lee Smolin is well known for challenging the established wisdom of the physics community. In this newest book, he takes on the common physical understanding of time itself. He argues for treating time as a physically "real" property of the universe and claims that the current approach to time within physics suffers from real conceptual problems which only add to the confusion existing within theoretical physics. This is a fascinating book and well worth the read, but I really can only recommend this to someone who is well-versed in the theoretical physics concepts involved. For the novice, it would be hard to distinguish Smolin's intriguing speculations and philosophical concerns from claims made based on actual scientific evidence.

6. Beyond the God Particle by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill

Prometheus Books
This book presents a detailed explanation of the Higgs boson, by the same author (Nobel laureate Leon Lederman) who coined the term "the god particle." It avoids equations in the explanation - which is good, because the mathematics related to the Higgs is some pretty deep, heavy stuff - but goes far beyond the typical explanations of how the Higgs field results in the mass of some particles. As the title suggests, Lederman and Hill project into the future of physics, discussing the possible paths available for future high energy physics research, including the prospects for new particle accelerators, should the United States and other governments find it worthwhile to invest money in research in basic science ... which, Lederman and Hill argue, is the only thing which has ever driven economic growth on a large scale.
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7. The Theoretical Minimum by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky

Basic Books/Perseus Books
For the aspiring physicist who isn't afraid of being confronted with some equations in their reading materials, the big suggestion this year would be The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics. This volume is based on a series of popular Leonard Susskind internet lectures on introductory physics concepts, with the implication of more volumes coming in the future. While most physics books for a lay audience go out of their way to avoid any equations at all, Susskind embraces the mathematical relationships at the heart of physics. This is arguably a self-instruction textbook that could get a young physics student up to speed at the work they could expect to encounter in the first year or so of physics courses.
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