Note: Except where noted, all materials on this site are the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies of reviews or columns for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.
This page of the Science Shelf was first developed for the World Year of Physics 2005. Now, as we add additional reviews of physics books to the Science Shelf archive, we will add links here. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing to our occasional e-mail newsletter (once every month or two) to learn about our new book reviews and features. Please be assured your e-mail address will be not be shared with anyone or used for any other purpose except to send you news about the website.
Latest reviews, in chronological order, most recent first:
Links to reviews of books from prior years are found below the following article written for the World Year of Physics 2005.
If you love reading about Einstein or physics, this is the Science Shelf page for you.
Physics, to some, is arcane.
Its theories can twist up the brain.
But before the world panics
These quantum mechanics
Have a year's worth of books that explain.
One hundred years ago, an obscure patent clerk in Switzerland turned the world of science inside out. With three ground-breaking journal articles published in quick succession (plus a postscript containing a famous equation), Albert Einstein redefined space, time, matter, and energy.
Before 1905, physicists were comfortable that their theories fully described the universe, except for a few loose ends. Einstein's work tugged on those strands of doubt, and the fabric of physics unraveled. It has since been rewoven into a new, vibrant tapestry -- with a few snags that invite picking by future Einsteins.
The centennial of Einstein's "miracle year" has been designated The World Year of Physics. Scientists are reflecting on the transformative discoveries of the past 100 years and peeking through mathematical keyholes into unexplored dimensions. But as the proliferation of new books about Einstein and physics demonstrate, everyone can join in the excitement.
Einsteiniana and More
An excellent place to begin an exploration of both Einstein's genius and the past century of physics is the compact and readable Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness by noted science writer John S. Rigden (Harvard University Press, 192 pages, $21.95). The book discusses not only Einstein's theory of special relativity, but also the two other 1905 masterworks, which confirmed atomic theory and launched quantum physics. A century later, these three ideas are still bearing fruit in knowledge and technology.
Einstein was not only an innovative thinker, but also an excellent writer. Besides his scientific publications, he produced accessible works for non-specialists, especially about relativity. To discoverThe Meaning of Relativity in Einstein's own words, readers can find the fifth edition, revised in December 1954, four months before the author's death, with a new introduction by Brian Green (Princeton University Press paperback, 200 pages, $14.95).
Another accessible reissue, this one from 1979 with a new author's note and an afterword on cosmological discoveries of the past decade or so, is Einstein's Universe: The Layperson's Guide by Nigel Calder (Penguin paperback, 208 pages, $14.00).
When Einstein turned to politics, he was often able to move world leaders. It was Einstein the pacifist who persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to start a project to develop the atomic bomb, though he was unsuccessful in trying to stop nuclear weapons research after World War II. Readers interested in this aspect of Einstein will enjoy the reissue of The Born-Einstein Letters, 1916-1955: Friendship, Politics, and Physics in Uncertain Times. Originally published in 1971, the year after the death of Einstein's friend and fellow Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, the new edition (Palgrave/Macmillan, 276 pages, $26.95) includes the original introduction by Werner Heisenberg, the original foreword by Bertrand Russell, and a new preface by Diana Buchwald and Kip Thorne.
Born's interpretation of quantum mechanics led to one of Einstein's most famous quotations. Born concluded that a system's quantum wave function allows it to be in any of several states with varying probabilities. Its state remains indeterminate until it is measured, just as the roll of a die can yield any of six outcomes. "God does not play dice," Einstein insisted. But Born's interpretation prevailed. It marked, according to Nancy Thorndike Greenspan, The End of the Certain World (Basic Books, 384 pages, $26.95) in a book that is fascinating reading as biography, science, and history all in one.
Einstein's letters to colleagues, friends, family, and lovers were often witty and warm. His human side is the focus of The New Quotable Einsteinedited by Alice Calaprice with a foreword by Freeman Dyson (Princeton University Press, 368 pages, $35.00 hardcover, $14.95 paperback). Ms. Calaprice has also authored a concise overview of Einstein's life and work, well-suited to those who enjoy reading interesting snippets on the throne, entitled The Einstein Almanac (Johns Hopkins University Press, 174 pages, $24.95).
The World Year of Physics is a celebration of discovery and exploration. Nothing demonstrates the inquisitive spirit of physicists more than the 20th century quest to understand the inner workings of the atom and the forces of the universe. In Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 392 pages, $29.95), University of California at Santa Clara Physics Professor Bruce A. Schumm explores not only the science of subatomic and sub-nuclear particles, but also the mathematical formulations that guide physicists in their quests. An experimentalist, he uses some of the world's most powerful machines to probe the universe's smallest bits, where he finds what he describes in his subtitle as The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics, a fundamental set of symmetries in dimensions that stretched imaginations can discover.
Most of the particles that Professor Schumm describes were not even imagined in 1932, when John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton became the first scientists to "split the atom," an accomplishment deserving of note in this World Year of Physics In the rush to rediscover Einstein and to explore the open questions for the next century, important stories like theirs are often overlooked. Fortunately, Brian Cathcart has done his part to remedy that oversight in his readable history, The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, 15 b/w photos, $25.00).
Physics for the 21st Century
The past 100 years began with an unraveling of theories that were intuitively satisfying but failed to describe both the subatomic and cosmic realms. Are the newly emerging theoretical constructions built of mind-boggling concepts, like eleven-dimensional vibrating strings, any better for tying all of physics? Stanford professor and Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin takes a novel approach that leaves plenty of loose ends to tug on in his A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (Basic Books, 272 pages, $26.00).
Two Very Different Geniuses
No celebration of the World Year of Physics would be complete without mentioning the fabled Richard Feynman, who captured the public imagination with his performance on the Challenger commission and two late-in-life memoirs, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. Seventeen years after Feynman's death, his daughter Michelle Feynman has organized a selection of her father's correspondence with a title that summarizes his uniquely appealing approach to life: Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (Basic Books, 512 pages, $26.00).
Feynman and Einstein are icons of idiosyncrasy. For contrast, readers can explore True Genius: the Life and Science of John Bardeen by Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitsch (Joseph Henry Press, 352 pages, $18.95). Originally published in 2002 and just released in paperback, this volume presents the story of the only person ever to win two Nobel Prizes for Physics. Bardeen's Nobels, one for the invention of the transistor and the other for the first successful theory of superconductivity, were the result not only of great originality in thinking but also of uncommon diligence and dedication.