The year in reviews: Five books to put on your holiday wish list
Books editor Jermey Matthews picks his five favorite books that were reviewed this year in the pages of Physics Today.
December 20, 2011Published: December 20, 2011
By Jermey N. A. Matthews
Instead of an iPad2 or a new LED TV, consider treating yourself or someone else to one of the five top books reviewed this year in Physics Today. Of course, all of the more than 50 books we review annually are worth considering, but these five came highly recommended by our expert external reviewers, and they are of especially broad appeal and accessibility.
Together, these books cover the history and science of two of the most exotic materials in existence, the challenge of climate change and the increasing global demand for energy, the science behind complex social networks, and the enigmatic life of one of the best known World War II–era physicists. Each will cost you more than Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs or a book from the Harry Potter series but far less than that iPad2 or a new TV. And you’ll likely be wiser after reading these texts.
Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs: A History of Liquid Crystals (by David Dunmur and Tim Sluckin, Oxford U. Press, 2011; $53.95). This book will educate you on the history of liquid crystals, the LCD TV’s critical technology. Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs is “a well-written, accurate, and totally engaging look at the history and science of liquid crystals from the middle of the 19th century up to the present,” writes Peter Collings, a physicist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, in his August review. If Collings, a liquid-crystals researcher for four decades now, can say that the narrative “filled in [his] knowledge of many of the characters” involved in shaping the field, then you and I are bound to learn something new about them, too.
Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs is more than a historical text, though. The authors write that their book is intended to fall “somewhere between history of science and popular science.” They accomplish that goal by placing explanations of important concepts and techniques in boxes throughout the text. Although the book doesn’t include “equations and mathematical rigor,” Collings nonetheless found the explanations “both clear and correct for the most part.” The reviewer also writes that nonexperts will come away with the understanding “of the convoluted scientific path that led to our understanding of liquid crystals and come to appreciate that science, after all, is done by people.”
Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century (by Burton Richter, Cambridge U. Press, 2010; $29.99 paperback). Climate change and energy are arguably the most broadly relevant and emerging issues of our time. David Keith, an applied physicist and an expert in energy and climate policy at Harvard University, begins his January review of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors by asking the question, “How do we grow the global supply of energy, make it more accessible to the poor, and at the same time cut carbon emissions to near zero?” To the many experts (and politicians) who have tried to solve that conundrum add Nobel-prize-winning particle physicist Burton Richter.
In his preface, Richter says the title is a double entendre. On the one hand, it refers to the conflict between coal-fired power plants and the current generation of solar panels; on the other, it evokes “the real story … behind the self-serving arguments” of the multiple special interests that often weigh in on energy and climate policy. According to Keith, the book describes the energy system sector by sector and examines the opportunities for decarbonization in each of them. Bullish on nuclear energy, Richter has concluded that significant cuts to carbon emissions can’t be done just by introducing renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. Along with “a fine summary of the science linking carbon to climate,” Richter “provides a concise primer on the economics of long-term climate policy, and concludes with a short, sensible, and well-argued set of opinions and policy recommendations,” writes Keith. The trained and elected policy experts seem stuck, so why not ask a top-notch particle physicist?
BCS: 50 years (edited by Leon N. Cooper and Dmitri Feldman, World Scientific, 2011; $65.00 paperback). The most technical and most expensive of the bunch, BCS: 50 Years “combines historical reflections by many of the principals in the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory’s development and confirmation, reviews of more recent works of fundamental significance, and essays on the broader importance of BCS theory to other physics subfields,” writes Stanford University physicist Malcolm Beasley in his July review. The title refers to the first microscopic theory of superconductivity; technically, 2011 marks 54 years since it was proposed by John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and J. Robert Schrieffer. Cooper is a coeditor of the book, which includes essays from Bardeen (who died 20 years ago) and from Schrieffer. Six other Nobel laureates also contributed: Philip Anderson, Wolfgang Ketterle, Anthony Leggett, Yoichiro Nambu, Steven Weinberg, and Frank Wilzcek. Indeed, five Nobel Prizes have been won for superconductivity, and more are likely to come.
For reviewer Beasley, the interweaving of the science and history by those personally involved in the development of superconductivity theory makes Historical Perspectives the most engaging section in BCS: 50 Years. The other two more technical sections, “Fluctuations, Tunneling and Disorder” and “New Superconductors,” will appeal more to researchers interested in the theories that govern such phenomena as the transition temperature and the behavior of superconducting quantum interfering devices and high-Tc superconducting materials. As a holiday treat, the only “flavor” Beasley says you’ll find missing in this book is the essence of the debate between empiricism and theory that fuels the quest to find a governing theory for high-Tc superconductivity.
Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World (by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg, Cambridge U. Press, 2010; $50.00). Is it really a small world after all? You can find out from two well-regarded complexity scientists who are exploring “small-world” phenomena in social systems. In Networks, Crowds, and Markets, economist David Easley and computer scientist Jon Kleinberg describe “the topics related to dynamical phenomena that evolve on networks and the multitude of methods for understanding them,” writes theoretical physicist Dirk Brockmann in his October review.
The emergence of complexity research is due in large part to the proliferation of passively generated behavioral data drawn from our increasing use of the internet, cell phones, and other traceable technologies. Such dynamical processes include epidemics, financial market dynamics, and information flow. The book is based on an interdisciplinary—Brockmann calls it “transdiciplinary”—introductory undergraduate course that Easley and Kleinberg teach at Cornell University. If you want to learn how Facebook works on a technical level, this book might be a start.
Judging Edward Teller: A Closer Look at One of the Most Influential Scientists of the Twentieth Century (by Istvan Hargittai, Prometheus Books, 2010; $32.00). Generally speaking, science is a team sport. But let’s face it, some people stand out: Edward Teller is one of them. He is known as the father of the hydrogen bomb for his central role in the Manhattan project. He is also known for testifying that Robert Oppenheimer was a security risk—an act that drew him the scorn of his fellow scientists.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, “Much has been written about Edward Teller, but little of it is objective,” writes Stephen Libby, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in his February review of Judging Edward Teller. Libby told me that from 1989 until Teller’s death in 2003, he and Teller frequently enjoyed discussing and debating a wide variety of scientific topics at LLNL (which Teller cofounded). Notwithstanding, Libby delivers an impartial account of what he considers a “balanced, thoughtful, and beautifully researched biography.”
According to Libby, biographer Istvan Hargittai gives his readers the opportunity to “judge” Teller by “interleaving comparative illustrations of how Teller’s peers … responded to [political] challenges similar to those Teller confronted.” Besides the controversial aspects of Teller’s life, the book presents such gems as his breakthrough contributions to the theory of molecular structure, the “touching, long correspondence with his close friend and collaborator, Maria Goeppert Mayer,” and his “principled 1950 defense of his former student Stephen Brunauer in the face of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations.” Libby points out the irony of the latter action. This book promises “a closer look” at the man Hargittai calls “an extraordinarily gifted physicist cutting a tragic figure.”