The best popular biographies of mathematicians and scientists

Steven Gimbel Author Of Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion
By Steven Gimbel

Who am I?

As a professor, I see students fascinated by science, but petrified to take a science class. This is in part because we have dehumanized science, removed the story, edited out the human, deleted the parts that allow people to connect with it. Science does not get delivered by gods, but is created by people: smart, quirky, sometimes immoral people. As a writer, my hope is to be able to reinsert life into readers’ understanding of our greatest advances. As a reader myself, I am deeply appreciative when other authors do it too.


I wrote...

Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

By Steven Gimbel,

Book cover of Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

What is my book about?

The Nazis tried to denigrate Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science,” as opposed to the superior “Aryan science.” We rightly reject this as ideological nonsense, but it raises the interesting question of the cultural influences on Einstein’s thought. Plenty of other scientists were working around the ideas that Einstein published at the time he was thinking them. Why was it Einstein who put them down in print? When we learn science in school, it is taught as if laws of nature magically appeared in the brains of brilliant scientists fully formed. But scientists are people who lived at places at times and they way they thought was influenced by the world they lived in. We cannot separate science from history, politics, or religion. 

The books I picked & why

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Hilbert

By Constance Reid,

Book cover of Hilbert

Why this book?

David Hilbert was the most important mathematician at the dawn of the 20th century. In 1900, he gave the mathematical community its homework for the next 100 years setting out the list of open problems that had to be solved by 2000. While to the rest of the mathematicians, he may have appeared as their professor, he was also the class clown. As colorful and funny as he was brilliant, you cannot but come away loving this great mathematical genius.


Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

By Dava Sobel,

Book cover of Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Why this book?

We all know the cartoon version of the story of Galileo. He used one of the first telescopes to show that the earth was not the center of the universe and the Catholic Church condemned him for it. But the real story is much more intricate and much more interesting. Dava Sobel is a master storyteller who not only explains the science, but gives us a fully human Galileo living a very complicated life.


The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science

By Sheilla Jones,

Book cover of The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science

Why this book?

The early period of the development of quantum mechanics were heady days, full of fascinating characters and factional infighting. As Europe was about to tear itself apart again, the physics community had also fractured. Jones explains the scientific fault lines and the personal relations (some of them quite racy!) that were in play as the modern theory of the atom unfolded.


“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character

By Richard P. Feynman,

Book cover of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character

Why this book?

An autobiography that is sure to make you fall in love with one of the mid-20th century’s most important thinkers who not only explored physics, but music, consciousness, and anything else that stoked his intellectual passion. Glorifying in his irreverence, Feynman captivates readers as he tells funny, smart, and intriguing stories from academia to the Manhattan Project to Carnival parades.


Vera Rubin: A Life

By Jacqueline Mitton, Simon Mitton,

Book cover of Vera Rubin: A Life

Why this book?

The engagingly told story of a modern hero who not only illuminated some of the darkest secrets of the universe, but who had to do it while fighting sexism all along the way. This is not a romanticized picture of a great scientist, but an inspiring and enraging telling of a real person living a recognizable life whose genius contributed to humanity and her unwavering moral compass and determination did the same for the culture.


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