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. 

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The books I picked & why


By Constance Bowman Reid,

Book cover of Hilbert

Why did I love 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.

By Constance Bowman Reid,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Hilbert as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"It presents a sensitive portrait of a great human being. It describes accurately and intelligibly on a nontechnical level the world of mathematical ideas in which Hilbert created his masterpieces. And it illuminates the background of German social history against which the drama of Hilberts life was played. Beyond this, it is a poem in praise of mathematics." -SCIENCE

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

Why did I love 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.

By Dava Sobel,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Galileo's Daughter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether." It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo's daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."


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

Why did I love 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.

By Sheilla Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Quantum Ten as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Theoretical physics is in trouble. At least that's the impression you'd get from reading a spate of recent books on the continued failure to resolve the 80-year-old problem of unifying the classical and quantum worlds. The seeds of this problem were sewn eighty years ago when a dramatic revolution in physics reached a climax at the 1927 Solvay conference in Brussels. It's the story of a rush to formalize quantum physics, the work of just a handful of men fired by ambition, philosophical conflicts and personal agendas. Sheilla Jones paints an intimate portrait of the key figures who wrestled with…

Book cover of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

Why did I love 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.

By Richard P. Feynman,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Richard P. Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, thrived on outrageous adventures. In this lively work that "can shatter the stereotype of the stuffy scientist" (Detroit Free Press), Feynman recounts his experiences trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and cracking the uncrackable safes guarding the most deeply held nuclear secrets-and much more of an eyebrow-raising nature. In his stories, Feynman's life shines through in all its eccentric glory-a combustible mixture of high intelligence, unlimited curiosity, and raging chutzpah.

Included for this edition is a new introduction by Bill Gates.

Vera Rubin: A Life

By Jacqueline Mitton, Simon Mitton,

Book cover of Vera Rubin: A Life

Why did I love 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.

By Jacqueline Mitton, Simon Mitton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Vera Rubin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Physics Today Best Book of the Year

The first biography of a pioneering scientist who made significant contributions to our understanding of dark matter and championed the advancement of women in science.

One of the great lingering mysteries of the universe is dark matter. Scientists are not sure what it is, but most believe it's out there, and in abundance. The astronomer who finally convinced many of them was Vera Rubin. When Rubin died in 2016, she was regarded as one of the most influential astronomers of her era. Her research on the rotation of spiral galaxies was groundbreaking,…

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