The best biographies of physicists

Andrew Zangwill Author Of A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many
By Andrew Zangwill

Who am I?

I am a physics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Ten years ago, I switched my research focus from solid-state physics to the history of that subject. This was fertile ground because professional historians of science had almost completely ignored solid-state physics. I began my new career by writing two journal articles about the physicist Walter Kohn and his discovery of what became the most accurate method known to calculate the properties of solids. This experience led me to broaden my perspective and ultimately produce a biography of the theoretical physicist Philip Anderson. My next book will be a historical-sociological study of self-identity and disciplinary boundaries within the community of physicists.  

I wrote...

A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many

By Andrew Zangwill,

Book cover of A Mind Over Matter: Philip Anderson and the Physics of the Very Many

What is my book about?

Philip Anderson was arguably the most accomplished and influential physicist of the second half of the twentieth century. His name is not well known to non-scientists because he studied the physics of solids rather than the physics of quarks or quasars. My biography of this Nobel Prize-winner describes his theoretical work using words and diagrams, but only one equation. It also discusses the two things most responsible for his stature and lasting influence: his paramount role in creating the discipline of condensed matter physics and his lifelong battle with scientific reductionists about what constitutes "fundamentality” in science. A Mind Over Matter will appeal to anyone who has taken a few college physics courses and wonders if there is more to physics than string theory and dark matter.  

The books I picked & why

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Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton

By Richard S. Westfall,

Book cover of Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton

Why this book?

Don’t let the length (over 900 pages) of this biography put you off. Instead, immerse yourself in the slow and powerful current of author Richard Westfall’s superbly written and richly detailed portrait of the skills, achievements, and obsessions of the singular genius that was Isaac Newton. Westfall explains in a masterful way Newton’s mathematics, his physics, his heretical theology, his fixation with alchemy, his activities running the Royal Mint, and his disputes with other scientists. These features, and Westfall’s evocative description of the intellectual and social milieu of Newton’s 17th-century world, make Never at Rest a compelling read.   

Michael Faraday and The Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place

By John M. Thomas,

Book cover of Michael Faraday and The Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place

Why this book?

For my money, Michael Faraday was the greatest experimental scientist of the nineteenth century. His notebooks detailing his achievements in electrochemistry and electromagnetism should be read by every budding experimentalist as models to emulate. The late Sir John Thomas, a distinguished solid-state chemist, wrote this short biography (only 234 pages) of Faraday during his tenure as the Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.  Thomas’ scientific expertise, his insider status, and his graceful writing style led him to produce a real gem. Enjoy yourself as Thomas recounts Faraday’s ascent at the Royal Institution from laboratory assistant to full professor, his scientific work, his private life, and his unmatched skill as a popularizer of science. 

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

By Ruth Lewin Sime,

Book cover of Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Why this book?

Skip the documentaries. Lise Meitner’s dramatic story is much better told in this meticulously researched and well-written biography. Meitner became the second woman in the world to earn a PhD in physics and then left her native Vienna for Berlin where she began a thirty-year collaboration with chemist Otto Hahn working on radioactive substances. They discovered nuclear fission in 1938, just when Meitner’s Jewishness forced her to flee Nazi Germany for Sweden. Unjustly, Hahn never acknowledged her equal contribution to the discovery when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945. This sensitive biography helps right a historical wrong. 

Schrodinger: Life and Thought

By Walter J. Moore,

Book cover of Schrodinger: Life and Thought

Why this book?

This biography brings fully to life the multi-faceted Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Although best known as the co-inventor of quantum mechanics, he later wrote a book called What is Life which inspired many physicists to apply their talents to biology. Moore gives a full account of Schrödinger’s upbringing, his education, his science, and his extensive philosophical writings. You can judge for yourself if Moore is persuasive when he argues that the erotic intensity of several of Schrödinger’s extramarital affairs helped fuel and found expression in some of his specific scientific achievements. 

Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center

By Ray Monk,

Book cover of Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center

Why this book?

The brilliant and enigmatic Robert Oppenheimer was the man who led the effort to create the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II.  I value this biography because author Ray Monk does full justice to his subject’s science—the science that put Oppenheimer’s  Berkeley research group at the center of American theoretical physics in the 1930s. Best of all, Monk’s elegant writing makes even familiar episodes come alive. I felt I was watching a car crash in slow motion as I read how Oppenheimer’s complex personality and political naivete led him to underestimate his political enemies and wind up stripped of his security clearance and his influence as a government advisor.  

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