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.  

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.   

By Richard S. Westfall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Never at Rest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This richly detailed 1981 biography captures both the personal life and the scientific career of Isaac Newton, presenting a fully rounded picture of Newton the man, the scientist, the philosopher, the theologian, and the public figure. Professor Westfall treats all aspects of Newton's career, but his account centres on a full description of Newton's achievements in science. Thus the core of the work describes the development of the calculus, the experimentation that altered the direction of the science of optics, and especially the investigations in celestial dynamics that led to the law of universal gravitation.

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

Why did I love 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. 

By John M. Thomas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Michael Faraday and The Royal Institution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A self-educated man who knew no mathematics, Michael Faraday rose from errand boy to become one of Britain's greatest scientists. Faraday made the discoveries upon which most of twentieth-century technology is based and readers of this book will enjoy finding out in how many ways we are indebted to him. The story of his life speaks to us across the years and is a fascinating read, especially when the tale is told with the understanding and gusto that Professor Thomas-one of the UK's leading scientists-brings to the telling.

Faraday took great trouble to make the latest discoveries of science, his…

Book cover of Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Why did I love 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. 

By Ruth Lewin Sime,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lise Meitner as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was a pioneer of nuclear physics and co-discoverer, with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, of nuclear fission. Braving the sexism of the scientific world, she joined the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry and became a prominent member of the international physics community. Of Jewish origin, Meitner fled Nazi Germany for Stockholm in 1938 and later moved to Cambridge, England. Her career was shattered when she fled Germany, and her scientific reputation was damaged when Hahn took full credit - and the 1944 Nobel Prize - for the work they had done together on nuclear fission. Ruth…

Book cover of Schrodinger: Life and Thought

Why did I love 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. 

By Walter J. Moore,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Erwin Schroedinger was a brilliant and charming Austrian, a great scientist, and a man with a passionate interest in people and ideas. In this, the first comprehensive biography of Schroedinger, Walter Moore draws upon recollections of Schroedinger's friends, family and colleagues, and on contemporary records, letters and diaries. Schroedinger's life is portrayed against the backdrop of Europe at a time of change and unrest. His best-known scientific work was the discovery of wave mechanics, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1933. However, Erwin was also an enthusiastic explorer of the ideas of Hindu mysticism, and in the…

Book cover of Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center

Why did I love 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.  

By Ray Monk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Robert Oppenheimer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An unforgettable story of discovery and unimaginable destruction and a major biography of one of America’s most brilliant—and most divisive—scientists, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center vividly illuminates the man who would go down in history as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Oppenheimer’s talent and drive secured him a place in the pantheon of great physicists and carried him to the laboratories where the secrets of the universe revealed themselves. But they also led him to contribute to the development of the deadliest weapon on earth, a discovery he soon came to fear. His attempts to resist the…

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