The best books on physics and physicists

Who am I?

Formerly a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Marcus Chown is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster. His popular books include 'The Ascent of Gravity' – The Sunday Times Science Book of the Year; Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand; Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You; and Solar System for iPad, winner of The Bookseller Digital Innovation of the Year.

I wrote...

The Ascent of Gravity

By Marcus Chown,

Book cover of The Ascent of Gravity

What is my book about?

Gravity is the weakest force in the everyday world yet it is the strongest force in the universe. It was the first force to be recognized and described yet it is the least understood. It is a "force" that keeps your feet on the ground yet no such force actually exists. Gravity, to steal the words of Winston Churchill, is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." And penetrating that enigma promises to answer the biggest questions in science: what is space? What is time? What is the universe? And where did it all come from?

Award-winning writer Marcus Chown takes us on an unforgettable journey from the recognition of the "force" of gravity in 1666 to the discovery of gravitational waves in 2015. And, as we stand on the brink of a seismic revolution in our worldview, he brings us up to speed on the greatest challenge ever to confront physics.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

Marcus Chown Why did I love this book?

Richard Feynman, who I was lucky enough to be taught by at Caltech, was the most important American physicist of the post-war era. His greatest achievement – for which he shared the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics – was “quantum electrodynamics”, the theory of how light interacts with matter. After winning the prize, a friend challenged him to explain QED to ordinary people. At first, Feynman thought it impossible. But then he found a way.

Feynman’s genius was to come with pictures, little “arrows” that depict how particles of light – photons – interact with particles of matter – principally electrons. In QED you will discover delightful explanations of things you thought you understood such as the reflection of light by a mirror. Perhaps you did not realise that photons striking a mirror bounce off in every possible direction but that in only one direction do they reinforce each other, all their little arrows adding up.

QED is one of the high points of the 20th-century – the most successful theory of physics ever devised, which predicts what we observe to an obscene number of decimal places. It is remarkable that Feynman found a way to explain it in such a slight and unthreatening popular book.

By Richard P. Feynman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Celebrated for his brilliantly quirky insights into the physical world, Nobel laureate Richard Feynman also possessed an extraordinary talent for explaining difficult concepts to the general public. Here Feynman provides a classic and definitive introduction to QED (namely, quantum electrodynamics), that part of quantum field theory describing the interactions of light with charged particles. Using everyday language, spatial concepts, visualizations, and his renowned "Feynman diagrams" instead of advanced mathematics, Feynman clearly and humorously communicates both the substance and spirit of QED to the layperson. A. Zee's introduction places Feynman's book and his seminal contribution to QED in historical context and…

Book cover of The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom

Marcus Chown Why did I love this book?

Paul Dirac was the only Englishman among the founders of “quantum theory”, the revolutionary description of the submicroscopic realm of atoms and their constituents created in the mid-1920s. He concocted an equation to describe an electron traveling close to the speed of light, which predicted an unsuspected world of “antimatter”, and which is inscribed on a flagstone in Westminster Abbey (the only other equation in the Abbey is Stephen Hawking’s expression for the temperature of a black hole). But Dirac was a very strange man. When asked how he found the “Dirac equation”, he replied: “I found it beautiful”. And, when a student in one of his lectures at Cambridge put their hand up and said “Professor Dirac, I don’t understand”, Dirac replied “That’s an observation not a question” and continued with the lecture. All this and more is recounted in Graham Farmelo’s charming and authoritative biography of the man who was the Mr. Spock of Physics.

By Graham Farmelo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Strangest Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Paul Dirac was among the greatest scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of Einstein's most admired colleagues, he helped discover quantum mechanics, and his prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. In 1933 he became the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Dirac's personality, like his achievements, is legendary. The Strangest Man uses previously undiscovered archives to reveal the many facets of Dirac's brilliantly original mind.

Book cover of The Little Book of Cosmology

Marcus Chown Why did I love this book?

The most striking thing about the night sky is that it is mostly black. But if your eyes, instead of seeing visible light, could see a type of invisible light known as microwaves, it would be white. The entire Universe is glowing with the “afterglow” of the big bang fireball. Greatly cooled by the expansion of the universe in the past 13.82 billion years, the “cosmic background radiation” now consists of low-energy radio waves, principally microwaves.

Imprinted on this radiation is a “baby photo” of the universe when it was a mere 400,000 years old and matter was beginning the long process of clumping under gravity that would culminate in galaxies such as our own Milky Way. From that photo can be extracted the numbers that define our Universe, from its age of 13.82 billion years to the fact that 70 percent of cosmic mass-energy is in the form of mysterious “dark energy”.

Lyman Page is a professor of astronomy at the Princeton University in New Jersey and his area of research has for decades been the heat afterglow of the big bang. My first thought, on picking up his book, was: “This will be just another academic jumping on the popular science bandwagon and short-changing the public with a pretty ordinary book.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This ranks alongside Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes as the best book on cosmology I have ever read. A compact treasure-trove of cosmic insights to be read, mulled over, and read again.

By Lyman Page,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The cutting-edge science that is taking the measure of the universe

The Little Book of Cosmology provides a breathtaking look at our universe on the grandest scales imaginable. Written by one of the world's leading experimental cosmologists, this short but deeply insightful book describes what scientists are revealing through precise measurements of the faint thermal afterglow of the Big Bang-known as the cosmic microwave background, or CMB-and how their findings are transforming our view of the cosmos.

Blending the latest findings in cosmology with essential concepts from physics, Lyman Page first helps readers to grasp the sheer enormity of the…

Book cover of Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality

Marcus Chown Why did I love this book?

The two towering figures of 20th-century physics were the German physicist Albert Einstein and the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Both revolutionized our view of ultimate reality, with Einstein changing our picture of space, time and gravity, and Bohr changing our view of the submicroscopic world of atoms and their constituents. It is on this latter subject – “quantum theory” – that the two great friends clashed most fiercely. And it is the twists and turns of their titanic debate that Manjit Kumar recounts in such engaging detail in this page-turning account.

The Einstein-Bohr debate could not have been more important: it was about the nature of ultimate reality itself. Quantum theory contended that we can never know with certainty the outcome of atomic events, only the “probability” that they might happen, and that, furthermore, there is no objective reality “out there”, as Einstein believed, but that atoms and their like gain their properties only in their interaction with our observing instruments. Einstein lost the debate but his relentless assault on quantum theory proved invaluable, spurring its founders, including Bohr, to shore up and sharpen their ideas.

By Manjit Kumar,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'This is about gob-smacking science at the far end of reason ... Take it nice and easy and savour the experience of your mind being blown without recourse to hallucinogens' Nicholas Lezard, Guardian
For most people, quantum theory is a byword for mysterious, impenetrable science. And yet for many years it was equally baffling for scientists themselves.

In this magisterial book, Manjit Kumar gives a dramatic and superbly-written history of this fundamental scientific revolution, and the divisive debate at its core. Quantum theory looks at the very building blocks of our world, the particles and processes without which it could…

Book cover of Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution

Marcus Chown Why did I love this book?

Helgoland refers to the barren, windswept island off the North Sea coast of Germany, where the 23-year-old Werner Heisenberg, physicist, and chronic hay-fever sufferer, retreated in June 1925 to try and make sense of the Alice in Wonderland world which atomic experiments had revealed beneath the skin of reality. The mind-bending submicroscopic realm was a place where a single item could be in two places at once; where events happened for no reason at all; and where atoms could influence each other instantaneously even if on opposite sides of the Universe.

Heisenberg’s lightbulb moment on Helgoland is only a minor part of this book. However, Rovelli is a very interesting man, who came into physics by an unusual route: political activism. It was only after he and his friends failed to instigate the revolution that would change the world to a more compassionate place that he discovered the magic of physics – and later became a best-selling author. Rovelli is a master at interweaving science and history and politics with engaging personal anecdotes. He has a unique ability to communicate the wonder of the universe to those who know nothing about it while providing new insights for those who know a lot. All this he does emphatically in Helgoland.

By Carlo Rovelli, Erica Segre, Simon Carnell

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Named a Best Book of 2021 by the Financial Times and a Best Science Book of 2021 by The Guardian

“Rovelli is a genius and an amazing communicator… This is the place where science comes to life.” ―Neil Gaiman

“One of the warmest, most elegant and most lucid interpreters to the laity of the dazzling enigmas of his discipline...[a] momentous book” ―John Banville, The Wall Street Journal

A startling new look at quantum theory, from the New York Times bestselling author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, The Order of Time, and  Anaximander.

One of the world's most renowned theoretical…

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Book cover of A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

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Who am I?

As a thirty-year meditator, certified meditation leader, and award-winning author, it’s my job to keep up on the latest books about mindfulness and Zen practice. Despite seeing new volumes being published regularly, I return to these books as great sources of solid practice information. Each of these authors explains meditation in accessible terms, easy for readers to follow and understand. I can’t remember who said that a confused reader is an antagonistic reader, but they are right. The books I’ve suggested offer clarity. They help readers begin or continue their practice and understand how and why meditation is worth their time.

Nita's book list on why meditation is worth your time and effort

What is my book about?

Reduce stress, ease anxiety, and increase inner peace—one day at a time—with a year of easy-to-follow mindfulness meditation techniques. Certified mindfulness teacher, bestselling author, ultramarathoner, wife, and dog-mom Nita Sweeney shares mindfulness meditation practices to help anyone break free from worry and self-judgment.

Mindfulness meditation trains you to live in the present moment—the now. Feel calmer. Think more clearly. Respond more effectively and enjoy a more fulfilling life. Even in tiny doses, mindfulness is scientifically proven to enhance physical and mental health, boost creativity, and improve cognition function.

A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

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Interested in quantum physics, physics, and physicists?

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