The best books on the lives of 20th century physicists

David N. Schwartz Author Of The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age
By David N. Schwartz

Who am I?

My dad was a Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist who co-discovered the muon neutrino, a particle whose existence was first explained by Fermi. I am not a physicist myself but grew up around physicists and have always been fascinated by them and was lucky to have met many of the great 20th century physicists myself – through my father. My family background enabled me to know these great scientists not only as scientists but as people.  


I wrote...

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age

By David N. Schwartz,

Book cover of The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age

What is my book about?

In 1942, a team at the University of Chicago achieved what no one had before: a nuclear chain reaction. At the forefront of this breakthrough stood Enrico Fermi. Straddling the ages of classical physics and quantum mechanics, equally at ease with theory and experiment, Fermi truly was the last man who knew everything – at least about physics. But he was also a complex figure who was a part of both the Italian Fascist Party and the Manhattan Project, and a less-than-ideal father and husband who nevertheless remained one of history's greatest mentors. Based on new archival material and exclusive interviews, The Last Man Who Knew Everything lays bare the enigmatic life of a colossus of twentieth-century physics.

The books I picked & why

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

By Graham Farmelo,

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

Why this book?

Dirac was one of the creators of modern quantum physics. His theoretical contributions are astonishing in their insights and their power. He was, as the title says, a very strange man: painfully shy, laconic in the extreme, and socially awkward. He spoke so rarely that his colleagues at Cambridge used to joke that “a dirac” was a unit of measurement equal to one word an hour. Farmelo is a fine writer and gives a lay reader a deep understanding of why Dirac is considered such a giant in the field.


Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

By James Gleick,

Book cover of Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Why this book?

James Gleick is one of the best popular science writers we have, and this classic biography of everyone’s favorite physicist was the first to peel back the curtain and give readers a deeper look into the man, his work, and his life. Behind the clowning and the joking was a deep sadness that Feynman carried with him throughout his life. But his contributions to physics, particularly quantum electrodynamics, put him in the legendary category. 


Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb

By William Lanouette, Bela Silard,

Book cover of Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb

Why this book?

Leo Szilard was one of the most interesting people of the 20th century. His first love was physics, and he is given credit for being the first to think about what would happen if someone could create a nuclear chain reaction. He worked closely with Fermi to make that chain reaction actually happen in Chicago in 1942, and was one of those who was able to see the great tragedy of the discovery, leading efforts in 1945 to try and prevent the use of the weapon against Japan. He was a colorful man, a bon vivant who loved to spend money on good clothes and fine food, and had the kind of mind that flitted from one idea to the next with the brilliance of a Monarch butterfly. His later years were devoted to the biological sciences. Lanouette/Silard have written the classic work on him. 


American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

By Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin,

Book cover of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Why this book?

A Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the scientist who led the effort to create the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was a complicated character, a fine physicist but an even better leader with the perfect temperament to lead a group of scientists with giant egos and even more giant intellects to create the world’s first atomic bombs. Bird and Sherwin tell that story extremely well, and also the subsequent tragic story of his fall from grace during the McCarthy era. 


Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein

By Abraham Pais,

Book cover of Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein

Why this book?

There are almost as many biographies of Einstein as there are of Lincoln! But Pais, who knew Einstein well, has produced the best, most reliable account of the great man’s life and work. If Einstein had died at the end of 1905 he would have been considered, without question, the greatest physicist of his time; but a decade later his work on general relativity placed him alongside Newton as one of the greatest of all time.     


5 book lists we think you will like!

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