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.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

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 Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Why did I love 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. 

By James Gleick,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

To his colleagues, Richard Feynman was not so much a genius as he was a full-blown magician: someone who “does things that nobody else could do and that seem completely unexpected.” The path he cleared for twentieth-century physics led from the making of the atomic bomb to a Nobel Prize-winning theory of quantam electrodynamics to his devastating exposé of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. At the same time, the ebullient Feynman established a reputation as an eccentric showman, a master safe cracker and bongo player, and a wizard of seduction.

Now James Gleick, author of the bestselling Chaos, unravels teh…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By William Lanouette, Bela Silard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Genius in the Shadows as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Leo Szilard has long been overshadowed by such luminaries as Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi—with whom he codesigned the first nuclear reactor in 1942. A shy, witty eccentric, the Hungarian born Szilard lived both sides of the arms race, working first to prevent, then to hasten, and finally to outlaw nuclear weapons.

"Lanouette's book is eminently readable. . . . An excellent book spiced with telling anecdotes about a strange man who influenced world history."—Max F. Perutz, New York Review of Books

"Lanouette's exhaustively researched and artfully written account of one of the most underrated figures of the atomic age…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Physicist and polymath, 'father of the atom bomb' J. Robert Oppenheimer was the most famous scientist of his generation. Already a notable young physicist before WWII, during the race to split the atom, 'Oppie' galvanized an extraordinary team of international scientists while keeping the FBI at bay. As the man who more than any other inaugurated the atomic age, he became one of the iconic figures of the last century, the embodiment of his own observation that 'physicists have known sin'.

Years later, haunted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became a staunch opponent of plans to develop the hydrogen bomb.…

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

Why did I love 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.     

By Abraham Pais,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Subtle Is the Lord as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Subtle is the Lord is widely recognized as the definitive scientific biography of Albert Einstein. The late Abraham Pais was a distinguished physicist turned historian who knew Einstein both professionally and personally in the last years of his life. His biography combines a profound understanding of Einstein's work with personal recollections from their years of acquaintance, illuminating the man through the development of his scientific thought.

Pais examines the formulation of Einstein's theories of relativity, his work on Brownian motion, and his response to quantum theory with authority and precision. The profound transformation Einstein's ideas effected on the physics of…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in physicists, physics, and the Manhattan Project?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about physicists, physics, and the Manhattan Project.

Physicists Explore 35 books about physicists
Physics Explore 109 books about physics
The Manhattan Project Explore 15 books about the Manhattan Project

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like QED, The Little Book of Cosmology, and Helgoland if you like this list.