The best books about physicists

19 authors have picked their favorite books about physicists and why they recommend each book.

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“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character

By Richard P. Feynman,

Book cover of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character

Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman was renowned not only as a physicist but for his antics away from science (not all of them good). This memoir is a collection of stories throughout his life and proves his incredible skills as a raconteur. You might pick up a little science along the way – he was famous for making incredibly complex ideas easy to understand – but you’ll ache with laughter at some of his adventures. They include breaking into other peoples’ safes while making the atomic bomb, going around Las Vegas with ‘Mr. Big’ (probably Frank Sinatra), and absconding to Brazil to join a samba band.


Who am I?

I’m an award-winning science journalist at Falmouth University, UK, and have written for just about every major science magazine going. When I’m not teaching, I try and emulate Indiana Jones by going off on incredible adventures – so far, my hunt for stories in the name of science has taken me to 75 countries and every continent. Science writing doesn’t have to be dull: I adore the weird, quirky stories of science history, about humans being brilliant idiots and somehow making our world a better place.


I wrote...

Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Save the World

By Kit Chapman,

Book cover of Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Save the World

What is my book about?

Racing Green is the story of spin-off technologies from motorsport, and how they’ve changed our world in ways we can barely imagine. If we’re going to beat climate change, we need green technologies that are being trialled on professional race circuits around the world. 

From cars made of flax and tyres made of dandelions to electric- and hydrogen-powered racers, to 3D-printing and AI drivers, future technologies are pioneered in a world where the difference between victory and defeat can be a tenth of a second. During the COVID pandemic, race even played a part in protecting the sick and saving lives.  Motorsport has already changed our world. And now it’s going to play a role in saving it.

The Strangest Man

By Graham Farmelo,

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

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.


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 Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Dispossessed

Yes, another social thought experiment by Ursula K. Le Guin! This one examines what a "utopian" society that attempts to live according to the philosophy of anarchism might look like. But trying to organize an anarchistic society is, of course, a contradiction in itself. The plot follows the physicist Shevek as he tries to reunite the moon, Anarres, home of the anarchist rebels, with its mother planet, Urras. The novel challenges many different common assumptions, ranging from the political to the personal, in its portrayal of two deeply flawed societies, neither of which can be seen as "the good guys."


Who am I?

Since discovering Ursula K. Le Guin in high school, I have loved the kind of science fiction that is more about thought experiments than rocket ships and space exploration. When I went on to get a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, I often encountered skepticism regarding this predilection, but I continued studying and teaching speculative fiction anyway. Now I am no longer in academia, and I write science fiction and fantasy myself. Looking Through Lace is my attempt at the kind of thought experiment I've been such a fan of for so long.


I wrote...

Looking Through Lace

By Ruth Nestvold,

Book cover of Looking Through Lace

What is my book about?

As the only woman on the first contact team, xenolinguist Toni Donato expected her assignment on Christmas would be to analyze the secret women's language—but then the chief linguist begins to sabotage her work. What is behind it? Why do men and women have separate languages in the first place? What Toni learns turns everything she thought they knew on its head.

Originally published in Asimov's in 2003, "Looking Through Lace" was a finalist for the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. The Italian translation won the Premio Italia for best work of speculative fiction in translation in 2007.

The Clockwork Universe

By Edward Dolnick,

Book cover of The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Yes, yes, history is an unbroken river of themes, but it’s also a chain of pivotal dramatic episodes. Dolnick gives us one such moment. In 17th century Europe, within two generations, a collection of brilliant oddballs invented science. They’re people, so they’re doing the sorts of things people do, elbowing and shoving one another to find the ultimate truth before the other guy. I appreciate that in the course of reading such a wonderfully enjoyable story, I somehow learn a great deal about the truth they were seeking, the underlying mathematical order of the universe in which they believed.


Who am I?

Tamim Ansary is the son of an Afghan father and an American mother.  As a writer, growing up in Afghanistan and growing old in America has drawn him to issues that arise from cultural confusion in zones where civilizations overlap. His books include histories and memoirs, which he considers two sides of the same coin: a memoir is history seen up close, history is memoir seen from a distance.  Much of his work explores how perspective shapes perceptions of reality—a central theme of his best-known book, Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.


I wrote...

The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection

By Tamim Ansary,

Book cover of The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection

What is my book about?

The Invention of Yesterday is a birds’-eye view of world history from the perspective of the emerging global “we”. It follows our journey from the Stone Age to the Virtual Age, from the tens of thousands of tiny bands of relatives we were 50,000 years ago, to the single intertangled spaghetti of human lives that we are today, all of us shouting at once. What were the stages of this drama; what were its pivotal moments, what drove the story, how did one thing connect to another, where might this all be going, and now that we are so interconnected, how come we’re still fighting? 

On a Beam of Light

By Jennifer Berne, Vladimir Radunsky (illustrator),

Book cover of On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein

You can’t talk physics without talking Einstein! This beautiful book explores Einstein’s curiosity and drive to know more, which began when he was young. His journey from nonverbal child to brilliant scientist is fascinating and inspiring for all kinds of readers.


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by how the world works. What gives gravity so much power? Why is it easier to lift things with levers and pulleys? Why do we have electricity inside of our own bodies?! The world is amazing. My job editing nonfiction books for kids puts me on the front lines of some of the smartest science writing out there. While I had no hand in the making of the following five picture books about physics, they are still some of my favorites because of the way they peel back the mysterious layers of the world to show us the science hidden in our daily lives.


I wrote...

Forces: Physical Science for Kids

By Andi Diehn, Hui Li (illustrator),

Book cover of Forces: Physical Science for Kids

What is my book about?

What keeps us stuck on the ground? What makes magnets come together? What makes one team win during a game of tug of war? Forces!

In Forces: Physical Science for Kids, kids ages 5 to 8 are encouraged to observe and consider the different forces they encounter on a daily basis. Young readers develop a fundamental understanding of physical science and are impressed with the idea that science is a constant part of our lives and not limited to classrooms and laboratories. Simple vocabulary, detailed illustrations, easy science experiments, and a glossary all support exciting learning for kids ages 5 to 8. Perfect for beginner readers or as a read-aloud nonfiction picture book!

The Dark Frontier

By Eric Ambler,

Book cover of The Dark Frontier: A Spy Thriller

One rainy day in 1930s Paris, a copywriter decided to write a thriller and devised a tale about the nuclear bomb, Nazi scientists, and a mysterious Balkan country. This sounds like the start of a novel, but it is the real-life birth of master storyteller Eric Ambler’s first book. A curmudgeonly English physicist is invited to corroborate the nuclear formula, but then... the twist. He is concussed in a car accident and awakes convinced that he is now a super-spy, one Carruthers, who takes on the forces of evil with a Bond-like nonchalance. 

Is the book a parody of earlier spy novels? Perhaps Ambler is seduced by the cleverness of his own story. I don’t actually care. It remains a satisfyingly imaginative tale about the role of science in war, all written in a witty, gritty style that sets the tone for many enjoyable books and films to come.


Who am I?

I inherited a love of ‘noir’ from my father. I’m not ashamed to say that Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon are my favourite movies. I’m Scottish born, and read John Buchan as a child. I am drawn to stories that combine fast adventure with dark threats. Some years ago, we visited Tromsø and I was inspired to quit journalism and write a book filled with all my favourite ingredients. Half Life is a pre-war ‘noir’ thriller based on authentic scientific detail, researched and supplied by my husband Rob, a chemistry professor with a passion for planes. I now know more about thorium, nuclear reactors, and seaplanes than I ever thought possible.


I wrote...

Half Life

By Robert J. Deeth, Pamela Kelt,

Book cover of Half Life

What is my book about?

It is autumn in 1936. Clouds of war are gathering in Europe, while in Scandinavia the Fascists are covertly assessing possible nuclear resources. High-flying Cambridge nuclear scientist Dr. Dulcie Bennett travels to northern Norway to join an elite group of researchers eager to unlock the secrets of the atom. She makes a startling breakthrough but a suspicious lab explosion derails her plans. As she investigates, she encounters troubled Canadian journalist John Kirkwall on a personal quest, and they are drawn to each other despite initial misunderstandings.

As winter grips, they become embroiled in a shady world of political skulduggery and sexual intrigue, populated by spies, saboteurs, neurotic academics, and secret police in a tense race that could tilt the balance of power in Hitler’s favour.

Genius

By James Gleick,

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

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. 


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.

Subtle Is the Lord

By Abraham Pais,

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

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.     


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.

Never at Rest

By Richard S. Westfall,

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

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.   


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.  

Michael Faraday and The Royal Institution

By John M. Thomas,

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

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. 


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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