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The year in reviews: Books and more that stood out in 2022

14 December 2022

Dive into reads about “quantum steampunk,” the military’s role in oceanography, and a social history of “square” physicists.

Got any physics enthusiasts in the family? Here are five books reviewed in Physics Today this year that would make great gifts for them.

The Squares.
Credit: MIT Press

The Squares: US Physical and Engineering Scientists in the Long 1970s by Cyrus C. M. Mody (MIT Press, 2022, open access, $65.00 paper). Although historians tend to be attracted to revolutionaries or iconoclasts, most individuals don’t fall into those categories. In The Squares, historian Cyrus Mody examines what it was like to be an ordinary, or “square,” physicist during the 1970s. Although that decade is typically seen as being more culturally conservative than the flower-power ’60s, Mody demonstrates that it was an era in which even many physicists who self-identified as apolitical began working on societally engaged research topics such as solar power. Reviewer Michael Gordin wryly remarks that the squares are “fortunate that a person of Mody’s talents has taken them up.”

Quantum Steampunk.
Credit: Johns Hopkins U. Press

Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow by Nicole Yunger Halpern (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2022, $29.95). Quantum thermodynamics involves applying 19th-century physics to 21st-century quantum information science. So to introduce her field to a broad audience, physicist Nicole Yunger Halpern terms it “quantum steampunk.” Bringing particle physics to life, she uses a series of fictional 19th-century-style vignettes featuring Audrey and Baxter, fin de siècle equivalents of famed quantum physics mainstays Alice and Bob. Reviewer Gian Paolo Beretta calls the book an “excellent introduction to a burgeoning field.”

Science on a Mission.
Credit: U. Chicago Press

Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean by Naomi Oreskes (U. Chicago Press, 2021, $40.00). In her new book, eminent historian Naomi Oreskes illustrates how physicists have helped further our understanding of Earth’s oceans. But that’s only half the story. Oreskes also shows that military funding was crucial to that research during the Cold War, and she provocatively argues that it guided the course of oceanography in those years. Reviewer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes that the book is a “strong case for thinking in terms of not just money but power.”

Unearthing Fermi's geophysics.
Credit: U. Chicago Press

Unearthing Fermi’s Geophysics by Gino Segrè and John Stack (U. Chicago Press, 2022, $35.00). Did you know that the famed theoretical and experimental physicist Enrico Fermi was interested in and taught several classes on what reviewer Helge Kragh terms the “less glamorous” field of geophysics? In their book, Gino Segrè and John Stack use lecture notes from a geophysics class that Fermi taught at Columbia University to reconstruct a hypothetical textbook for the field that Fermi might have authored had he chosen to do so. Although the actual notes, which are available online, are considerably different from Segrè and Stack’s book, the authors’ experiment is an interesting one. Kragh calls the book a “welcome contribution to the literature on Fermi and 20th-century geophysics.” You can also read a 2021 preview of the book, written by Segrè, that focuses on Fermi’s pedagogical approach.

Carbon Queen.
Credit: MIT Press

Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus by Maia Weinstock (MIT Press, 2022, $24.95). When materials scientist Mildred Dresselhaus died, in 2017, tributes poured in from across the community that attested to her groundbreaking research, trailblazing role as a woman in the physical sciences, and unflagging support of students from nontraditional backgrounds. In a new biography of Dresselhaus, science writer Maia Weinstock documents how Dresselhaus overcame a hardscrabble background in the Bronx in the 1930s and 1940s and rampant sexism from, for example, the Cornell faculty to rise to the top of her field. Dresselhaus’s work on carbon fullerenes, among many other materials, led to her receiving the titular nickname “carbon queen.” Reviewer Mary Jo Nye calls the book “engaging and inspirational.”

New Books & Media picks

Good Night Oppy.
Credit: Prime Video

Physics Today’s monthly New Books & Media column highlights a range of titles—books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and more—that pique our editors’ interest. Here are five notable selections from 2022.

  1. The second season of the BBC Sounds podcast The Bomb delved into the story of infamous nuclear spy Klaus Fuchs.
  2. In What If? 2, Randall Munroe, the popular xkcd cartoonist, provides another volume of witty, illustrated answers to scientific questions posed by his readers.
  3. For those looking to improve their scientific prose, the second edition of Stephen B. Heard’s Scientist’s Guide to Writing will be an indispensable resource.
  4. The Prime Video documentary Good Night Oppy provides an inspirational, albeit slightly saccharine, look at the team of scientists that directed the Mars rover Opportunity during its impressive 14-year life span.
  5. A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman, an autobiography by Lindy Elkins-Tanton, details what it’s like to be a female scientist in NASA’s notoriously male-dominated culture.
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