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The year in reviews: Books and more that stood out in 2020

11 December 2020

Notable books this year detail Einstein’s brief stay in Prague, the history of water science, an underappreciated astronomer, and the legacies of quantum theory.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have spent far more time at home than usual in 2020—and we will likely continue doing so through the winter. What better way to spend the last several months (we hope) of a once-in-a-century global pandemic than to sit down comfortably with some good reads about physics and its history?

Here are five books reviewed this year in Physics Today that would make excellent holiday gifts for family, friends, or yourself. They were chosen by three members of Physics Today’s book review team this year: our current and former books editors, Ryan Dahn and Melinda Baldwin, respectively, and associate editor Christine Middleton.

Einstein in Bohemia.
Credit: Princeton U. Press

Einstein in Bohemia by Michael D. Gordin (Princeton U. Press, 2020, $29.95). Given that producing books devoted to Albert Einstein has become a cottage industry, one might be forgiven for wondering if there were anything more to be said about the legendary physicist. Yet historian of science Michael Gordin manages to present a new story from the Einstein canon: a deep dive into his brief time as a professor in Prague, from 1911 to 1912. During that period, which has been largely overlooked by biographers, Einstein made crucial breakthroughs on the theory of general relativity and reconnected with his Jewish identity. His sojourn also marked the beginning of the end of his marriage to his first wife, Mileva Marić (an interesting character in her own right). As Don Howard noted in his review, Gordin does “much more than narrate Einstein’s story”; he also provides a broad cultural, political, and scientific history of Prague in Franz Kafka’s day.

Waters of the World.
Credit: U. Chicago Press

Waters of the World: The Story of the Scientists Who Unraveled the Mysteries of Our Oceans, Atmosphere, and Ice Sheets and Made the Planet Whole by Sarah Dry (U. Chicago Press, 2019, $30.00). With the effects of climate change ever more apparent, historian Sarah Dry focuses her attention on pioneers in the study of Earth’s water system, a key component of the planet’s climate. Her book singles out six figures—John Tyndall, Charles Piazzi Smyth, Gilbert Walker, Joanne Gerould, Henry Stommel, and Willi Dansgaard—who studied oceans, atmospheric water vapor, and ice caps. As K. Halimeda Kilbourne wrote in her review, “[a]lthough the author’s name is Dry, the text is anything but.”

What Stars Are Made Of.
Credit: Harvard U. Press

What Stars Are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin by Donovan Moore (Harvard U. Press, 2020, $29.95). Many people—even astronomers—are unfamiliar with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who in the 1920s observed the variation in stellar spectral absorption lines and proved that stars and matter in the universe are made up largely of hydrogen. Astronomer Henry Norris Russell, who initially dissuaded her from believing her own results, received credit for that discovery for much of the 20th century. In what reviewer David Weintraub called a “must-read” biography, Moore corrects the record and revives Payne-Gaposchkin’s reputation.

A Survival Guide for Research Scientists.
Credit: Springer

A Survival Guide for Research Scientists by Ratna Tantra (Springer, 2019, $109.99). This book is a how-to guide for researchers young and old on all aspects of life in science. The survival guide is not just a manual for how to write research proposals and conduct experiments; it also talks frankly about dealing with stress, financial troubles, poor job prospects, and other personal issues. Coming at a moment when mental health struggles and problems with healthy work–life balance among scientists—particularly graduate students and young researchers—are belatedly being reckoned with, the book is extremely timely. Reviewer Pedro C. Marijuán wrote that he wishes he “had read it decades ago.”

Quantum Legacies.
Credit: U. Chicago Press

Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World by David Kaiser (U. Chicago Press, 2020, $26.00). This unique work is part popular science, part history, and part memoir—as befits Kaiser, who is both a practicing physicist and an active historian of science. The unifying theme of the book is, as the title suggests, quantum mechanics and the long shadow it has cast on the development of physics as a field, the philosophy of science, and Kaiser’s own career. Eclectic and thoughtful, it is a book that José G. Perillán termed a “work of coherence, accessibility, and rhetorical power.”

New Books & Media picks

Every month Physics Today’s New Books & Media column highlights a range of titles—books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and more—that pique our editors’ interest. Here are eight notable selections from 2020.

  1. Eugenia Cheng’s x + y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender (Basic Books, 2020, $28.00) is a thought-provoking new look at the challenges women face in male-dominated fields such as physics. For more on this timely work, see Physics Today editor Johanna Miller’s recent column.
  2. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe is less well known than early modern contemporaries Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus. John Robert Christianson’s new biography, Tycho Brahe and the Measure of the Heavens (Reaktion Books, 2020, $22.50), presents a comprehensive look at this important figure, who made some of the most precise astronomical measurements of his day.
  3. The third season of Drilled: A True Crime Podcast about Climate Change (Drilled News, 2020), hosted by Amy Westervelt, titled “The Mad Men of Climate Denial,” delves into the many ways fossil fuel companies have sought to influence public debate on the issue and sow doubt about its veracity.
  4. Three recent works explore the remarkable life of physicist, engineer, and inventor Nikola Tesla. Amy M. O’Quinn’s Nikola Tesla for Kids: His Life, Ideas, and Inventions, with 21 Activities (Chicago Review Press, 2019, $16.99) is an accessible look at Tesla’s unorthodox ideas. It is aimed at readers 9–12 years of age and includes 21 projects. Adults can watch Tesla (Michael Almereyda, IFC Films, 2020), an offbeat biopic starring Ethan Hawke as the titular character. Those interested in the history behind the myth should check out Iwan Rhys Morus’s recent biography of the inventor, Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future (Icon Books, 2019, $22.95).
  5. We could all use a bit of laughter in 2020. Physicists and science lovers who want to put a smile on their face could do worse than pick up a copy of Damn Particles: Physics Cartoons (Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019, $14.95) by Sidney Harris, which illustrates physics principles and episodes in the history of physics with deft humor.

Homepage thumbnail collage credits, clockwise from top left: U. Chicago Press, Kindle Direct Publishing, Springer, U. Chicago Press, Princeton U. Press, Basic Books, Harvard U. Press, Reaktion Books, IFC Films.

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