Good popular physics books

I’ve recently read three excellent popular physics books that I strongly recommend.

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (available in Kindle)
Lawrence Krauss (author of The Physics of Star Trek)

None other than Freeman Dyson wrote a laudatory review of this book in the New York Review of Books, in which he emphasized what a wonderful job Krauss has done in describing and explaining Feynman’s physics, in a way that’s probably accessible to any intelligent layman, and certainly to any physicist. I’ve read and enjoyed lots of popular science books, especially those written by scientists, and I’ve read a number of scientific biographies. This is the first time I’ve seen the science and the scientific thinking explained so well in a popular science book. Krauss’ book does not spend a lot of time on Feynman’s personal life, which has been widely written about. He focuses on the physics. I learned a lot. I had not fully realized how broad Feynman’s contributions were.

The Quantum Story: A history in 40 moments (available in Kindle)
Jim Baggott

Many histories of quantum mechanics deal solely with the period 1905-1935, approximately. This one continues to the present day. Almost all of it is accessible to the intelligent reader, except for a chapter where he gets carried away with SU(3) etc. Although much of the story was familiar, I nevertheless learned quite a lot. There’s an almost eerie episode involving Bohr and Rutherford, about which I’d not heard. Bohr had his great idea for explaining the hydrogen atom, based on Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus. Before publishing, Bohr went to talk with Rutherford about his ideas (Bohr had previously spent some time in Rutherford’s lab). As I understand it, Rutherford liked to portray himself as just a New Zealand country bumpkin, but wow…. Rutherford said, “If the atom is in a multiply excited state, and it can decay to one of several lower-energy states, what about causality? How does it choose?” I was just blown away to read this earliest (and quick) realization that the atomic world is probabilistic.

The Dance of the Photons
Anton Zeilinger

Zeilinger heads a powerful experimental quantum mechanics group in Vienna that has made stunning advances in our understanding of the nature of reality in the context of quantum mechanics. In this book he makes the ideas come alive. The book includes detailed discussions of Bell’s inequality and much else. It seems highly likely that Zeilinger will get the Nobel Prize for the work he and his group have done. A charming feature of the book is that Zeilinger is very generous in giving credit to many others working in this fascinating field. (Incidentally, there is some movement in the physics community to bring contemporary quantum mechanics into the physics major’s curriculum, which in the past has been dominated by stuff from the 1920s.)

Bruce Sherwood

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