It’s Grace here to talk about one of my favorite guilty pleasures: books about physics. Once I got through my first one (which admittedly was a bit of a struggle), I started reading more and more about science. I’m still definitely more of a fiction gal than a nonfiction gal, but I dig books that challenge my conception of the world.
I’m currently in a class, Scientist as National Hero, that’s a history course on the construction of heroism within various cultures — specifically in regards to scientists. It’s taught by one of my favorite professors I’ve had yet at W&L, Professor Nicholaas Rupke. I pitched a project in which I examined how the shift from academic to commercial publishing changed the reception of scientific discoveries, and so I’ve gotten a stellar (ha) excuse to dive into some scientific reads this semester.
Especially considering the recent death of Stephen Hawking (a figure I focused a lot on during my research), I thought that my readers especially might be interested. If your reading taste aligns with mine on this front, or whether you’re just looking to expand my comfort zone, here are some of the reads I’ve loved during this class.
The Specific Books
Novel: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman | Buy Here
Release Date: November 9, 2004
Publisher: Vintage Books
A modern classic, Einstein’s Dreams is a fictional collage of stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905, when he worked in a patent office in Switzerland. As the defiant but sensitive young genius is creating his theory of relativity, a new conception of time, he imagines many possible worlds. In one, time is circular, so that people are fated to repeat triumphs and failures over and over. In another, there is a place where time stands still, visited by lovers and parents clinging to their children. In another, time is a nightingale, sometimes trapped by a bell jar.
Now translated into thirty languages, Einstein’s Dreams has inspired playwrights, dancers, musicians, and painters all over the world. In poetic vignettes, it explores the connections between science and art, the process of creativity, and ultimately the fragility of human existence.
As I mentioned earlier on the blog, “I love the mixture of whimsicality and philosophy.” While I dig reading the primary material — although I’m sometimes not so good at understanding it — I loved getting a visual, a detailed otherworldly story of how these perceptions of time change the fundamentals of our reality. It’s a short read but it’s super vivid and very helpful in understanding the ramifications of certain theories. LOVED.
Novel: Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin | Buy Here
Release Date: March 31, 2016
Publisher: Anchor Books
When Maria Popova started talking about Black Hole Blues on Brain Pickings (my favorite blog), I knew I had to pick it up.
Reading it was an absolute whirlwind. I’d never expected a science book to feel so poetic or engrossing — to tear through it at the same pace I would a fiction book. I loved the drama of the clashing personalities, the stunning language woven throughout, the zoom lens through which Janna Levin examined the very human aspects of a scientific project. I was a big fan of this one, and completely understand — and agree with — the hype.
Novel: The Big Picture by Sean Carroll | Buy Here
Release Date: May 10, 2016
Publisher: Dutton Books (PRH)
Already internationally acclaimed for his elegant, lucid writing on the most challenging notions in modern physics, Sean Carroll is emerging as one of the greatest humanist thinkers of his generation as he brings his extraordinary intellect to bear not only on Higgs bosons and extra dimensions but now also on our deepest personal questions. Where are we? Who are we? Are our emotions, our beliefs, and our hopes and dreams ultimately meaningless out there in the void? Does human purpose and meaning fit into a scientific worldview?
In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human level–and then how each connects to the other. Carroll’s presentation of the principles that have guided the scientific revolution from Darwin and Einstein to the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe is dazzlingly unique.
Carroll shows how an avalanche of discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed our world and what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning.
The Big Picture is an unprecedented scientific worldview, a tour de force that will sit on shelves alongside the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson for years to come.
The Big Picture took me awhile to get through too, as I chipped away at it throughout the summer. Because I’d taken it on camping trips and it lived in a cabin (and by a lakeside) for months, my copy is wildly battered and underlined. Alive in the same way that the language inside of it is.
I loved the biological perspective — the interdisciplinary perspective of this one as well. It incorporates lots of philosophy and history rather than exclusively technical concepts, which I enjoyed. Also, it ends every chapter on a question or a widely sweeping statement, which I appreciated.
It was a little tricky to get through in that there wasn’t as much of a unifying theme — rather, dozens of small patches of information that all created “the big picture,” so not a ton of knowledge builds on what you’ve learned previously. Each chapter can be as challenging, yet rewarding. I read it in small pieces or chunks after my campers fell asleep.
Novel: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking | Buy Here
Release Date: 1987
Publisher (for this edition): Bantam Books
Excuse the unfortunate lack of a photograph related to the specific book. This is the quintessential read — the one that came up in all my research. I’m probably a little biased by having read The Fabric of the Cosmos first in the sense that I liked it better, but still readily enjoyed A Brief History of Time. I’d also read My Brief History, Stephen Hawking’s autobiography, beforehand and thus came in with a lot of context. I liked the way he broke down certain concepts, and it’s a book that’s made it onto so many “must read before you die” lists. Worth checking out!
Novel: The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene | Buy Here
Release Date: 2004
Publisher: Alfred Knopf
From Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading physicists and author the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Elegant Universe, comes a grand tour of the universe that makes us look at reality in a completely different way.
Space and time form the very fabric of the cosmos. Yet they remain among the most mysterious of concepts. Is space an entity? Why does time have a direction? Could the universe exist without space and time? Can we travel to the past? Greene has set himself a daunting task: to explain non-intuitive, mathematical concepts like String Theory, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and Inflationary Cosmology with analogies drawn from common experience. From Newton’s unchanging realm in which space and time are absolute, to Einstein’s fluid conception of spacetime, to quantum mechanics’ entangled arena where vastly distant objects can instantaneously coordinate their behavior, Greene takes us all, regardless of our scientific backgrounds, on an irresistible and revelatory journey to the new layers of reality that modern physics has discovered lying just beneath the surface of our everyday world.
The Fabric of the Cosmos was the first real beast of a science book I read, at the recommendation of my pen pal. It was a huge challenge for me, but I was dying to finish it — to have tackled an expansion of my reading taste. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the way certain concepts started clicking inside my head near the end. Or, I’d read it exclusively for that feeling of having to dog-ear a page and slide it down on my lap, sitting back to reflect on how my mind had just entirely flipped perspectives on a mundane aspect of my daily life. Physics, man.
Brian Greene is specific, which could occasionally get difficult, because he doesn’t shy away from complex mathematical or scientific explanations. But his metaphors and language make it much more digestible, and it provides a brilliant overview of a lot of the questions we have about our universe. Worth the read.