Dreams Of A Final Theory: The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature
Vintage, Reprint Edition (1994)
This book appeared when I was still in high school and I didn’t take note of it then. Later it seemed too out-of-date to bother, but meanwhile it’s almost become a historical document. Written with the pretty explicit aim to argue in favor of the Superconducting Supercollider (a US-proposal for a large particle collider that was scraped in the early 90s), it’s the most flawless popular science book about theoretical physics I’ve ever come across.
Weinberg’s explanations are both comprehensible and remarkably accurate. The book contains no unnecessary clutter, is both well-structured and well written, and Weinberg doesn’t hold back with his opinions, neither on religion nor on philosophy.
It’s also the first time I’ve tried an audio-book. I listened to it while treadmill running. A lot of sweat went into the first chapters. But I gave up half through and bought the paperback which I read on the plane to Austin. Weinberg is one of the people I interviewed for my book.
Lesson learned: Audiobooks aren’t for me.
Truth And Beauty – Aesthetics and Motivations in Science
University of Chicago Press (1987)
I had read this book before but wanted to remind me of its content. It’s a collection of essays on the role of beauty in physics, mostly focused on general relativity and the early 20th century. Along historical examples like Milne, Eddington, Weyl, and Einstein, Chandrasekhar discusses various aspects of beauty, like elegance, simplicity, or harmony. I find it too bad that Chandrasekhar didn’t bring in more of his own opinion but mostly summarizes other people’s thoughts.
Lesson learned: Tell the reader what you think.
Truth or Beauty – Science and the Quest for Order
Yale University Press (2012)
In this book, mathematician David Orrell argues that beauty isn’t a good guide to truth. It’s an engagingly written book which covers a lot of ground, primarily in physics, from helocentrism to string theory. But Orrell tries too hard to make everything fit his bad-beauty narrative. Many of his interpretations are over-the-top, like his complaint that
“[T]he aesthetics of science – and particularly the “hard” sciences such as physics –have been characterized by a distinctly male feel. For example, feminist psychologists have noted that the classical picture of the atom as hard, indivisible, independent, separate, and so on corresponds very closely to the stereotypically masculine sense of self. If must have come as a shock to the young, male, champions of quantum theory when they discovered that their equations describing the atom were actually soft, fuzzy, and uncertain –in other words, stereotypically female.”He further notes that many male physicists like to refer to nature as “she,” that Gell-Mann likes the idea of using particle accelerators to penetrate deeper (into the structure of particles), and quotes Lee Smolin’s remark that “the most cherished goal in physics, as in bad romance novels, is unification.” This is just to illustrate the, erm, depth of Orrell’s arguments.
In summary, it’s a nice book, but it’s hard to take Orrell’s argument seriously. Or maybe the whole thing was a joke to begin with.
Lesson learned: Don’t try to explain everything.
The End Of Physics - The Myth Of A Unified Theory
Basic Books (1994)
This is a strange book. While reading, I got the impression that the author is constantly complaining about something, but it didn’t become clear to me what. Lindley tells the story of how physicists discovered increasingly more fundamental and also more unified laws of nature, and how they are hoping to finally develop a theory of everything. This, so he writes, would be the end of physics. Just that, as he explains in the next sentence, it of course wouldn’t be the end of physics.
Lindley likes words and likes to use a lot of them. Consequently the book reads like he wanted to cram in the whole history of physics, from the beginning to the end, with him having the last word.
His argument for why a theory of everything would remain a “myth” is essentially that it would be hard to test, something that nobody can really disagree on. But “hard to test” doesn’t mean “impossible to test,” and Lindley is clearly out of his water when it comes to evaluating experimental prospects of, say, probing quantum gravity, so he sticks with superficial polemics. Of course the book is 20 years old, and I can’t blame the author for not knowing what’s happened since, but from today’s perspective his rant seems baseless.
In summary, it’s a well-written book, but it has a fuzzy message. (Also, the reprint quality is terrible.)
Lesson learned: If you have something to say, say it.
Why Beauty Is Truth – A History of Symmetry
Basic Books (2007)
This is a book, not about the physics, but the mathematics of symmetries, symmetry groups, Lie groups, Lie algebras, quaternions, global symmetries, local symmetries, and all that. Steward also discusses the relevance of these structure for physics, but his emphasis is on it being an application of mathematics. The book is held together by stories of the mathematicians who lead the way. The title of the book is somewhat misleading. Steward actually doesn’t discuss much the question “why” beauty is truth. He merely demonstrates along examples that many truths are beautiful.
It’s a pretty good book, both interesting and well-written, if somewhat too long for my taste. It doesn’t seem to have gotten the attention it deserves.
Lesson learned: It’s hard to write a popular science book that anyone will still recall a decade later.
Eyes On The Sky: A Spectrum of Telescopes
Oxford University Press (2016)
This is a book about telescopes, from then to now, from the radio regime to gamma rays. It’s not a book about astrophysics, it’s not a book about cosmology, and it’s not a book about history. It’s a book about telescopes. It is a thoroughly useful book, full of facts and figures and images, but you need to be really interested in telescopes to get through it. I read this book because I wanted to write a paragraph about the development of modern telescopes but figured I didn’t actually know much about modern telescopes. Now I’m much wiser.
Lesson learned: If you need to read a 200 pages book to write a single paragraph, you’ll never get done.
Beauty and Revolution in Science
Cornell University Press (1999)
Philosopher James McAllister reexamines the Kuhnian idea of paradigm changes. He proposes that it should be amended, and argues that what characterizes a revolution is not the change of the entire scientific paradigm, but merely the change of aesthetic ideals. To back up his argument, he discusses several historical cases. This is not a popular science book, and it’s not always the most engaging read, but I have found it to be very insightful. It is somewhat unfortunate though that he didn’t spend more time illuminating the social dynamics that goes with the prevalence of beauty ideals in science.
Lesson learned: Philosophy isn’t dead.
Oxford University Press (2011)
Kragh’s is a book about the failure of speculative ideas in physics. The steady state universe, mechanism, cyclic models of the universe, and various theories of everything are laid out in historical perspective. I have found this book both interesting and useful, but some parts are quite heavy reads. Kragh doesn’t offer an analysis or draws a lesson, and he mostly restrains from judgement. He simply tells the reader what happened.
Lesson learned: Even smart people sometimes believe really strange things.
Supersymmetry: Unveiling The Ultimate Laws Of Nature
Basic Books (2001)
Particle physicist Gordon Kane explains why the supersymmetric extension of the standard model has become so popular and how it could be tested. Whether or not you are convinced by supersymmetry, you get to learn a lot about particle physics. It’s a straight-forward pop-science book that does a good job explaining why theorists have spent so much time on supersymmetry.
Lesson learned: You don’t need to write fancy to write well.
Nature’s Blueprint - Supersymmetry and the Search for a Unified Theory of Matter and Force
A book about high energy particle physics, the standard model, unification and the appeal of supersymmetry. It’s a well-written book that gives the reader a pretty good idea how particle physicists work and think. Hooper does a great job getting across the excitement that comes with the hope of being about to discovery a new fundamental law of nature. The book’s publication date was well timed, just before the LHC started taking data.
Lesson learned: Your book might become history faster than you think.