By Mike Perricone
As 2016 comes to a close, Symmetry writer Mike Perricone takes us through the latest additions to his collection of popular science books related to particle physics.
The year 2016 brought us books on topics such as gravitational waves, the “Pope” of physics, the history of science from the paper of record, and the concept of “now.”
The oldest sound scientists have ever heard was the “chirp” of gravitational waves emanating from a billions-of-years-old collision of two black holes. The sound was intercepted by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, 40 years after the proposal for the detector was rejected.
With the deft touch of a novelist (A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, How the Universe Got its Spots), Janna Levin, professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia University, follows the struggles of the project’s original 1970s troika—Rai Weiss, Ron Drever and theorist Kip Thorne—and the eventual success of director Barry Barish, who spent 1994 to 2004 putting the project on solid footing.
Carlo Rovelli, one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory and head of the quantum gravity group at the Centre de Physique Theorique of Aix-Marseille Université, takes readers through a history of physics from Einstein and Bohr to Heisenberg to Hawking.
Special acclaim goes to his translators, Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, who bring us phrases such as these from Rovelli’s original Italian: “[B]efore experiments, measurements, mathematics and rigorous deductions, science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to ‘see’ things differently than they have previously been seen.” You’ll want to memorize this poetic gem.
Fermi method. Fermi questions. Fermi surface. Fermi sea. Fermions. Fermi Institute. Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Physicist Enrico Fermi, known in part for creating the world’s first nuclear reactor, definitely left his mark on physics.
Fermi won the Nobel Prize in 1938, and in the following years the prize went to no less than six of Fermi’s students. As a scientist, he was considered infallible: Colleagues and students in Rome dubbed him “the Pope.”
Co-authors Bettina Hoerlein and spouse Gino Segré—the nephew of Nobel Laureate Emilio Segré, Fermi’s student and lifelong friend—piece together a human picture of the brilliant scientist.
Part of a long-running and incredibly far-reaching series from Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions combines sound science with brisk, accessible writing by eminent scientists. Averaging about 150 pages, this year’s top physics-related offerings include:
In this tour through a century and a half of science reporting by The New York Times, the sections on astronomy and physics are not to be missed.
From the archives come headlines such as “Star Birth Sudden, Lemaitre Asserts,” from a 1933 conference in Britain (with quotes from early cosmology luminaries William deSitter and Sir Arthur Eddington) and “Einstein Expounds His New Theory,” written in 1919. In the 1919 article, Einstein insists to the reporter endeavoring to explain his extraordinary concepts to lay readers, “I am trying to talk as plainly as possible.”
Einstein was somewhat casual about time, saying “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
Richard Muller, experimental cosmologist, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Physics for Future Presidents, has more use for the concept. In this book, he explains that “the flow of time is the continual creation of new nows.” Muller takes on all comers and gets into plenty of arguments along the way.
Pauline Gagnon, an experimenter on the LHC’s CMS experiment, cut her teeth writing a widely read blog during the final two years of the search for the Higgs boson. In her first book, Gagnon explains the experimental process to non-scientists.
Each chapter concludes with summaries of key points, and in the final chapter, she assures readers the LHC is still in its early stages. Don’t miss the appendix on the possible (and probable) contributions to Einstein’s stunning early work by his first wife, Mileva Maric Einstein.
Looking like a cross between a textbook and a coffee-table book, Welcome to the Universe is an extremely readable compilation of introductory astronomy lectures for non-science students given by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott at Princeton University. Their talks present physics with clarity and a little levity—with references to pop culture items such as Toy Story and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Gott even tackles time travel. What’s not to like?
J. Richard Gott was one of the first to describe the structure of the universe as being similar to a sponge, made up of holey surfaces divided into equal, interlocked parts. The concept may sound strange, but it has since been confirmed by numerous surveys of the sky.
A combination of anecdotes, physics and math, this one is a challenge. You’ll need your cosmic thinking cap.
Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex in the UK and veteran science author John Gribbin (best known for In Search of Shrödinger’s Cat) wants to synthesize the great theories of the 20th century—general relativity and quantum mechanics—into his own search for a Theory of Everything.
In his explanation, related to the estimated age of the universe—13.8 billion years—Gribbin pays special attention to often-overlooked women scientists Henrietta Swan Leavitt (who proposed using Cepheid variable stars as standard candles) and Cecilia Payne (who first predicted that hydrogen was the most common element in the universe).
The new study demonstrates a bizarre quantum effect at never-before-seen scales
New evidence shows that the key assumption made in the discovery of dark energy is in error
Ever wonder how we try to predict the unpredictable? Supercomputers use the power of chaos theory.
Reversing history from Galileo's time, it is now the scientists who refuse to look through the telescope.
Astronomer Natalie Batalha embodies a planetary sense of what “love” is and means.
David Bohm was one of the most distinguished theoretical physicists of his generation, and a fearless challenger of scientific orthodoxy.
How can there be intelligence without consciousness?
Donald Hoffman reminds us that we can predict people's choices up to seven seconds before they are conscious of making that choice.
A new proof in computer science also has implications for researchers in quantum mechanics and pure mathematics
Quantum field theory has made some incredibly accurate predictions about the universe, but it has also made some of the worst.
There is a mystery that has confounded scientists for a century.
Any theory of quantum gravity is going to have to grapple with some weird time stuff.
This video is about Bell's Theorem, one of the most fascinating results in 20th century physics.
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