Ten Of The Best Books About Astronomy, Physics And Mathematics Of 2018

Whether you are giving gifts to others or to yourself this holiday season, this list of the best popular science books of 2018 about astronomy, physics and mathematics is a great place to start reading and gifting

by GrrlScientist for Forbes | @GrrlScientist

10 Best Books about Astronomy, Physics and Mathematics Published in 2018.
(Credit: book jacket image composite by Bob O’Hara.)

Whilst I’ve researched and mini-reviewed this year’s list of popular science books, I’ve once again been impressed with the overall quality and variety of popular science books about physics published in 2018, in particular. Although I’m not a physicist, I’ve discovered that popular science books about physics are my favorites this year, and I think they’ll be your favorites, too.

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor by Brian Keating (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Cosmologist Brian Keating has written an interesting account about his part in the race for a Nobel Prize in physics. In this book, Professor Keating describes his involvement in the BICEP2 experiment and his personal ambitions of winning a Nobel Prize whilst also detailing his views of what is wrong with the Nobel Prize — particularly its limitation to just three living scientists (this is an unjust situation where nearly all researchers in a large team who contributed to a particular discovery are completely overlooked. This limitation also creates a toxic culture of cut-throat competition in disciplines that often require extensive collaborations.) Professor Keating delivers a clearly written synopsis of observational cosmology combined with an honest and informative assessment of the harsh realities of how the competitive world of astronomy and physics — and science in general — really work. This entertaining, moving and often witty book is one of my absolute favorites in this year’s impressive crop of popular science books. If you read only one popular science book this year, this is your book. (Many thanks to Brian Keating for sending me a review copy of his book in exchange for my honest review.)

Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder (Basic Books, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Why has there not been a major breakthrough in fundamental physics for more than 40 years? According to physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, this is because physicists believe the best theories are mathematically beautiful, natural, and elegant, and those that are not are disposable. This quest for beauty is at odds with scientific objectivity and has given rise to a number of theories in theoretical physics and cosmology that cannot be tested — string theory, particle physics, quantum mechanics and field theory, black holes and even the origins of the universe. Dr. Hossenfelder clearly argues that physicists must rethink their methods and accept reality before they can discover truth. Another of my favorites from this year’s group of popular science books, this thought-provoking and readable book is honest and often quite funny, and will be enjoyed by any scientifically curious person, as well as by physicists and by those who enjoy reading about the philosophy of science.

Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality by Anil Ananthaswamy (Dutton, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Thomas Young’s 200 year old “double slit” experiment still fascinates and mystifies scientists as well as nonspecialists because it shows how weird and counterintuitive reality can be at the smallest of scales. This clearly-written book also explores the many questions that the famous double slit experiment raises: What is the real “measurement problem”? Is a photon a wave or a particle? or both? Does a particle exist before we look at it, or does looking make it real? Is there a place where the quantum world ends and the classical world of our daily lives begins? If there’s no such place, then does the universe split into two each time a particle goes through the double slit? A fascinating and readable exploration of quantum mechanics that is a particularly wonderful book for nonspecialists, hobbyists and students of science — you may not be able to put this captivating book down until you’ve finished it!

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon (Picador, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

If you like reading stories about underdogs who overcome all odds to achieve a particular goal, then this riveting true story is for you. The battle to launch a mission to Pluto began in the late 1980s, continued through the 1990s, but only in the early 2000s was it finally approved. Despite detailing the administrative and political machinations involved with the Pluto mission, the writing is so clear, so gripping that you will not be able to put down the book. Ah, but there’s more: it took a decade for New Horizons to reach Pluto, so you may think that everyone — the New Horizons team, especially — sat back and enjoyed their hard-won battle, right? Wrong! The scientists and engineers were busy solving last-minute logistical problems — for example, they discovered Pluto has two moons only after New Horizons was well on its way, which raised all sorts of challenges for the team as they worked to prevent their probe from crashing whilst also gathering data on each moon. A fascinating report on how science works, even when everything seems hell-bent on keeping it from doing so.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson (Random House, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

This non-fiction page-turner reads like a novel, complete with plot twists and on-the-edge-of-your-seat anxiety, with historical context skilfully interwoven into the personal stories of three men who orbited the Moon, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, and their wives and children. It was 1968, a time of great political and cultural upheaval in the United States — rather like now. The Soviets had successfully launched Sputnik, motivating JFK to announce it was America’s goal to reach the Moon by 1970. But at the same time, all hell was breaking loose in the USA, with assassinations, riots, protests, the Vietnam war, and the Cold War all at their peaks. It was almost a miracle that Apollo 8 happened at all — even more remarkable when you realize that this mission came together in the span of just four months, and without any of the usual pre-launch testing. After all the heart-wrenching events of that year, Apollo 8 was the “Christmas miracle” that the country needed to rekindle hope and optimism. I found myself marvelling at how this mission could succeed at all using such primitive technology and computers of the time. If you loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, you’ll love this compelling, meticulously-researched book by a master storyteller.

The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport (PublicAffairs, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Since the Moon missions ended ages ago, what does the future hold for space exploration? Currently, mega-corporations run by the space barons — notably Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, but also Richard Branson and Paul Allen — are rushing to the forefront of the space race, taking control from NASA and other governmental agencies. To this end, these billionaires are pouring their astronomical wealth (and their even more astronomical egos) into developing the dawn of a new Space Age that will belong to the wealthy. This provocative book is based upon years of meticulous research and exclusive interviews with all four of these billionaires, whom the author had direct access to during the writing of this book. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the mysterious and cautious Jeff Bezos, who tends to avoid the public eye whenever possible. If you are interested in space travel, then you cannot miss reading this informative and fascinating book.

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth by Adam Frank (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Is there life on other planets? or is Earth unique? This impassioned book investigates the (relatively) new science of astrobiology, a discipline that explores new realities and new possibilities, and reveals universal truths about life and the planets it arises on. It even is helping us map out the contours of our own fate and of our future as we irreparably alter the planet we live on: can we survive the greatest and most destructive force we’ve ever faced — ourselves? The author, astrophysicist Adam Frank, relies on elegant prose and conversational writing to make modern science comprehensible and illuminating for the nonspecialist as he explores important questions, such as how intelligent life could evolve and why we have never detected any sign or signal confirming that we are not alone in the universe. Throughout this profoundly important book, the author makes compelling arguments that not only is it likely that alien civilisations have existed many times before and concludes that many have driven their own worlds into their own Anthropocene, which leads to the most important question of all: what can those alien civilizations tell us about our own fate?

The Atom: A Visual Tour by Jack Challoner (The MIT Press, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

The Atom is an engaging and visually appealing overview of physics and chemistry, as well as the history of our thinking about atoms and their structure: how atomic interactions create the properties of everyday materials; and what subatomic particles and their quantum world show us about the nature of reality in the larger world that we occupy. The book also takes the reader on a tour of the elements and their primordial origins; the periodic table; molecules, and chemical reactions. Readers will also learn how magnetic resonance imaging, radiometric dating, and nuclear reactions work at the atomic level. Every page is has at least one gorgeous full-color illustration or photograph. This beautifully-produced and clearly-written book will especially appeal to younger readers, students and to nonspecialists.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking (Bantam Books, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Unless celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking somehow manages to come back from the dead, this is his final book — his final communication to humanity. Professor Hawking provides concise readable answers to a collection of big questions — some of which were the sole domain of religion: is there a God? How did everything begin? Why are we here? But other big questions have always been the focus of science and science fiction; questions like, is time travel possible? What’s inside a black hole? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Should we colonize space? Can we predict the future? Will humanity survive on Earth? Many of these are a rehash from his previous books, so a devoted fan who has read his entire oeuvre may be disappointed because there is little here that is truly new, although I was delighted by Professor Hawking’s humorous digs at the Trump crime clan.

The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe by Clifford V. Johnson (The MIT Press, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Have you ever read a graphic novel about any scientific discipline? If not, then you’re in for a treat with this oversized book because it uses the graphic novel form to share a number of discussions about the nature of the universe — a fundamental series of conversations that, I suspect, will never grow old. Written and illustrated with full-color cartoons by the author, physicist Clifford Johnson, this book invites us to eavesdrop on a series of nine conversations about a variety of topics taking place in coffee shops, in trains, and in museums. At the end of each chapter are several pages of notes that provide additional detail about the topics presented, and additional resources for learning more about them. Especially in view of the white male-dominated culture of physics, I was particularly pleased to see the inclusivity of characters — both men and women can be found in these pages, as well as characters of different ethnicities, ages and levels of expertise. Although I don’t agree with everything the author says in this book, I did find his progressive method for sharing his ideas to be encouraging.

For more faboo science books, please refer to my previous annual mini-reviews of the 10 best books about astronomy, physics, chemistry and mathematics in 2016 and 2017.

Many thanks to the publishers and their publicity agents who graciously sent review copies of their beautiful books far off the beaten track to snowy Norway.

Originally published at Forbes on 2 January 2019.