I’m back enjoying the Cambridge life for a fortnight, and already have some cricket lined up. Some comments from a previous post got me thinking …
Cosmic Variance recently polled its readers on what got them interested in science. The most common answer was popular science books, and this was certainly true for me. I discovered the nerdy pleasures of a good book on physics as I finished high school, and still enjoy such books today. Below is a list of some of my favourite cosmology and physics books for the interested layperson, organised alphabetically by author. I obviously don’t agree with everything written in these books, but they all presented the science accurately (to the best of my knowledge) and were thoroughly entertaining.
John Barrow: I’ve read and greatly enjoyed many of Barrow’s writings – New Theories of Everything, Between Inner and Outer Space, Impossibility, Pi in the Sky, The Book of Nothing, The Infinite Book, The Anthropic Principle. He combines mathematics and science seamlessly, loves a good historical anecdote or illustration, and isn’t afraid to wander into regions metaphysical. I think that my personal favourite was “Pi in the Sky”, which was my first introduction to the mind-blowing legacy of Kurt Godel. “New theories of everything” is a great introduction to modern physics and cosmology.
Paul Davies: As with Barrow, I haven’t met a Davies book I haven’t enjoyed – God and the New Physics, The Matter Myth, The Mind of God, The Last Three Minutes, The Goldilocks Enigma. A Davies book will always be wide ranging, from pure mathematics to cosmology to physics to biology. His forays into philosophy are thoughtful, even if I don’t always agree. I’d start with “The Goldilocks enigma” – it’s nominally about the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life but gives a very good introduction to modern cosmology and physics along the way.
Brian Greene: An excellent writer. I read “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos” and greatly enjoyed both of them. It is no small achievement to write an enjoyable book on string theory for the masses, and I particularly enjoyed Greene’s discussion of entropy and time asymmetry in Fabric.
John Gribbin: slightly more writer than scientist than everyone else on my list, but still worth a read. I’ve read “In search of Schrodinger’s Cat”, “Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality” and I think one more but I can’t remember. Gribbin does a very good job of presenting quantum weirdness, and is very careful in outlining his reasons for believing Everett’s many world’s interpretation.
Edward Harrison: “Cosmology: the Science of the Universe” is fantastic. I read it in my first year of studying physics at university, and have been hooked on cosmology ever since. Covers everything, from the historical roots of cosmology to inflation, and is especially strong in his discussion of Olber’s paradox.
Stephen Hawking: “A Brief History of Time” is justifiably one of the best known popular science books. A must-read. (I haven’t read “The Grand Design”, though it seems that, as in his previous books, Hawking is at his best when he isn’t trying to do philosophy).
Roger Penrose: I finished “The Road to Reality” a few months ago, and read “The Emperor’s New Mind” a few years back. Emperor’s is wonderfully wide ranging, and carefully argued. I have no idea who Road to Reality was aimed at – I had met most of the maths before, and so the main attraction was Penrose’s geometric (rather than algebraic) way of thinking about topics such as differential geometry. His perspective on string theory, as a relativist, is also very interesting – I might do a post about this at some stage. It’s all very lucid and comprehensive, but I’m not sure how much complex analysis the average layperson is going to learn from a chapter of a popular science book.
Martin Rees: “Just Six Numbers” is an excellent read, discussing modern cosmology and physics and how our universe depends on the constants of nature. Rees is both authoritative and accessible. “Our Final Century” is also quite interesting.
Simon Singh: “Fermat’s Last Theorem” was one of the first popular science books I read, and I was pleasantly shocked at how fascinating the history of mathematics could is. I won’t spoil the ending by saying: they’re all nuts. I’ve heard very good things about “Big Bang” as well, so that’s probably worth a read.
Steven Weinberg: “Dreams of a Final Theory” is outstanding. I really should get around to reading his classic “The First Three Minutes.”
John Wheeler: I read my first Wheeler book (“At Home in the Universe”) very recently and loved it. He has a very easy, engaging style that lets his enthusiasm for the topic shine through. You can tell that he loved thinking about these things. I can’t resist a quote: “The bounds of time [black holes, big bang, big crunch] tell us that physics comes to an end. Yet physics has always meant that which goes on its eternal way despite all the surface changes in the appearance of things … How can one possibly believe that the laws of physics were chiseled on a rock for all eternity if the universe itself does not endure from everlasting to everlasting?” Impressively, he is just as engaging in his academic works, especially the phonebook.
Alex Vilenkin: “Many Worlds in One” is an excellent introduction to modern cosmology, and in particular theories of the early universe. One of its strengths is that it prefers direct explanations over analogies, which can be misleading or obscure when trying to capture such unusual scenarios as Vilenkin studies.
There are a few more authors who I should recommend, even though I haven’t read their books. I’ve read a lot of Sean Carroll’s writing at Cosmic Variance, so I’d expect “From Eternity to Here” to be an excellent read. I’ve also read a few articles by the philosopher of science Huw Price that were astonishingly lucid on the infamously confused topic of the arrow of time, so “Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point” should be similarly excellent. I’m sure there are others I’ve missed – comment away!
Two words of warning. Be wary of the difference between observational and theoretical cosmology. Theorists like Vilenkin, Greene and Hawking can get carried away in presenting their theories, giving the impression that they are as firmly a part of modern cosmology as, say, the expansion of the universe. But observational evidence only goes so far. As a general rule, any theory that predicts what the universe was like before nucleosynthesis (when the universe is about 1 second old) should be classed as speculative and treated as such. Martin Rees makes this point eloquently in his book “New perspectives in astrophysical cosmology”, as does George Ellis in response to Brian Greene’s latest book on the multiverse (the review is here … sorry about the paywall).
Secondly, be very wary of non-cosmologists that discuss cosmology. This principle applies more broadly: be wary of astronomers discussing biology. We’re all amateurs outside our (usually rather narrow) field of expertise. Cosmology, being such a colossal extrapolation beyond the world of common-sense experience, is particularly susceptible to the syllogism: modern cosmology is weird, my idea is weird, thus my idea is part of modern cosmology. Here is an example, from a scientist who is not a physicist, astronomer or cosmologist:
Now we go back in time beyond the moment of creation, to when there was no time, and to where there was no space … In the beginning there was nothing …. By chance there was a fluctuation, and a set of points, emerging from nothing, … defined a time … From absolute nothing, absolutely without intervention, there came into being rudimentary existence … Yet the line of time collapsed, and the incipient universe evaporated, for time alone is not rich enough for existence. Time and space emerged elsewhere, but they too crumbled back into their own dust, the coalescence of opposites, or simply nothing. Patterns emerged again, and again, and again. Sometimes chance patterned points into a space as well as a time … Then, by chance, there came about our fluctuation. Points came into existence by constituting time but, this time, in this pattern time was accompanied by three dimensions of space … with them comes stability, later elements, and still later elephants.
Words can scarcely express the utter vacuity of this passage. As Stephen Fry once described a well-known novel, it is “complete loose stool water, it is arse gravy of the worse kind”. It is wallowing in nonsense. If one of my cosmology students wrote that passage in an exam, I would probably respond with something along these lines.