Thursday, 30 April 2015

Steven Weinberg's list of best general science books

Steven Weinberg is one of the world's pre-eminent theoretical physicists having won the Nobel Prize (shared with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow) for their work on the standard model, which till date remains the best experimentally proved model of our universe. I had the pleasure of listening to him speak via video conferencing at last year's 50th anniversary celebration of The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy where I am a student at present.

Last month, I came to know that Weinberg has written a new book titled 'To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science' which gives a detailed historical account of most of western science, right from the Greeks to the scientific revolution. I was overjoyed when the ICTP Library purchased a copy of the book and I promptly reserved the book. I got the book last week and I am reading through it slowly and steadily.

Weinberg recently wrote a nice piece for The Guardian which can be found here. He writes about how science was communicated in the past and how it is changing now. At the end he gives a list of 13 books for a general audience which I reproduce below:
Philosophical Letters (1733) Voltaire
The Origin of Species (1859) Charles Darwin
On a Piece of Chalk (1868) Thomas Huxley
The Mysterious Universe (1930) James Jeans
The Birth and Death of the Sun (1940) George Gamow
The Character of Physical Law (1965) Richard Feynman
The Elegant Universe (1999) Brian Greene
The Selfish Gene (1976) Richard Dawkins
The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) Richard Rhodes
The Inflationary Universe (1997) Alan Guth
The Whole Shebang (1997) Timothy Ferris
Hiding in the Mirror (2005) Lawrence Krauss
Warped Passages (2005) Lisa Randall
I am ashamed to admit that I have read none of the books listed above. So to make amends I will start with Feynman's classic, sometime soon. The point of Weinberg's article and this post is that, there is a huge gap between the public understanding of science and what the scientist actually does. Everyone knows that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is kind of a big deal, but very few people will be able to give a somewhat toned down view of what the experiment hopes to achieve. This is more true for theoretical physics and mathematics, then for sciences like biology or chemistry. The gap has become so huge nowadays that we do not know a single shred of information about why a scientist has got the Nobel Prize for his or her work.

The only way this gap can be bridged is if people like Weinberg comes forward and writes books such as 'To Explain the World'. Although the book is historical in its tone, but still a large milieu of ideas can be assimilated from a casual reading by a laymen. To make a short list myself, I give below 8 books on general science and mathematics that I have read and which I enjoyed so much to recommend it to a general audience. Considering the fact that I am still very young and very less read, so the list may be highly biased to some topics.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton
A Mathematician's Apology by Godfrey H. Hardy
Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh
Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson
Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin
The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician by A. Weil
what if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe