Books and more that stood out in 2021


Credits (clockwise from top left): Netflix, Belknap Press, My Nuclear Life, U. Chicago Press, WW Norton, Basic Books, and Scribner

Who doesn’t like sipping hot chocolate (or a hot toddy!) While reading a good physics book while on vacation? Here are five books reviewed this year in Physics today it would make great holiday gifts for friends and family or for yourself.

Coverage of Operation Moonglow.
Credit: Basic Books

Operation Moonglow: A Political History of the Apollo Project by Teasel Muir-Harmony (Basic Books, 2020, $ 32.00). You might roll your eyes at the thought of another book on the Apollo missions. Again Muir-Harmony Teasel managed to find an under-explored aspect of the moon landings: the extensive international tours carried out by astronauts from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo on their return to Earth. The trips were part of a larger effort to rebuild America’s reputation abroad. Muir-Harmony describes how the Moon Missions were designed to demonstrate the superiority of American science – and liberal democracy – to a global audience that was beginning to sour over the entanglements of the Cold War, particularly the Vietnam War. . The “universal kinship” experienced by millions around the world as Neil Armstrong took his first step on the lunar surface was, as critic and historian Ingrid Ockert described it, “the culmination of a decade of prudent public relations strategy ”.

Science and cooking cover.
Credit: WW Norton

Science and cooking: physics meets food, from homemade to haute cuisine by Michael Brenner, Pia Sörensen and David Weitz (WW Norton, 2020, $ 35). As the saying goes, baking is a chemistry. But there is also a lot of physics in the kitchen. During the last decade, Michael Brenner, Pia Sörensen and David Weitz have developed a first cycle science and cooking class at Harvard University which features fashionable chefs as guest speakers. It has become a minor sensation in the food world, and the three have now distilled this class into Science and cooking. Part cookbook and popular science part, the book gives anyone interested in the subject “plenty to chew on,” as physicist Rama Bansil put it in her review. (If you need to convince, try this annotated recipe for the molten lava cake.) Physics enthusiasts will be intrigued by the authors’ analyzes of food-based emulsions, foams and gels. Foodies will love sophisticated recipes for everything from garlic aioli to “millennial eggs”.

Limited data coverage.
Credit: U. Chicago Press

Limited data: the history of nuclear secrecy in the United States by Alex Wellerstein (U. Chicago Press, 2021, $ 35). What’s the secret to building an atomic bomb? Is it the design of the bomb itself? Or is it the technological know-how that allows states to produce fissionable materials like uranium-235 in large quantities? As a historian Alex wellerstein described in this book, postwar planners in the United States settled on the old definition. They created the category of “restricted data” to describe any knowledge the government deemed critical to bomb building. But what exactly falls into this category has never been clear: As historian Benjamin Wilson noted in his review, Limit Data describes how nuclear secrecy has been “messy, inconsistent and often doomed”.

End of everything cover.
Credit: Scribner

The end of everything (astrophysically speaking) by Katie Mack (Scribner, 2020, $ 26.00). Brian Keating couldn’t have said it better at the start of his review in Physics todayfrom the January 2021 issue: “Instead of agonizing over a pandemic, political polarization and economic upheaval, why not worry about the end of the entire universe? We can take comfort in the fact that, unlike these earthly problems, the end of the universe will not occur for at least several billion years. It turns out, like Katie mack illustrates, that the study of doomsday scenarios such as Big Crunch (the eventual collapse of the universe), Big Rip (the tearing of the universe to its subatomic seams) and thermal death (the universe reaching a state of maximum entropy) tells us a lot about the universe as it is now. Despite the seemingly austere subject matter, the book is witty and fun read.

Cover by Vera Rubin.
Credit: Belknap Press

Vera Rubin: A Life by Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton (Belknap Press, 2021, $ 29.95). Upon Vera Rubin’s death in 2016, she was recognized as an astronomical legend both for her contributions to the study of dark matter and for her tireless advocacy for women scientists. Rubin faced rampant sexism when she entered the field in the 1950s, a time when women were often banned from using large telescopes. Yet this comprehensive Rubin biography is more than just an inspirational tale of defying the odds. It also details how, during the 1960s and 1970s, Rubin and his collaborators meticulously measured the rotational curves of spiral galaxies, producing data that ultimately convinced even the most skeptical of observers that galaxies must contain considerable amounts of invisible “dark” matter. Critic and astronomer Alan Hirshfeld wrote that the book demonstrates that scientific transformation occurs, as Ernest Hemingway once said, “gradually, then suddenly.”

New choices of books and media

Each month Physics todayThe ‘s New Books & Media section highlights a range of titles (books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, etc.) that are of interest to our publishers. Here are five notable (plus a bonus) picks from 2021.

    1. the My nuclear life podcast, hosted by Shelly Lesher, a nuclear physicist, examines the intersection of atomic science and society in her An engaging first season in six episodes.
    2. Black holes: the edge of everything we know, directed by Peter Galison, is a fascinating documentary about the global collaboration that has successfully imaged the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87. It is available on netflix.
    3. How to make a vaccine: an essential guide to COVID-19 and beyond, a book by John Rhodes, will tell you everything you need to know about the development of COVID vaccines.
    4. Frequently asked questions about the universe, by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson, provides an illustrated and light-hearted view of important cosmological questions, such as what would happen if a person crossed the event horizon of a black hole.
    5. Astronomy enthusiasts are sure to appreciate Brave new worlds, a board game developed by physicist Mickey McDonald that challenges players to send missions to targets across our solar system.
    6. When we stop understanding the world, by Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut, is not to be missed. Anyone interested in literary representations of physics and physicists will appreciate this almost indescribable meditation on science and its destructive potential. (This is technically cheating; the exam will be in Physics todayJanuary 2022 issue.)


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