You Can Read These Books with Strings

August 3, 2011 - 11:08 pm No Comments

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of physics, and for some reason that intimidates people.  I have a new nickname at work, which has been used in jest, in earnest, and in mockery all: Lil Miss Science, usually followed by “over there”.

But here’s the real secret:

You can be too.

If you’ve ever logged on to my Goodreads account, you’ll see a slew of books on the subject, especially regarding physics of a quantum nature (though recently I’ve been branching out into pure mathematics and even geometry, Euclidian and non- both, but that’s a blog for another time).  Most of them have five stars, few of them have three or less.  And I am about to tell you which ones you can read off the bat, knowing only the maths you learned in high school.  Don’t scoff.  I failed algebra.  Twice.

In the Beginning:

If you really want broad, sweeping strokes, only touching on hard physics to get you prepared, start with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Ah, I can see you being intimidated again, stop that.  I read this one over the course of a week while on vacation in North Carolina (because that’s what you do on vacation).  Not only will this book brush you up on your physics, the title is not really a lie – it’s got a little bit of everything in there, though it’s steered mostly toward the natural sciences.  And it’s clever.  And you’ll enjoy it.

For a more focused but still broad overview, try Simon Singh’s The Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.  This was something I read in college while sitting alone in the cafeteria, busily not making friends.  Everything is explained clearly, and while it does get into a few technicalities, there are helpful pictures and charts, and if you don’t follow the math exactly (fuck, no one does) that’s perfectly okay, you’ll get more than the gist of it.

I Have the Science Channel and I Have Seen The Universe:

So you actually know what I’m going on about when I say quantum entanglement and dark matter.  Then you should read A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC by Gian Francesco Giudice.  Do not take it lightly when I say I have not been this impressed with a book – nonwithstanding a technical book – since I read House of Leaves.  And Maker above this is about nine trillion times easier to understand.  Giudice ties everything to easy-to-understand concepts and even popular culture, from Sherlock Holmes to the power output of the engine in a Ferrari Scuderia (he uses that last one for the mass to energy ratio, you’ll like it).  And you’ll get to learn fun facts like, if the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was constructed entirely out of Swiss chocolate, it would have cost the same to build. This is what would happen if I was actually a physicist, binged on Top Gear, and then wrote a book.  Except you can actually understand A Zeptospace Odyssey. I laughed.  Out loud.  While reading this book.  To make it all the more impressive, this book was written by a native speaker of Italian.  In English.  You may commence feeling like a failure… now.

And if you haven’t already, read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.  There are not difficult books.  I promise.  And if you get the fancy version, they have really nice pictures.  And Star Trek references!

I Have Made a Schrodinger’s Equation Cake:

No, really.  I have.

And if you’re like me, you’ll want to read Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.  You may begin to feel a little intimidated, and this time it’s justified.  I’ll admit, there were parts of this book that I skimmed, but it’s not hard to get what the author, Peter Woit, is saying at all.  Though the math is a bit weeooweeoo scary, the points are clearly and concisely covered, and with a tinge of dark humor as well.  It’s always good to understand the alternate theories in physics today, if you’re interested in any of them, and string theory, despite its myriad Nova Science Now specials, honestly does come up a bit short.  Should we entirely discount it?  I don’t know, read the book and decide for yourself.

I Breathe Math:

I don’t.  This one was beyond me but there was so much good stuff in it I plowed through until I simply felt like taking a bath with a hair dryer: Nothingness: The Science of Empty Space by Henning Genz starts off easy-peasy, but about halfway through I knew I’d gotten everything out of this book I possibly could.  It starts pretty much where all the others leave off: the details.  I believe particle spin is introduced in chapter 2 or 3 and while I have a (tentative) grasp on that, there’s a point where even I shake my head, sigh, and make a special, defeatist library trip.  That all said, what I did understand was definitely worth the trouble.  It’s fascinating to learn about all the weird things that happen in what we considered to be The Vacuum of Spaaaaaace.  If you’re into that, give it an honest effort.  I did.

So there you go.  Physics is phun.  I swear.  And hell, you might even learn something.

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