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The year in reviews: Five books that stood out in 2012

Books editor Jermey Matthews picks his five favorite books that were reviewed this year in the pages of Physics Today.

By Jermey N. A. Matthews

Last year, we ran the first installment of our 'year in reviews,' a roundup of the most broadly intriguing and generally positive book reviews that appeared in Physics Today. This year, I've used the same criteria in highlighting below five of the top books and reviews out of the 49 books we reviewed in 2012.

As for what constitutes 'broadly intriguing' in my book, take a glance back at the 2011 list, which included Istvan Hargittai's Judging Edward Teller: A Closer Look at One of the Most Influential Scientists of the Twentieth Century (Prometheus Books, 2010) and David Easley and Jon Kleinberg's Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World (Cambridge U. Press, 2010). A review of the former characterizes Teller as 'an extraordinarily gifted physicist cutting a tragic figure,' and the latter claims to be a 'transdisciplinary' undergraduate text on the science of such social dynamical processes as epidemics, financial market dynamics, and information flow in online social networks like Facebook.

If those books intrigue you, then so might the five 2012 picks, which include a concise history of US leadership in physics in the 20th century, a collection of essays by a curmudgeonly Nobelist, and the recollections of a central figure in the climate debates. Coincidentally, four of the five picks were published by university presses, including two by Harvard. Not coincidentally, three of the five authors were interviewed for our Author Q&A series, which appears monthly in Bookends.

A Short History of Physics in the American Century by David Cassidy (Harvard U. Press, 2011; $29.95). In his May review, MIT's Benjamin Wilson describes David Cassidy's Short History as a 'snappy and enjoyable read' that 'revisits familiar territory with a fresh perspective.' Roughly 200 pages long, the book takes the reader from the late 1800s, when physics was viewed as 'the handmaiden of engineering,' through the cold war era, when physics commanded the largest share of the Pentagon's R&D budget, up to the modern era, in which the decline of federal spending has hampered large physics projects. Says Cassidy in his Bookends Q&A, 'The increasing interdisciplinary and international character of research may influence decisions in some fields as to whether the big physics model is the most cost-effective and results-effective way to approach newly emerging research topics.'

The Rise of Nuclear Fear by Spencer R. Weart (Harvard U. Press, 2012; $21.95). Nuclear power and nuclear energy form 'one of the most powerful complexes of images ever created outside of religions,' writes historian of science Spencer Weart in his new book. In his June review, Princeton University's Michael Gordin says The Rise of Nuclear Fear is an 'extensive revision' of Weart's 1988 Nuclear Fear (Harvard U. Press) and 'a fresh account' in which symbolism and such images as mushroom clouds, fallout, and cooling towers remain central. The new book, says Gordin, 'bolsters its analysis with citations to recent findings from cognitive psychology to ground its interpretations.'

A former director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, Weart takes the view that human fear of nuclear reactors is irrational. In his Bookends Q&A, he suggests that the only way to overcome that fear in the long run is 'for the authorities to become genuinely more trustworthy. The nuclear industry must be regulated extremely scrupulously, even if that means closing down antiquated reactors.'

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines by Michael E. Mann (Columbia U. Press, 2012; $28.95). Because their work demonstrated that the observed warming of the past 50 years is outside the envelope of natural variability, climate scientist Michael Mann and his collaborators 'became targets of attacks that ranged from hate mail to subpoenas from the US Congress and the attorney general of Virginia.' So says University of California, San Diego historian of science Naomi Oreskes in her June review, in which she describes the steady effort to cast doubt on climate science that points to anthropogenic interference and to sully the integrity of climate scientists as a 'disheartening story.'

Mann describes it as a war. His report from the frontlines includes his response to the media frenzy following his 1998 'hockey stick' article in Nature and his pivot from 'believing in a firewall between science and politics to being convinced that scientists must be willing to engage the political context in which they work.' Although Oreskes acknowledges that the scientific community's norm is to be cautious when presenting its findings, she ends her review on this note: 'If the point of caution is to avoid being attacked, then The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars makes it clear that tactic does not work.'

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science by Michael P. Nielsen (Princeton U. Press, 2012; $24.95). In the opening of his September review of Reinventing Discovery, the University of South Carolina's Thomas Vogt tells the tale of chess champion Garry Kasparov versus the world. Actually, it was 'some 50 000 people from 75 countries' who pressed Kasparov in an epic online chess game. The world team lost—perhaps sooner than it should have—because the voting system was 'compromised'; it submitted a move that 'circumvented 'the wisdom of the crowd'.'

Such 'amplification of [online] collective intelligence' is what Nielsen claims is ushering in a new era for science. According to Vogt, Nielsen 'assembles a collection of intriguing case studies': for example, the Polymath Project, in which an apparently intractable math problem was solved online by 27 mathematicians in 37 days; and the Galaxy Zoo, another online project through which amateur astronomers have made significant contributions to our understanding of the universe's large-scale structure.

Vogt says that Reinventing Discovery fails to outline a strategy for implementing networked science, and it lacks a nuanced discussion of the tension between the goal of a large collective and the goal of the increasingly alienated individual scientist fighting for tenure. Nonetheless, Vogt considers the book 'an important first sketch' of a rapidly emerging approach that is well suited for addressing 'certain fields of discovery.'

More and Different: Notes from a Thoughtful Curmudgeon by Philip W. Anderson (World Scientific, 2011; $38.00). It's a good thing Phil Anderson was 'thoughtful' in his collection of essays on science and scientists, or he would have had a few shots coming his way from Cornell University's David Mermin. Instead, in his January review, Mermin offers the reader a healthy serving of what makes Anderson 'the greatest curmudgeon to grace our profession over the past two-thirds of a century.' Mermin writes that Anderson gives respectful but often edgy opinions of other science luminaries, including John Bardeen, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and Eugene Wigner. Mermin ends his review with the following gem from Anderson:

All I can say to the younger theorists is: don't trust anyone over 45, except maybe me, and I'm not so sure about me.

Anderson, in his Bookends Q&A, is even more candid:

To get to a real solution, you have to somehow give up on ordinary thinking and completely rethink the conventional wisdom, and [that requires] a mind uncluttered with prejudices learned in a long career. Why am I immune to such rigidities of mind? I suppose that it is in this sense that I really am a curmudgeon: I cannot bear indolent thinking.

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