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The year in reviews: Five books that stood out in 2013

Books editor Jermey Matthews picks the five most "intriguing" books that were reviewed this year in the pages of Physics Today.

While visions of sugar plums danced in the heads of some children awaiting Saint Nicholas, visions of revised classic textbooks, revealing biographies, and enlightening popularizations danced in mine. This month, as I considered the 52 books Physics Today reviewed in 2013, the five below surfaced as the most "intriguing" ones based on their reviews. Separate from this exercise, four of the featured book authors were also interviewed throughout the year for Bookends (links to each Q&A are included in the summaries below).

Such lists are always open to debate. Which books should have made the cut? Which ones should have been left off? What is this book editor's definition of intriguing, and does it match yours?

On the last question, I encourage you to read the review summaries below and the full reviews (linked to the titles), and judge for yourself. Then share in the comment section your own top five list—from this past year, or of all time—of nonfiction science books; don't limit yourself to books reviewed by Physics Today.

Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk (Doubleday, 2012; $37.50). In Monk's Q&A, the author of two other biographies says of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "he is the most complex, and unfathomable, subject I have ever taken on." Reviewer Paul Rubinson, a historian at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, uses the word "enigmatic" to describe the so-called father of the atomic bomb. And that's despite the handful of bios written in the past decade alone that attempt to explain the man who "suffered from depression since his youth," rose to become the "respected scientific leader of the Manhattan Project," and fell from grace as a high-ranking government adviser.

Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center

'Science dominates [Monk's] book," writes Rubinson. Monk himself writes that he aims to present "Oppenheimer's life as it was shaped and driven by his desire to understand physics." But even as the book "excels in discussing Oppenheimer's science and in explaining why he succeeded and why he more than once narrowly missed a tremendous breakthrough," Rubinson also concludes that the author's emphasis on "Oppenheimer the scientist" obscures "Oppenheimer the man."

Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M. Hoffmann (Basic Books, 2012; $27.99). In his Q&A, Hoffmann says the purpose of Life's Ratchet "was to show that physics can answer one of the most perplexing questions of how life works: How do we create order out of chaos?" Physics, he added, would ask the same question this way: "How is it possible that molecular machines do not violate the second law?"

Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos

However, writes reviewer and University of Maine physicist Dean Astumian, Hoffmann's initial restatement of the second law incorrectly suggests that no "processes" result only in the conversion of random energy into ordered energy. A more precise statement mentioned later in the book, writes Astumian, correctly focuses on "the impossibility of cyclic or repeatable processes that convert random energy into concentrated energy." That quibble aside, Astumian concludes that Life's Ratchet "does an excellent job of conveying the tension" between the mechanical and chemical descriptions of molecular machines and overall "offers a fascinating glimpse" into a research topic "that lies at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and physics."

Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion by Steven Gimbel (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2012; $24.95). "One might imagine that everything important and worth saying about [Albert] Einstein has by now been said," writes reviewer and University of Notre Dame philosopher Don Howard. As a physics magazine's books editor who receives a steady stream of "Einsteinographies," I often wonder the same thing—this year we managed to review "only" three such books. But of a man that important, the history is "virtually inexhaustible," says Howard. Of Einstein's Jewish Science, Howard claims that there is "no better English-language source" documenting "the ugly, public assault on Einstein in early 1920s Germany," when Einstein's theory of relativity was damned as "Jewish physics" for encouraging "a more general relativism in morality, culture, and politics."

Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

Attempting to flip that pejorative on its head,Gimbel considers whether there might not, in fact, be some truth to the characterization of Einstein's physics as, in some sense, 'Jewish.' In his Q&A, Gimbel admits, "there is not a cause-and-effect connection between Talmudic and relativistic thought." Still, the book is, "by design, highly provocative, writes Howard." The tension level is high. And few readers will disagree with Gimbel's concluding sermon about how Einstein's physics, philosophy, and larger worldview represent a model of cosmopolitanism in a world still grappling with problems of difference, discrimination, and persecution."

Electricity and Magnetism by Edward M. Purcell and David J. Morin (3rd edition, Cambridge U. Press, 2013; $80.00). To many an undergraduate physics student, the whole textbook-purchase thing may seem like a scam: Pay upwards of $200 for an introductory text, then get next to nothing for it on the secondary market a year later because a subsequent edition is the new requirement. That is not the case for Purcell's famous E&M, originally published in 1963, updated more than two decades later in 1985, and only this year appearing in its third edition.

Electricity and Magnetism

Since Purcell died in 1997, the new edition features a new author: Harvard University's David Morin, who "sticks closely to Purcell's original," writes reviewer Henry Stroke, a physicist at New York University. One significant change is the switch to meter-kilogram-second units; Purcell had refused to switch from centimeter-gram-second for the second edition. Also, in many places, the third edition "amplifies and clarifies the previous editions," writes Stroke. "For example, Purcell covered electromagnetic induction and Maxwell's equations in a single chapter; in Morin's update, the topics are split into two chapters and Maxwell's equations are more extensively discussed."

Clearly, Purcell's E&M matures slowly, and has taken on a life of its own; I won't be surprised to see the fourth edition appear another two decades from now.

The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable by James Owen Weatherall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013; $27.00). Five years removed, perhaps some readers are finally ready to learn about the physicists and mathematicians who revolutionized the modeling of financial markets, and who, some believe, contributed to their collapse in 2008. If that describes you, University of Maryland econophysicist Victor Yakovenko writes in his review that you'll find most of the characters in The Physics of Wall Street to be "brilliant, maverick minds, determined to study what they find interesting no matter where they find it."

The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable

The main sentiment in the book, writes Yakovenko, is "Weatherall's admiration of how mathematical models that were developed in physics and related disciplines found useful and relevant applications to financial markets—human-based systems that seemingly have nothing to do with conventional physics." But considering such market-driven social paradoxes as income inequality, the reviewer argues for constructive collaboration between economists and physicists in addressing the urgent problems of the world. Thanks to changing attitudes, he writes, physics departments are now "beginning to embrace econophysics and other broader applications of physics methods—and rightfully so. The economy is too important to be left to the economists."

Special Mention.'s top 20 list of "2013 Best Books of the Year: Science," features one book reviewed in Physics Today. Mario Livio's Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe(Simon and Schuster, 2013; $26.00), was reviewed in August by Donald Simanek at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. Livio, writes Simanek, corrects some historical misconceptions, including going to great lengths but finding no document or account of Einstein ever calling the cosmological constant "his biggest blunder."

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

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