Outstanding Academic Titles 2023: Physics

Enjoy these five selections from the Choice Reviews 2023 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight, Outstanding Academic Titles from the past year about physics. A hearty congratulations to the winning authors, editors and publishers!

1. Invisibility: the history and science of how not to be seen
Gbur, Gregory J. Yale, 2023

In this superb example of expository science writing, Gbur (Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte) succeeds in describing, in terms that all can understand, what it takes to create invisible objects. Modern applications involve stealth technology and metamaterials. However, invisibility enjoys a long tradition in human history and imagination, as popularized in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books. Gbur was a student of Emil Wolf, a giant of US optics, and delightfully recounts many anecdotes from Wolf’s personal and academic life, recalling his contributions to the science of optical waves’ interactions with surfaces. The premise of invisibility is to ensure that light and electromagnetic (EM) waves do not reflect from, i.e., pass through, the target object. Examples of invisibility at both microscopic and macroscopic scales appear in the research literature, yet here Gbur succeeds wonderfully at bringing together the history of EM waves and quantum mechanics to explain in lay terms how invisibility shifts from science fiction to reality. This reviewer enjoyed reading this well-written, very clear book on a fascinating topic made easy to grasp.

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2. Humanity’s moment: a climate scientist’s case for hope
Gergis, Joëlle. Island Press, 2023

In this work, Gergis (Australian National Univ.) provides a meaningful perspective on climate science and climate solutions. As a leading authority on climate science, Gergis possesses deep knowledge about the physical workings of the climate system and the historical evolution of the climate in recent decades. Her narrative provides an accessible summary of the primary findings and positions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which produces regular scientific synthesis reports, to which Gergis has contributed as a lead author. The primary contribution here, however, is the interweaving of scientific content with honest personal storytelling. The author demonstrates her understanding of the despair that readers might feel when faced with the facts of anthropogenic climate change. She also expresses an unmistakable sense of optimism, grounded by the reality that sustainable solutions are currently available, and already making a difference.

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3. Atomic environments: nuclear technologies, the natural world, and policymaking, 1945 -1960
Oatsvall, Neil S. Alabama, 2023

Oatsvall (independent scholar) offers a fresh history of how policy makers at the dawn of the nuclear age (1945–60) dealt with the interconnections between nuclear technologies and the environment in their decisions involving the testing of nuclear weapons. Using archival collections, published primary sources, websites, and secondary sources, he thoroughly explores how officials of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations understood their responsibilities to secure the national defense by producing better atomic bombs while also protecting public health through limiting the amounts and occurrences of fallout. At the same time, these policy makers were assessing the limits and capabilities of nuclear technologies for civilian uses. Oatsvall makes a strong case that many advances in the environmental sciences were made because of the efforts to understand nuclear technologies. Yet the degree to which decision-makers put citizens at risk from dangerous levels of fallout in order to advance nuclear technologies will likely be disturbing to many readers. Nevertheless, Oatsvall is convincing in arguing that nuclear weapons stimulated the advent of ecology as a coherent field because advances in nuclear weapons required new understandings of Earth systems.

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4. The matter of everything: how curiosity, physics and improbable experiments changed the world
Sheehy, Suzie. Knopf, 2023

Sheehy (Univ. of Oxford; Univ. of Melbourne) is an experimental particle physicist and science communicator. In this excellent book, she describes many important discoveries in physics and exposes the nature of scientific research, exploring “the difference between theory and experiment” (p. 4). As she explains, scientific research starts with asking questions and devising experiments to provide answers. Sometimes, the results are unpredicted serendipitous discoveries, but many experiments involve detailed preparations to observe predicted phenomena. Following the author’s introduction, the three-part text describes, e.g., the discovery of X-rays and the electron through the development of cathode ray tubes, light quanta via the photoelectric effect, using “cloud chambers” to discover other new particles, using early atom-splitters (the cyclotron) to produce artificial radioactivity, particle physics and the elusive neutrino, using linear accelerators to discover quarks, and onward finally to the Higgs boson. Sheehy’s final chapter casts forward to further developments. Although breakthroughs are initially the work of individuals, subsequent developments involve collaboration. Thus, “discoveries” are the results not only of seemingly esoteric experiments but also of application, sometimes affecting people’s everyday lives.
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5Einstein’s unfinished dream
Lincoln, Don. Oxford, 2023

While it does sometimes dip a toe into more technical language, this book is an eminently readable overview of the quest for unification that goes back at least to Newton (who unified celestial and terrestrial gravity). Lincoln (Fermi National Laboratory) carefully lays out the history of the search and brings into the light many of the important players who tend to be unknown outside of specialist circles, and who would otherwise remain in Einstein’s long shadow. While mostly written at the “science popularizer” level, the text still brings a lot of detail to the history of physics, providing the broad strokes of what made various models succeed or fail, including responsible caveats about how success is tentative and that a failed model might be revived if new discoveries so warrant. Despite being well read on the topic, this reviewer still learned several things from the book and had no disagreement with any of the author’s points. This reviewer’s copy of Lincoln’s text will certainly be loaned out to students interested in learning about this topic beyond the scope of their university physics courses.
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