Via Twitter, Michael Barton is looking for some good books about physics. I was Twitter-less for a few days around the period of his request, and this is a more-than-140-characters topic if ever there was one, so I’m turning it into a blog post.
The reason for the request is that he’s going to be working as an intern at the Einstein exhibit when it visits Portland, which makes this a little tricky, as relativity is not an area I’ve read a lot of popular books in (yet– that’s changing). That will make this a little more sparse than it might be in some other fields.
There’s also an essential disclaimer here regarding the “teaching physics”/ “teaching about physics” distinction. If you want to learn physics at the level needed to do physics– solving problems, reading journal articles, etc.– there is no substitute for a good textbook. Read it, and do as many of the problems as you can, and try the ones you can’t. If you want an intro-level survey of the field, pretty much all introductory texts are equivalent– go to your local college bookstore, pick up whatever they’re assigning for Physics 101, and start working through it.
(If you want something specifically about relativity, try Six Ideas That shaped Physics Unit R. It’s got some idiosyncracies, but it’s a good explanation, and very readable as these things go.)
Assuming you want to learn about physics, rather than plowing through all the math needed to do physics, though, there are a number of good books out there.
In the field of relativity, the recent book Why does E=mc2 by Cox and Forshaw has one of the best explanations of the theory I’ve ever seen. It’s not a very historical treatment, and thus has little to say about Einstein, but if you want a feel for the modern view of the theory in terms of spacetime, it’s hard to beat. It’s got some overly precious bits, though, and I say this as someone who has written a physics book featuring a talking dog.
Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here is really about the arrow of time, but in order to explain why this is a problem, he provides a nice explanation of special and general relativity, with an emphasis on the time aspects.
If you want a broader overview, Robert Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Everything is an outstanding survey of the Standard Model of particle physics, which includes some relativity. If you want to know what the deal is with “unified theories,” he’s got a good explanation of the problem and the various approaches to it.
Going in a more historical direction, I really like David Lindley’s Uncertainty, which describes the early years of quantum theory, and the philosophical debates between Einstein and Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and others. Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement is another excellent historical look at the development of quantum physics, and Einstein’s role in it.
If you want something that’s just fun and whimsical, I recommend George Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins books (there are several different editions out there). These dramatize the odd effects of relativity through the daydreams of a bank clerk with a tendency to doze off in physics lectures. They’re a little dated, but still great fun.
Other books that will certainly come up in any search for material on Einstein include Abraham Pais’s famous scientific biography Subtle Is the Lord… which includes both a thorough description of the science that made Einstein famous and also a biography of the man himself, and the processes by which he arrived at the physics results. I’m a couple hundred pages into this, and it’s very good, but highly mathematical. The descriptions of the science are both technical and sketchy, so they’d be pretty difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the science.
Another book that gets cited a lot is Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps by Peter Galison, which deals with the origins of relativity (Poincare almost came up with the theory before Einstein, but didn’t quite get it). I haven’t read this (yet), but it’s mentioned so frequently that I figured I should include it.
That ought to be more than enough to keep you busy reading. And I’m sure some readers will chime in with titles I forgot to list…