I’ve discovered I like a certain kind of book. These books combine science or technology, politics, personalities, and history. In the past few years I’ve read a few books I thought combined these ingredients well.
The first is The Inflationary Universe, by Alan Guth. If you’re interested in understanding what happened 10-36 seconds into the Big Bang (and who isn’t?), this is the book for you. Along the way, you’ll learn the politics of the modern university re publish or perish and getting tenure. Although The Inflationary Universe can be heavy slogging for those who don’t solve math problems to pass the time (and again, who doesn’t?), Guth recommends a chapter or two you can skip without missing anything more than a detailed exposition of inflationary cosmology. Highly recommended. I hope Guth decides to write another book.
The next book is The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, by Lee Smolin. Trouble With Physics describes the history surrounding the various versions of string theory and why all of them are wrong, unprovable (“unfalsifiable” to be technically correct), or both. This book tends more to the politics of physics, deploring the near-religious fervor surrounding string theory and the excommunication of those who choose to research alternative theories. As Smolin is one of the heretics, Trouble With Physics sounds a little personal in places. Regardless, if you have half a “brane,” you’ll enjoy Trouble. (Ouch! That pun was so bad, it hurt!)
The last book is Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, by Charles Seife. Sun in a Bottle chronicles the history of fusion, starting with fusion bombs and moving to energy production, including magnetic- and laser-based hot fusion, cold fusion, and bubble fusion. World politics, national budgets, foreign espionage, and scientists’ personalities and political beliefs all contribute to fusion’s “strange history.” I remember my nuclear engineering professor in the early ’80′s saying fusion was a “dirty” process, generating tons of nuclear waste. After reading this book, you’ll understand why. Sun in a Bottle is not optimistic that fusion power can ease the energy crunch in the foreseeable future. Although that’s not good news, it’s important to keep in mind as politicians and environmentalists push us away from carbon-based production of electricity.
Take a look at these books. You might find you like them, too. I’m looking for similar books on different areas of science and technology. Feel free to leave recommendations in the comments below or using my contact information.