Book 231: Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy by Mary Brück

9789048124725Finished reading on May 13th

Rating: 10/10

Who were some women who were known for their astronomical observations, calculations or texts? This is what Mary Brück’s book deals with together with how they got their start in astronomy.

The book doesn’t only include women, who made such discoveries as finding new comets etc, but rather also includes women who made a contribution in a different way, maybe by translating a text, writing a commentary on it or writing popular books to spark the interest of young readers.

It is fascinating and at some times a sad book to read – fascinating in the amazing women in portrays, but sad in the challenges and roadblocks that those brilliant and enthusiastic women faced because of being women.

In it you can read about such famous women in science as Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville, but also of women who might have been working in the shadow of their husband or brother, such as Annie Maunder.

I found it especially interesting how mostly (with the exception being Caroline Herschel’s mother) the families and parents were supportive in these cases, when their daughter/sisters wanted to learn more about astronomy or science in general, and how brothers would  help their sisters in gaining an education in science. The sad part though ofcourse was to read about how a few of them didn’t really get to practice astronomy in the same way after marriage to a not really astronomy-friendly man, or who had to stop the hobby or work for any other reason.

The book provides short biographies of more than twenty intelligent women who took an interest in the stars. It is just sad to think that now they would have totally different lives, there wouldn’t be so many difficulties in their way, but there would still not be an equal number of male and female astronomers or scientists in general.

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Book 179: Feynman by Ottaviani & Myrick

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Feynman by Ottaviani & Myrick

Finished reading on June 24th, 2015

Rating: 7/10

If you’re interested in reading a scientists biography in a graphic novel format, then this might be a good choice, although it’s not exactly a biography as such – you just get scenes from Richard Feynman’s life, that you could also find in his stories, but here you get them in a shorter graphic format.

If you already know who Richard Feynman was and have read books by/about him, then it might be a bit boring if you’ve read something just recently, but if it’s been a while since you’ve read about Feynman, then it’s a good reminder.

I like the choice of scenes (There are the essential safe-cracking at Los Alamos, Arlene and Nobel prize etc), the art is nice too, I would have given it a higher rating if I wouldn’t have read so much about Feynman recently.

So in general, if you’ve no idea who Feynman is, pick this book up! It’s a quick read and fun. And it reads almost the same as Feynman stories do, but you get them in a concentrated form.

ATTENTION! – there’s some physics at the end! 🙂

Book 172: Genius by James Gleick

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Genius by James Gleick

Finished reading on May 21st, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Richard Feynman is a name that you might most likely have heard if you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory or if you’ve taken a course in particle physics. I can make checks in both 🙂
“Genius” is one of several biographies of Feynman, who seems to me as the best example of a misunderstood genius, despite being highly acclaimed and having gotten a Nobel prize in physics.

I picked this book up quite soon after reading his correspondence, and as I’ve read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” last year, most of it didn’t seem new, but it was still interesting and it gave a better idea of Richard Feynman as a person, and it was the first time I could actually read about his contributions to physics.

The thing that strikes me the most about Feynman, was the way he worked – not reading the new paper in physics fully, but only until he got an idea of the problem and then trying to solve it himself and spending a lot of time on questions that he never published anything about, although many others would have. That’s just curious. The first explains his great grasp of physics, the second is just a mystery to me, as in my imagination you’d try to publish any significant results. Maybe that’s just it though- he probably didn’t see it as significant enough or as not a big enough contribution?

The book did change my opinion of Feynman in some ways, as previously I had seen him as an ingenious joker, and now I’m not so sure, as it all seems quite tragic.

I did like that you do see quite a lot of his contemporary physicists, so you won’t get the idea that he was the only one working on it, but you see it as everyone contributing something – some more, some less, and find out about their relationships, and you see Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger and Freeman Dyson appear in the story – it brings Feynman out of vacuum and gives a broader view of everything.

I feel like there’s no reason for me to actually do a short overview of Feynman’s life, as that’s what Wikipedia is for. Rather I’d just say that if you’ve enjoyed stories about Feynman, this biography might be enjoyable, and if you’re studying physics, it’s also quite motivational. I dare you to start reading this and not want to pick up a physics textbook!

Also, I’d really recommend reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” before this one.

Book 67: American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

pIMG_9954American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Finished reading on august 19, 2013

Rating 8/10

This book was one of those huge books I thought I’ll never actually be able to finish reading. I started reading it in the end of July and I’m quite surprised that I got to the end of the book, considering that I had started to read it from the beginning on to other occasions, first when I received the book  two years ago as a birthday present and about year later when I couldn’t go to sleep after finishing some other book.

It is a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist of Jewish heritage who worked and lived for most of his life in the US and lead the team of scientists in the Manhattan project and hence is called “the father of the atomic bomb”

After the bombs were sent out to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was the most famous physicist in the US, perhaps second only to  Albert Einstein. However as the subtitle of the book suggests besides the triumph of the atomic bomb there was also a huge tragedy – in the end on 1930s, Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty had had leftist views in politics and many thought they had been communists, Robert’s brother Frank had even been a member of the Communist Party.

The problem arose in 1950s when there was an inquiry as to whether Robert should have and should even originally have been given security clearance to work on the bomb and later to be an adviser in a committee to the government. Robert had had a lot of friends and students who had supported the communists’ views and as he had been under surveillance by the FBI already from the beginning of the Manhattan project – being followed and and having wiretaps (mostly illegal) on his phones, he lost his clearance.  Though that appears to have been only a small part of it, Oppenheimer opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb and tried to slow down it’s production and by doing that had also gained some enemies among scientists. As there was already a race between the Soviet Union and the United States, then his actions were not taken lightly or positively, since developing the hydrogen bomb would naturally also have to be the next step for the Soviet Union.

The book was interesting for most part, though there was a lot of politics involved, which was kind of dispiriting, as it took so much time to go through… otherwise quite excellent and the ending somewhat sad.

Book 66: Discoverers of the Universe by Michael Hoskin

PIMG_9783Discoverers of the Universe by Michael Hoskin

Finished reading on August 15, 2013

Rating 9/10

“Discoverers of the Universe” tells the story of William and Caroline Herschels life and work. William Herschel is most famous for his discovery of the planet Uranus, which he actually named Georgium Sidus, or George’s star in honour the then reigning British monarch. Uranus, that’s what most people know. William Herschel was also a telescope maker, he made the best reflectors in his time and also the biggest, he observed binary stars, planets and their satellites, nebulae and a lot of other objects.

Caroline Herschel was William’s younger sister, who became William’s assistant – marked down his observations and did a lot of paperwork. But she did her own observations as well – she discovered nine comets and was one of the first female astronomers to get paid for her work.

This book tells it all in detail, about where and when they lived, how much Herschel actually used his 40 foot reflector, how until middle age Herschel had been a musician etc.

It’s a wonderful book, and I’m sure would be nteresting even if you haven’t heard of William Herschel before.

Book 44: The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo

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The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo

Finished reading May 25, 2013

Rating 9/10

It seems as if I’ve had this book for ages and only now I’ve managed to read it. I got it at the height of my interest in 20th century physicists. For some reason I only got as far as about 100 pages on my first try and after that it was trapped next to one of my biggest fears in my bookcase – “American Prometheus” by K. Bird and M.J. Sherwin. It is literally the biggest with ca 600 pages about Robert J. Oppenheimer and ca 100 more with notes etc…

Back to the book at hand.

The Strangest Man probably got it’s title from something that the famous physicist Niels Bohr once said about Paul Dirac, whose biography this book is, namely that Dirac was the strangest man he knew.

Probably to most people the name Paul Dirac says very little. Not so with physicists – the Dirac equation is one of the things already undergraduate physics students have to wrestle with. In this book there’s all the background for it, and even more – it almost seems to chronicle the beginning of quantum mechanics, it’s not just about Dirac, you also get a glimpse into the lives of the other famous quantum physicists – Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, etc.

If the former wasn’t successful in scaring you away from reading that book, then good! Because it does have some physics, but no equations, and you can follow mostly everything without knowing anything about quantum physics beforehand, it’s more history of one man behind it.

But now to the exciting part – why would the Nobel laureate Bohr think Dirac so strange? Well there were many great examples for what might make Dirac seem strange: he was very quiet and shy (but that’s usual), very literally minded, wanted to refuse his Nobel prize in physics because he didn’t like publicity and attention, but was persuaded that his refusal would get him even more attention. And if you’re ever asked do you know of a physicist who bought a baby alligator and sent it to his colleague, then it was Dirac, who sent it to George Gamow (Gamow’s wife opened the package and got bitten).

Book 28: The Man Who Changed Everything by Basil Mahon

 
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“The Man Who Changed Everything” by Basil Mahon

Finished reading on January 16, 2013

Rating 9/10

When I had just started studying physics at university level, I found reading scientists’ biographies motivational, even though I might not have understood any of the science to a good enough extent.

James Clerk Maxwell was for me one of those scientists, whose name being mentioned in a lecture made me want to turn invisible, because it almost always meant having to deal with Maxwell’s equations.

I wish I had read “The Man Who Changed Everything” before I acquired a habit of trying to avoid any topics that dealt with electromagnetism. Mahon’s writing is amazing. And the book is truly great.

I’d highly recommend reading this book to any physics student or science buff, but also to someone who might not be that well informed of physics or mathematics – you’ll hardly need it when reading.

James Clerk Maxwell is best known for his work in electromagnetism and statistical mechanics, but he also worked on the theory of colors and tried to explain how the rings of Saturn can be stable.  (one of the reasons I started reading the book was to find out what connection did Maxwell have to Saturn, as it’s on the cover..)

 

 

Book 27: Galileo by J. L. Heilbron

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Galileo by j.L. Heilbron

Finished reading 10.01.2013

Rating 9/10

Until I started reading this book I thought that Galileo was the guy who dropped cannon balls down from the Tower of Pisa and ended up blind and in house arrest. That was the baseline.

Now, having read Heilbron’s book, Galileo seems like an actual person who lived some 400 years ago. Yes, I knew he existed before, but reading ca 350 pages about someone occasionally makes them seem more real.

Heilbron’s “Galileo” gives a very good overview of the kind of person Galileo was – apparently some-what arrogant and a bit too fond of wine, but a real scientist, not just a philosopher (I don’t have anything against philosophers, unless they’re electrically charged).

Probably all books about the history of astronomy have Galileo in them, thus making it seem a little awkward how illuminating Heilbron’s book seemed to me, not because of finding out some important aspects of Galileo’s life, but rather for showing some of the reasons why the Copernican model of the Solar system didn’t take hold until a lot later in history.

But also the way that Galileo himself wrote about astronomy and mechanics is rather amusing and witty and so is Heilbron’s writing.

I really loved this book.

Book 15: Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane

Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane (Scribner, 2007)

Finished reading November 13, 2012

Rating 9/10

I started reading it in bouts in the end of last week while watching several sci-fi movies. I took this book up because in Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars”, she writes that if you only ever read one astronaut’s biography, then this one should be it.

I’m not sure yet, whether this would be the definitive astronaut’s biography, but I’ll know that when I read something by other astronauts. However I think it is a truly great book. And it might be the characteristic space shuttle astronaut’s story. I just loved it. It’s funny and serious and exciting from the beginning to the end.

Plus it gives a good idea of what the astronauts have had to suffer to get into space. It covers the astronauts selection process from the candidates’ point of view, there’s Mullane’s childhood and how he became an astronaut. He flew on three shuttle flights. The most exciting part for me was the description of the first launch of Discovery… or well tries to launch Discovery – they aborted a few times.

You can also read about the Challenger’s last flight.

In general I think it might have a bad effect on some people – they’d want to become astronauts themselves.

While I’m not yet in that kind of danger – I’d rather wait until they start the space elevator business, I really found Mullane’s description of the shuttle’s descent a bit worrying and I don’t think that coming back down in a capsule sounds any better… so spend my whole life in orbit or wait? I’ll have to settle for the last one for now. Especially since there aren’t  space shuttle flights anymore. 😦

It was a bit like reading Robert Scott’s diary or about Amundsen going to the South Pole – it’s something that puts everything in a human to an extreme test – the motivation, strength, skill, health. I used to be obsessed about expeditions to the South Pole,  space expeditions are just one (small) step further.

And a talk by Mike Mullane :

Book 11: My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall

My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall

Finished reading on 31.10.2012

Rating 8/10

A short autobiography of Jane Goodall. As such it is suitable both for adults and children – reads well and is interesting if you have any interest at all in nature and chimps. I liked it and can’t wait to start reading something more specific and maybe longer and more scientific. This one only scratches the surface and believe me it will keep bugging to just leave it at that.

It is inspirational and might make you want to go take a walk in a forest or go and get a dog… or live with chimpanzees.

Maybe you’d want to read the book after watching this video: