On "popular demand" I am listing the books I got from Powell's Bookstore in Portland. Since I was on a tight schedule I unfortunately could tour only three or four sections; inevitably I settled on the ones related to science and had to miss out on my other big interest which is history. The great merit of Powell's lies in the concomitant shelving of rare and used copies along with the new ones in the same rows. In spite of the time constraints I got some classics; some old friends, some new acquaintances:
1. Atoms in the Family; My Life with Enrico Fermi- Laura Fermi. From a practical standpoint, Fermi was perhaps the greatest physicist of the twentieth century. No branch of modern physics failed to be touched by his golden touch. Even among geniuses he was regarded as a giant. And yet this remarkably humble and brilliant man was also rather private. Who better than his wife Laura to give us an intimate glimpse into his private personality. They met as very young people during a football match. Laura describes her husband's meteoric rise in the world of physics, his establishment of an outstanding school of physics in Rome, his comically rational and scientific approach towards everyday matters. She then describes the Fermis' plan to emigrate to the US even as the clouds of Fascism gathered in Europe. Fermi's preeminent position as the world's foremost authority in nuclear physics made him a special participant in the Manhattan Project. Laura also describes the many brilliant scientists whom she met, as well as endearing stories about adjusting to life in America. There was nobody in the world of physics who was respected as much as Enrico Fermi, and Laura lucidly gives us a glimpse of the everyday qualities- extraordinary patience, strength of character, dedication, discipline, humility- that made him who he was.
This is a valuable and affectionate account written with fondness and clarity, absolutely worth reading.
2. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea- Carl Zimmer's book on evolution which I am just about to finish is one of the finest I have read on the subject. Impeccably comprehensive and filled with a sense of wonder at Darwin's triumphant idea and life's diversity, Zimmer lucidly traces every aspect of the subject; from accounts of Darwin's life to the early origins of life, the explosion of multicellular life, the evolution of higher animals, an outstanding chapter on extinctions and their pivotal role in evolution, and finally the evolution of the biology, culture and psychology of the peculiar creature called Homo sapiens. A roller-coaster story through the creation and metamorphosis of life, more wondrous than any religious or fantasy tale.
3. The Life It Brings: Jeremy Bernstein- Bernstein is a veteran physicist and writer who has penned volumes on Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe and nuclear weapons. This is his short and readable autobiography, sprinkled liberally with accounts of encounters with famous physicists who were colleagues, friends and teachers.
4. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness- Vilayanur Ramachandran. His "Phantoms in the Brain" was enthralling, his research and prose are fascinating. Now the noted neuroscientist takes on perhaps the greatest mystery of the human brain- the making and manifestation of the "I"
5. Programming the Universe- Seth Lloyd. Is the entire universe a quantum computer with its own collapsible wavefunction? Read this book to find out. Also includes a poignant account of the work and death of Heinz Pagels, a brilliant physicist who met with a tragic untimely end.
6. The Cartoon Guide to Statistics- Finally, a book that brings the "dismal science" to life. I have to say that even for some advanced concepts, this is one of the best books I have found on the subject. Won't bore you one bit with its cute cartoon figures and stories. Its discussion of Bayesian probability is an exceedingly endearing one, starting with Chevalier De Mere gambling away his shirt because of ignorance of conditional probability...
7. Coulson's Valence- Charles Coulson. Non-chemists and physicists may not be familiar with this one, but this classic first published in the 1940s was the first to make quantum mechanics and chemistry familiar to chemists in a semi-technical, using appropriate mathematics wherever necessary but not too much. Crystal clear and memorable prose as only the British can deliver. I am extremely lucky to have found a first edition.
8. Asterix the Gladiator- Yes, the doughty Gauls are still alive on the shelves! I was so happy to see this series still around. Unfortunately prices are still steep with 10$ a volume, but I am going to start building my collection with this one which is my favourite.
9. Stalin and the Bomb- David Holloway's extraordinary and meticulously researched account of the Soviet bomb project, starting with the discovery of fission and its impact on Soviet physicists and ending with the first Soviet thermonuclear test, this book will remain the most authoritative account of the Soviet Union's tryst with atomic energy.