Forget what you were taught at school, and say ‘what’s up’ to your new science bibles.
Guys, guys, guys – reading science stuff doesn’t have to be brain-achingly boring or baffling. There are tonnes of reads that incorporate personality (yep, science communicators do have personalities!), sass (oh, do they have sass), and clear-cut explanations of just about EVERY topic under our closest star… and way, way beyond it, for that dark matter.
As for the curious beings out there, who think they’re into a bit of science but don’t know where to start, this rapid round-up of physics books I have loved, and – most importantly – learnt SO much from, will get you started. Enjoy, earthlings!
(P.S. If you decide to pick up any of the below, based on my recommendation, hit me up on Twitter and let me know your thoughts.)
Author: Carl Sagan
At a glance: PERSPECTIVE. Introduction to the key scientific, mathematical, and philosophical players of antiquity. Humbling gratitude towards our incredulous Earth, and a new-found respect for it. Humanism. Nuclear war; discussion; fears of. Consideration and appreciation. History of space exploration. Nigh-poetic scientific discourse. Compassion. Comical jibes at religion. Developing a cosmic outlook.
The Jones review: Carl Sagan is my hero. His eloquence in describing the fragility and beauty of our planet, and its cosmic setting, is infectiously romantic and humbling. This little beauty will encourage you to appreciate everything you see, that little bit more. Prepare for an introduction to quantum realms, physics, philosophers of antiquity, and a little bit of the math that makes our cosmological clockwork tick. For extra funsies and to enhance your reading experience, watch Sagan’s 13-part TV series of the same name: it’s adorable and amazing. Oh yeah, did I mention: I love Carl Sagan?
Recommended: Watch Sagan’s TV show ‘Cosmos, A Personal Voyage’.
Title: Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity
Author: Carlo Rovelli
At a glance: Clandestine unfurling of quantum mechanics... Mind-expanding subatomic explanation. Thinkers of antiquity; history; geography. Albert Einstein love fest. Initially-gentle, then progressively-harsh quantum theory brain beating. Mentions of string theory. Introduction to thermodynamics. Casual name-dropping of key movers and shakers in science and maths. Black holes. Time doesn’t exist. Spin foam. Spin networks. Loop quantum gravity. What is quanta? Exactly!!...
The Jones review: oh my… Where to start with this one? I’m not being melodramatic, but I’m pretty sure this book changed my life. I love it. Allow me to set the scene… It begins with a romantic journey through the ancient history of natural science and philosophy, before it sucks you into a black hole of deepest, darkest physics. Without realising it, I was readily absorbing information, which had seemed intellectually intangible before (quantum mechanics isn’t THAT scary after all!). Rovelli artfully reduces the universe down to its literal constituent parts, in a syrupy simmer of seductive science as opposed to a bubbling boil of incomprehension. I will say, this isn’t a newbie’s book – an underlying interest in the subject is wholly necessary. But once you start, I guarantee you won’t stop! As soon as I had finished, I turned to the first page and started again. In fact, just writing about it has made me want to read it a fourth time! *Wanders over to bookshelf*
Title: Theory of special and general relativity
Author: Albert Einstein
At a glance: Ummmm. Traveling on a train will never be the same again. Forget what you knew about the concept of time.
The Jones Review: Okay, guys. This is some real shit, right here. Naturally, this isn’t a beginner’s read, or even for someone like me (with super basic knowledge), for that matter. For sure, there were times I had to grin and bear science and maths that were WAY beyond my brain’s capacity, but, this quintessential read is a must for anyone who wants to hear about Einstein’s theories, straight from the horse’s gob. And, if you finish it, and find yourself like: “WTF?!” Don’t panic. Even the most respected physicists will tell you: no one really gets it. Surf the science wave, my friends, soon you’ll find yourself being able to express the core principles, I promise.
Title: Gravity’s Engines, The Other Side of Black Holes
Author: Caleb Scharf
At a glance: BLACK HOLES, mate. How to conquer fear of; origins; evolution; categorisation; effects. Gravitational wave detection (see also: interferometers); questions, so many questions…
The Jones Review: I came across this intriguingly-titled book while on one of my nerdy lunchtime escapades, to the popular science section, in Waterstones. Immediately, the introduction grabbed me, before propelling me into a world where black holes are in fact the ‘engines’ of the cosmos, and suddenly all my fears about these treacherous cosmic monsters seemed silly. (No joke – black holes had always terrified me!) From the intro’s speed-of-light pace, to the notion that black holes could unlock the mysteries of our universe’s birth, this peer over the event horizon of a fascinating subject promises to chow down on your imagination, and spit out knowledge bombs.
Title: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
Author: Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, Steven Soter, Neil DeGrass Tyson
Key learnings: THIS. IS. EVERYTHING.
The Jones Review: Okay, this isn’t a book. It’s a TV show. But, in his gorgeous homage to Sagan’s Cosmos, Neil DeGrasse Tyson – actual friend and protégé of Sagan (can you even imagine?!) – revives the 34-year-old embers of the original show, with utmost elegance and the sweetest respect. Carl’s fingerprints are all over the remake, with quotes and visual excerpts often lifted from the seminal show, directly. NDT’s version receives a 21st century update with crazy-cool visual effects and animation. Visually-demanding newbies, who aren’t down with the retro gorgeousness of the 80’s original, start here. Seen Sagan’s version already? You will LOVE this.
Brush up on the deets of the spacecraft of the moment.
With Cassini’s cosmic career embracing a Septembral retirement date, the current hype surrounding its imminent immersion into the unknown is peaking. But, with 13 years of orbital observations under its belt, the vast wealth of sexy data, which has travelled all the way to this very page and coalesced into words, is by no means insignificant. Here are five Cassini-found facts you can nonchalantly recite, over a beer with friends…
Ginormous plumes containing elements that form the stuff of life here on earth, have been seen erupting from Saturn’s lunar satellite, Enceladus. The geysers infer hydrothermal activity, which in turn infers the possibility of life. Cassini has fearlessly torn through the plumes, using its mass spectrometer to analyse composition. The absence of certain elements has caused scepticism, but this jet of juicy gossip continues to rouse speculation.
If seen by astronomers of antiquity, the curious ‘Tiger’s Stripes’ on Enceladus would have no doubt been attributed to the claws of some constellate beast. We now know these marks are actually layers of ice, so thin the subterranean oceanic qualities of Enceladus are revealed. This confirms the icy moon’s status as an object for further investigation, with a potential mission lined up for a 2021.
The Cassini mission has provided extra data to support heliosphere measurements made by the two Voyager spacecraft and NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). The new data suggests the heliosphere, created by our sun’s magnetic field, may actually be a rounded system, as opposed to the depiction originally agreed upon, which included a ‘heliotail’.
4.Put a ring on it
Galileo was the first to see Saturn’s celebrated rings, that fateful day in 1610, when he cast a telescope to the mystical heavens. From a 17th century vantage point, with 17th century technology, Galileo’s layman recital of his observations, were of a planet with ‘ears’. Now, we know those ‘ears’ are in fact rings, composed of compact snowballs and debris. Sure, Cassini didn’t break this news, but the flavour of the month has reported spectacular findings. (N.B. It was the Dutch astronomer, Christiaan Huygens, who correctly identified Saturn’s orbiting ornaments… which brings us to our next point.)
Finally, our little trooper didn’t venture completely alone. Cassini had a payload, which was delivered to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. On 14th January 2005, Huygens left Cassini, and successfully entered Titan's upper atmosphere, descending by parachute to the surface. Huygens ceased to operate 70 minutes after landing, but the arrival marks a crucial milestone in space exploration; Titan is the farthest world any earthling-made technology has had the privilege to touch down upon.
What Saturn’s techno-satellite’s final months mean.
The Cassini spacecraft has been conducting cosmic espionage and revealing Saturnian secrets, since arriving at its orbital destination, in 2004.
Most recently, the NASA-ESA-ASI technical spectacle dove between the rings and planetary body of our celestial ‘hood’s Jovian jewel, sauntering past at a casual 70, 000mph, just 1, 900 miles from the planet itself. The bold nosedive is the first of its kind and marks the beginning of Cassini’s 22-orbit grand finale, which will culminate in all new data for everyone (yay!), before its sacrificial plunge into Saturn’s hydrogen-rich atmosphere in September 2017 (wahhhh).
But, Cassini aint no newbie. The tenacious space probe has been delivering the goods for the past 13 years and, in honour of its nigh-internet-breaking moment in the spotlight, (the Twittersphere has been blowing up with animations, raw images, and real-time updates), we’re celebrating the aeronautical achievement , before its demise in the skies, later this year.
Although all eyes are on the hypnotic robotic RN, the intrepid solar system surveyor’s mission has indeed been fruitful, fascinating, and – in some cases – fantastical (is there life on Enceladus 👀 ?). Thus, it’s imminent collision is decidedly heart-breaking, but a tantalising frontier of new data and unprecedented exploration awaits. From an up-close-and-personal peek at the dense ammonia cloud tops (which will be seen 10x closer than ever before), to the precious 60 seconds of communication that will follow Cassini’s nip behind Saturn’s atmospheric curtain, before the spacecraft’s ability to return signals home is lost forever, the final months of this unique mission are set to be an emotional rollercoaster.
While Voyager 1 and 2 surge through interstellar space (currently at 138 and 113 AU, respectively, from home), we’ve ticked off lunar landings, Martian meanderings, jaunts around Jupiter, and unprecedented Saturnian surveillance. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that, with each new mission, we are not only going further than ever before, we’re also forming deeper understandings than ever before.
If nothing else, one of the most profound extrapolations of all cosmic voyages made insofar, is that none of it would have been possible without a combined humanitarian effort, and the successful understanding, application, and cooperation of the unerring laws of physics. This respect for, and utility of, natural science, has provided yet another stepping stone into what was once the unknown.