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Alan H. Guth, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (Addison-Wesley, 1997).

"For a grand sweep across most of the exciting current topics in astrophysics and cosmology, an excellent choice is Martin Rees’s Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (Perseus, 1997). Currently Astronomer Royal of Great Britain and professor at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy, Rees is widely regarded as one of the best theoretical astrophysicists in the world. The book contains an adeptly blended discussion of many topics, including stellar evolution, the formation of chemical elements, black holes, the big bang, galactic evolution, and the inflation of the cosmos. In the course of his intellectual history of science, Rees also brings the major personalities to life, evoking such compelling figures as Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who first showed that massive stars must collapse into black holes. The book is a treasure trove of fascinating quotations, which not only introduce each chapter but also pepper the text throughout.

"The theme for which the book is titled emerges in its last third, where Rees explores the possibility that our universe may be only one of a myriad of universes that make up a ‘multiverse.’ Many versions of inflationary theory, as well as several other theoretical proposals, suggest the multiverse hypothesis. Rees goes on to speculate that the multiverse theory might answer the perplexing riddle of why the laws of physics seem so well tuned to provide the preconditions for life: If universes of all sorts exist, then it is not surprising that living creatures should find themselves in those hospitable to life. This view is controversial, but Rees honestly addresses the objections of other scientists."


Robert P. Crease, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of Making Physics: A Biography of Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1964—1972 (Chicago, 1999).

"Peter Galison’s Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago, 1997) is a study of the instruments of modern physics, the diverse subcultures of researchers they have created, and the relations among these subcultures. Galison describes the growing complexity of modern science without trying to force it into a philosophical straitjacket. One of his most interesting concepts, borrowed from anthropology, is of ‘trading zones,’ where scientific subcultures interact by speaking ‘pidgins and creoles’ made of words that are understood differently by each subculture but that suffice to ‘get by.’

"Jack M. Holl’s Argonne National Laboratory, 1946—96 (Illinois, 1997) is a history of one of the first three U.S. national laboratories. Holl describes how Argonne, located just south of Chicago, had to reinvent itself several times in its evolution from a Manhattan Project institution into one of this country’s most important venues for (mainly) physics research. Yet Holl also situates the lab within a broader social panorama. He touches on Argonne’s relationships with other labs, with the midwestern physics community, with federal funding agencies, and even with politicians and the media, who occasionally made it the target of crusades. In the early 1950s, for instance, right-wing radio commentator Paul Harvey campaigned against Argonne, at one point scaling the lab’s barbed-wire fence in the dark to demonstrate how easy it was to penetrate, and therefore how vulnerable our atomic institutions were to the communist menace.

"Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age (Norton, 1997), by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, is a page-turner about the science, people, institutions, and politics that accompanied the invention of the transistor–the ‘nerve cell’ of the information age. The authors take great care in describing the principal scientists and in revealing how their personalities helped shape the trajectories of their work. The portrait of the story’s central figure is particularly vivid: William Shockley, a visionary and almost insanely competitive physicist, was the single greatest driving force behind the explosive growth of the semiconductor industry. The authors describe his evolution from research physicist to head of an (unsuccessful) industrial firm to, finally, the exponent of controversial theories of human intelligence–a change that left him isolated both intellectually and socially. It’s refreshing to read a book that treats scientists as having lives, not just agendas."


Jeremiah P. Ostriker, professor of astrophysics and provost at Princeton University and co-editor of The Formation of Structure in the Universe (Cambridge, 1999).

"The Japanese government successfully kept firearms banned from Japan until 1542, but, in general, one can make a strong case for the inevitability of technological advance (if not ‘progress’): When something can be done, it will be done. Two books, Remaking Eden (Avon, 1997), by Lee M. Silver, and The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking, 1999), by Ray Kurzweil, are among the more provocative of the recent flood of offerings treating the two fields–biotechnology and computers–that have the greatest prospects for dramatically changing the way we live. The fields with the greatest prospects for changing the way we think would be quite different (I would nominate neuroscience and cosmology), but that’s another story.

"Silver addresses ‘imagined futures’ for human reproduction. There are, in addition to the well-publicized advent of cloning, innumerable entertaining or frightening options, such as male pregnancy and offspring from a blend of two or more same-sex parents. The possibilities are endless and not at all far-fetched. More than a decade ago, Science magazine ran on its cover the picture of a tobacco plant that glowed in the dark, thanks to a gene from the common firefly (luciferase). If that’s possible, anything’s possible. And, if the prepared mind provides the best insurance against the vicissitudes of change, then Silver’s book will help you to prepare. There is perhaps more enthusiasm for the imagined future than many of us will care for in this book, but it is a good and a very instructive read.

"Another exercise in futurology, Kurzweil’s book starts with ‘Moore’s Law,’ the astonishing fact that the number of logic elements on a computer chip has been doubling at approximately two-year intervals for the last quarter century. Kurzweil argues persuasively that our computational abilities have increased at this rate since the beginning of the present century. There is a bit more free association in this book than I fancy; the author conflates topics from astrophysics to neural nets in a mind-blowing but not always edifying way. However, the main point is basically correct. Almost all of the ‘brainy’ functions that we, as creatures, are proud of are–or will soon be–‘solved problems,’ and, with the inexorable march of technology, more of our intuitive and affective skills will be imitated or exceeded. Is this good, bad, exhilarating, terrifying, or just more of what we are already getting accustomed to?"


Fred C. Adams, associate professor of physics at the University of Michigan and author of The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity (Free Press, 1999).

"The origin of our universe poses one of the most fundamental challenges that modern science can address. Recent modifications of big bang theory have yielded new insights into this ancient question. The idea of a moment of creation has been placed on a solid scientific foundation and verified in many respects by experiment and observation. In this field, a vital new concept is inflation, which holds that in the very earliest instants of cosmic history, the universe was caught in a brief phase of fantastically rapid expansion. This theory was put forth by Alan Guth, who describes its development in The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (Addison-Wesley, 1997). Guth’s model explains many of the observed properties of our cosmos: its large size, its striking uniformity, and the precise flatness of its space-time geometry. As we come to understand more about the initial state of the cosmos, we can contemplate the possible creation of other universes–regions of space-time not causally connected to our own.

"An engaging treatment of this idea is presented in Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (Perseus, 1997), by Martin Rees. The idea of many alternate universes has been taken one step further by Lee Smolin in Life of the Cosmos (Oxford, 1997), which presents a Darwinian view of universes. Smolin considers the possibility that black holes can give birth to ‘child universes,’ which grow disconnected from the ‘parent’ universe. These child universes expand, produce black holes, and give birth to more offspring. The evolution of the resulting composite collection of universes unfolds in a manner analogous to biological evolution on Earth. Smolin provides an elegant and appealing explanation of why our universe has its observed properties–and perhaps why we are here to understand it."


Lawrence Krauss, professor of astronomy and chair of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University and author of The Physics of Star Trek (Basic, 1995).

"I have chosen a somewhat eclectic set of books, governed by the requirement that the content-to-hype ratio is weighted toward content. First on my list is Longing for the Harmonies: Themes and Variations from Modern Physics (Vintage, 1994), by physicist Frank Wilczek and his wife, Betsy Devine. Perhaps no more creative overview exists of the basis of modern physics. The authors compare aspects of modern particle physics to morphing the Stars and Stripes into the Union Jack–and this is just one example of the gems sprinkled throughout this book.

"Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory (Pantheon, 1992) is a lucid and deeply thought-provoking introduction to a line of physics research that is behind the construction of the largest machines on Earth. Some argue that this sort of work may result in a Theory of Everything. I’m not so sure, but Weinberg’s defense of scientific reductionism–in the face of opposition even from some fellow scientists–is masterful, and he provides a fascinating discussion of the search for ultimate truths.

"River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic, 1996) by the renowned popularizer of evolutionary biology Richard Dawkins, is a concise yet compelling exposition of how and why evolution happened and continues to happen. The Alabama legislature, which requires an antievolutionary insert to be placed in all high school biology textbooks, should be required to read Dawkins’s book. Finally, the last complete volume written by Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House, 1996), sheds light on the dangers facing a society in which science has become divorced from what is traditionally considered culture. By presenting simple yet dramatic refutations of myths promulgated by New Age mystics and alien-abduction promoters, and at the same time providing a historical perspective on the underlying roots of myth and superstition, Sagan demonstrates how science can guide us as a candle in the dark."


David L. Goodstein, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology and author of Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun (Norton, 1996).

"Something, possibly the coming of the millennium, has prompted a number of authors to set up shop at the frontiers of human knowledge and scan the horizon to see what’s out there waiting to be discovered. Nothing much, concludes science writer John Horgan in The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Addison-Wesley, 1995). Science, unlike other human pursuits, has the nasty habit of answering the questions it poses. In the long run, that leaves it with nothing much left to do. John Maddox, longtime editor of Nature magazine, harrumphs otherwise. ‘The 500 years of modern science are a good beginning, but only a beginning,’ he says in What Remains to Be Discovered (Free Press, 1998). Maddox doesn’t stoop to acknowledge in print that his book is a rebuttal to Horgan’s, but the two of them have become something of a traveling roadshow since their books came out.

"John Barrow, astronomy professor at the University of Sussex and popular-science writer, takes an altogether different approach to knowledge in Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (Oxford, 1998). Our minds evolved to find mates and to hunt game. Is there any reason that the resulting organ should be capable of understanding how the universe works? Barrow examines the limits of our knowledge of everything from black holes to word games."


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