The Elegant Universe is a highly acclaimed introduction to the subject of modern physics, beginning with a few chapters on two 20th century revolutions in physics – namely general relativity and quantum mechanics. The rest of the book details the search for a unified theory of quantum gravity and the development of string theory as a prime candidate for this unification. The author, Brian Greene, also talks about some of his own contributions as one of the leading researchers in string theory. He really explains some very difficult concepts very well using various analogies, so this book is very suitable for the layperson. A TV documentary of the same title hosted by Brian Greene himself is available for online viewing for the not-so reading inclined.
As a sequel to The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos is definitely a much easier read than its predecessor! Brian Greene explains that this book was intended for people like his mother, who couldn’t understand his first book! About one third of the contents are similar, but while The Elegant Universe spends more time on the development of modern day physical theories, the Fabric of the Cosmos explores how such theories lead to astonishing conclusions about space, time and the universe.
The book that started it all! A Brief History of Time has got to be the book that first made modern physics and cosmology accessible to the general public. It probably single-handedly increased the popularity of cosmology among non-scientists! It’s not as easy to understand as some of the other books available today, and its pretty outdated, considering that cosmology has advanced in leaps and bounds ever since its publication in the 1980s. Read it for no reason other than because it’s a classic!
The Universe in a Nutshell is a sequel to A Brief History of Time. There are some new ideas in here, including string theory and brane-worlds, but the draw of this book has got to be its full-colour illustrations on almost every page!
What do the laws of nature have in common with music and art? They all obey the mathematical principle of symmetry, according to Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman and theoretical physicist Christopher Hill. Symmetry is a principle underlying much of fundamental physics, and Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe explores this concept in various modern day theories in physics, while attempting to convey a sense of its beauty. It also contains a short biography of a very interesting but relatively unknown female mathematician called Emmy Noether and her work in this field.
Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy may not be as popular as A Brief History of Time, and Kip Thorne may not be much of a household name in comparison with that of his colleague Stephen Hawking, but I would think that this book is a much better read. It contains much more information about the historical developments of Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, as well as the legacies that have been left behind in the discovery of neutron stars, black holes and supermassive black holes lying in the hearts of all galaxies. The book’s up close and personal look at the various scientific personalities involved in these discoveries (Chandrasekhar, Oppenheimer, Zwicky, Wheeler and many more) allows readers to relate to the struggles and triumphs of these great minds who are after all, only human.
Mitchell Begelman and Martin Rees reveal all there is to know about what we think we know about black holes, in the fully illustrated Gravity’s Fatal Attraction. From microscopic black holes, stellar mass black holes, to supermassive black holes residing in every large galaxy and powering quasars, this book makes for a good introduction to the topic. It even contains a chapter on the role these exotic objects play in the evolution of the Universe.
The Dark Side of the Universe by Iain Nicolson is another great book on cosmology that has all the nice full-color pictures and illustrations. It contains some of the latest updates on dark matter and dark energy, and has a bit more of an astronomical emphasis compared to other similar books
For some of the more recent discoveries in cosmology i.e. dark matter and dark energy, Dark Cosmos: In Search of Our Universe’s Missing Mass and Energy by particle physicist Dan Hooper is a watered down introduction to some of these concepts and their implications on our understanding of the universe. All the possible candidates for dark matter, including WIMPS and MACHOS, are discussed in a lively manner. It’s not one of the best books out there on such topics though.
This is first of all a book about science, as its title implies – physical cosmology in particular. But what makes this book so unique is that Edward Harrison does not shy away from delving into the metaphysics arising out of the study of our universe. He makes good use of the ‘Reflections’ and ‘Projects’ section at the end of each chapter to allow the reader to ponder such questions. Starting from the beginning, when humans first began pondering about the universe, Harrison details the history of cosmology and the revolutions that have reshaped it – right up to the present world of observational cosmology. Thus, one finds a good mix of history and philosophy in and among the science that is being discussed. An excellent and thoughtful textbook on cosmology for non-physics majors.
For those interested in delving deeper into the science of cosmology, Andrew Liddle’s An Introduction to Modern Cosmology helps to bridge the gap between popular science and graduate level reference books. He arrives at the famous Friedmann equation through Newtonian physics rather than the standard relativistic approach (we still end up with the same equation). Through the solutions of this equation, Liddle explores subjects such as the curvature of space, the cosmological constant, the density parameter, the age of the Universe, nucleosynthesis, and inflationary big bang models. Due to the author’s use of mathematical equations to explain these concepts, readers are expected to be familiar with very basic undergraduate level mathematics and physics.