Reviews Physics World  December 2019

Paul Davies wins Physics World Book of the Year 2019

From the Moon and comets, to dragons and demons, 2019’s top physics books are an eclectic mix

Physics World’s Book of the Year award last month celebrated its 10th anniversary. The 2010s were a golden era for popular-physics books, and the 2019 Book of the Year shortlist reflected those strengths. We based our choices on the 42 books we reviewed over the previous 12 months in Physics World, picking our favourite 10 using the same three criteria that had been in place since we launched our Book of the Year award in 2009 – the books must be well written, novel and scientifically interesting to physicists.

As is the case every year, choosing one winner from 10 such interesting and varied books was a tough task, but we ultimately picked The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information are Solving the Mystery of Life by Paul Davies as our 2019 winner.

Paul Davies’ latest book attempts to answer some of the biggest questions that we have long pondered. What exactly is life, how and why does it emerge, and what distinguishes the living from the non-living?

This book is the culmination of decades of research done by Davies’s team at the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, US. Davies’ goal is to bring together physics, chemistry, molecular biology, genomics and information theory, to truly explain our universe and our place in it. The book deals with established physics concepts (such as the second law of thermodynamics), but also delves into Davies’ thoughts on topics such as the emergence of human consciousness (while making sure the reader is aware of what is speculation). For Davies, matter, life and information are all tightly interwoven, and understanding these complex connections is what will eventually give us a true theory of everything.


The other nine titles in our shortlist were:


The Moon: a History for the Future by Oliver Morton

As we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon-landings, Morton tells the story of our Moon, from its origin to its role in humanity’s history and future.


The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald D Hoffman

Reality is more than meets the eye, and cognitive psychologist Hoffman makes the case for why this applies to everything from evolution to optics.


Fire, Ice and Physics: the Science of Game of Thrones by Rebecca C Thompson

From dragons to walls of ice, everyone’s favourite fantasy TV show has more physics fun hidden within than you would have thought.


Underland: a Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

From dark matter to nuclear waste, Macfarlane will take you deep within the bowels of our planet, and interrogates our relationship with these hidden worlds.


The Second Kind of Impossible: the Extraordinary Quest For A New Form of Matter by Paul J Steinhardt

A rip-roaring adventure tale, featuring a mild-mannered theoretical physicist, who found himself leading an expedition to the mosquito-and-bear-infested wilderness of eastern Russia in search of tiny grains of rock from outer space.


Superior: the Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

After her award-winning book Inferior scientifically analysed the supposed differences between the sexes, Saini now tackles the difficult topic of racism, and the erroneous belief that race, a social construct, has a basis in biology.


Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: the Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum by Lee Smolin

Smolin presents a bold “realist” formulation of quantum mechanics, in which time is fundamental, but space is emergent.


The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Maths Reveals Nature’s Deepest Secrets by Graham Farmelo

Farmelo offers a bracing defence of string theory and the power of mathematics in making progress in physics.


Catching Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System by Natalie Starkey

Starkey shares her fascination with these cosmic visitors, detailing how scientists study comets and asteroids to understand the 4.6-billion-year history of the solar system.