What are the best books for getting a teenager into physics? Kate Lee, Head of Physics at St Paul's Girls School, recommends books about NASA, space travel, and the Big Bang—and puzzles the question of why it is so hard for young women to stay in physics as a profession.
The reason that’s usually given to me is ‘because I want to know how the world works.’ These students have a strong sense that the world is, at its heart, understandable, and that that there are principles—principles that are both interesting and themselves and have power that can be harnessed for the wellbeing of humanity—that we can use and apply in all sorts of contexts.
Say you’re flying on an airplane with your mobile phone. You might get to a stage where you’re not just happy to look at the sky, snap a picture and say ‘there it is’. You want to know the underlying mechanisms of the plane, how it’s built and how it stays in the air. These are things that the majority of people throughout human history had no idea about, and they made up all sorts of wonderful stories to “explain” them. It’s all just intrinsically fascinating.
Contrary to the myth of difficulty, I think the attraction for some is that it feels in some ways easier than history, philosophy, or politics—very complicated subjects that don’t necessarily offer solutions to problems. I imagine there’s a certain clarity and underlying logic to mathematics and physics: the idea that if you work hard enough it will make sense, even if you have to work for a very long time and ultimately only see part of the overall picture.
Does physics being a hard subject put people off in your experience?
It depends. I find other subjects much harder than physics. And people often take physics because it is regarded as difficult. It is, I suppose, a prestigious subject. If you’re applying to university with an A or an A* in A Level Physics, it is very much to your advantage, because it shows that you can think in a wide variety of ways. That does attract people.
Let’s move on to your books. First, you’ve picked The Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe, a book that explains complex things using only the top 1,000 words in the English language—
—Ten-hundred! It has to be ‘ten-hundred’, because the word ‘thousand’ is not one of the most commonly used words in the English language.
Why did you choose it?
Because it’s charming and wildly clever. He wrote it as a sort of joke. Randall Munroe is this extraordinarily talented, clever cartoonist with a background in robotics—at one point he worked for NASA as a contract programmer and roboticist.
But the book is about how to explain things using the simplest terms you possibly can. Take his diagram of the US Space Team’s Up Goer Five, which is the Saturn V rocket. At the bottom, a couple of arrows point to the jet propellers with this note:
THIS END SHOULD POINT TOWARD THE GROUND IF YOU WANT TO GO TO SPACE. IF IT STARTS POINTING TOWARD SPACE YOU ARE HAVING A BAD PROBLEM, AND YOU WILL NOT GO TO SPACE TODAY.
[Laughs.] And there’s another indicator with the message: “LOTS OF FIRE COMES OUT HERE”. The accuracy! When he describes something you already know about, you think, ‘That is such a clever way of putting it in the simplest possible, soundest terms’.
How would you describe helium without using the word ‘helium’? Well, in this book it’s ‘funny voice air’. It’s both clever and screamingly funny all the way through. He’ll talk of ‘hand computers’ instead of mobile phones, or ‘tiny power gates’ instead of transistors. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Munroe said one of the main problems in writing this book was that the words ‘thread’ or ‘wire’ or ‘rope’ were not in the top ‘ten-hundred’ words, so he had to use ‘line’. And every time the book refers to any sort of electrical connection or wiring or anything like that, he has to call it a “line”. He had to compromise with all sorts of things.
It’s just ingenious. So many people will try and sound clever by using lots of fancy words, but this is the exact opposite. It is being clever by using the most straightforward language you possibly can, without sacrificing accuracy. It’s beautifully drawn and beautifully written, and it makes me smile a lot.
Moving on to your second choice, we have Human Universe by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen. This is basically a ‘why are we here?’ book, isn’t it? And it was also a very popular TV series.
Sort of. I think the book is much better than the TV series. The thing about Brian Cox (bless him) is that on TV, it all seems to boil down to the cliché of him standing on a mountain top looking aesthetically pleasing and going ‘Oh, isn’t it beautiful?’ or ‘Isn’t it just wonderful and fantastic?’ in his lovely Mancunian accent. Whereas the book itself is beautifully written.
I like it because of its broad historical sweep, but also because he gives an up-to-date description of modern particle physics and cosmology so that it is “as simple as it could possibly be, but not simpler”, as the saying commonly attributed to Einstein goes.
What I had to keep reading about 12 times over was his description of inflationary cosmology and what the Big Bang is, and how you could discuss the idea of what happened before the Big Bang, and the whole idea of a scalar field, which I still don’t think I fully understand. But his description is the most lucid I’ve ever read. It’s very beautiful.
The whole book seems to rest on the juxtaposition of two notions. First, that the universe doesn’t seem to care one whit about the fact that we are here—in that sense, we are insignificant. Yet, at the same time, this is the only known place where beings like us exist; therefore, we are special. The book plays with that juxtaposition all the way through. It’s bang up-to-date, and almost soulful. I listen to it when I’m driving.
“The universe doesn’t seem to care one whit about the fact that we are here—in that sense, we are insignificant”
I only encountered it quite recently when I was at New Scientist Live. At one of the talks, I found myself voicing the frustration: Isn’t inflation a complete fudge? How are you going to get a homogenous isotropic universe? We just pretend that we have this exponential inflation in the first ten-to-the-minus-whatever seconds of the Big Bang. But why do we have such a thing?
These poor people were trying to explain it to me and I was being rather difficult, perhaps because I still don’t understand it. They said that the best description was in the Human Universe, and told me to go out and get it. And they were absolutely right.
Your next book, The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, is perhaps a slightly quirky choice. It’s a very human novel about NASA astronauts. Why have you chosen it?
It’s probably a cliché to say that so often, amazing feats of science and human achievement are presented simply as ‘what happened’ without looking at the actual personalities involved. I think you can do that, but you miss the interplay between characters.
This book takes you from the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager up to the start of the Apollo programme. It’s before all of the stuff that people would say is the heyday of NASA, like the moon landings and so on. It’s everything that happened before.
It’s all the extraordinary things that people did. It’s what you can do if you have a mindset completely detached from worrying about your own safety, not caring about whether your spouse will be widowed and your children left without a parent. It’s a mindset of absolutely bloody-minded bravery, hubris almost, combined with an essentially unlimited budget to satisfy what was then a political agenda.
Some of the stories in the book are slightly over-dramatised. As you say, he’s a novelist. But it’s just so compelling. Once you’ve started, you just can’t stop. It’s wonderful. The description of the breaking of the sound barrier is just inspiring and exciting. This is what people can do if people are single-minded and don’t take no for an answer. Yeager said, ‘I don’t believe the sound barrier exists, so I’m going to go and do it’.
And so he did. And he did it with a broken rib! He’d fallen off his horse in the desert the day before. He didn’t want to tell anyone, because then they would’ve put someone else in the X1 to break the sound barrier for the first time. So, he got his navigator-engineer person to cut a length off a piece of wooden dowling. (In the film adaptation, it’s depicted as part of a mop, but I’m not sure if that’s true.) He fashioned it for a handle so he could keep his arm on his injured rib, and stick the handle in the door of the plane and yank it to close it.
He was not going to be denied that first flight. And they knew every time they went up in these planes that there was about a one-in-three chance that they would die. In the Apollo missions—and this is when some of the kinks had been ironed out in the technology—they knew their chances of success were about 50/50. They knew this, and they did it anyway. Maybe it was folly, maybe it was hubris, but it is still amazingly wonderful hubris and it makes for a very good book.
How is it useful for a student of physics?
It gives you a really good sense of what it is really like to be in a rocket being fired up, and (especially on the re-entry) the physical strain that the body goes through under extreme accelerations. It’s all very well to say that on re-entry, they would be experiencing seven or eight or nine G, and they might black out, and so on.
But we have transcripts of the actual radio communications with mission control about what these guys went through. They had monitors strapped to their entire bodies at the time and they were measuring everything. They were measuring magnetic field strength, and altitude, and pressure and acceleration—all these things. How extraordinary is it that people could actually do this, and that they actually wanted to? They wanted to put themselves on top of a bomb that was then lit up. How one experiences extremes of pressure and acceleration—there are really beautiful descriptions of those.
The next book is Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman. This struck me as the most obvious ‘how to learn physics’ book.
Exactly. I thought to myself, if I put this in as one of my selection, people might think, ‘Oh god, really? You had to put that in?’ But if I didn’t, then people would say ‘Why didn’t you put it in?’
There are two things I love about this book. The first is that Feynman could write about difficult physics and teach it in a way that no one else could. He is widely regarded as one of the best physics teachers of all time, let alone a person who was largely responsible for formulating quantum electrodynamics—which is what he got his Nobel Prize for. His turns of phrase convey a sense of how to understand something terribly complicated. I love that. It’s a wonderful way of thinking about a point of view.
The other thing is that these were based on lectures in 1961. What I love about it is reading how far we’ve come since then. There are all sorts of bits when I wish I had been in the audience to shout, “You’re wondering what the substructure of protons and neutrons are, but seven years from now, people at Stanford are going to discover these things called ‘quarks’ and I can tell you exactly why you have that particular pattern there—”, and so on and so forth. It’s not that I feel superior or anything, but it’s wonderful to see the extraordinary progress that we’ve made on such a short timescale and how encouraging that is.
His discussions of Newtonian gravitation and how we came to it, phenomena like tides, and how you can measure the speed of light by observing Jupiter’s moons, are described with such humour and clarity. He conveys the excitement of physics. In one of his probably less appropriate, yet very famous, quotes, he says “Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” He was an extraordinary person. You can see why his students and pretty much just about anyone he ever met just fell in love with him.
So, it’s probably quite an obvious choice, but I just had to put it in because I love it and I’ve read it about 20 times. It gives a broad brushstroke of a lot of the basics and is a wonderful way of getting some of the foundational ideas in your head. Then, you can build on them and see how far we’ve come since then.
Finally, we have The Large Hadron Collider Pop-up Book: Voyage to the Heart of Matter by Anton Radevsky and Emma Sanders. Why have you chosen this one?
Because it’s ridiculously fun. The whole idea of the Large Hadron Collider is this extraordinary machine with a circumference of 27 kilometres where we crash together two beams of protons—each of which is thinner than a human hair—to try and work out the underlying structure of the universe.
So much of this kind of physics is three-dimensional. Depicting things on flat pieces of paper is misleading. To go back to the last choice, this is something that Feynman says in his first lecture: he bemoans the fact that he’s trying to draw the structure of ice. He apologises for showing a two-dimensional picture, but asks his audience to imagine that this is actually a three-dimensional structure. He tries desperately to depict it, but all he has is a slide.
This book is enormous fun. Anyone can read it. It gets into some pretty technical details about, for example, the superconducting magnets and the structure of the detectors—especially ATLAS, which is the main focus of the book. It gives you a scale model of the depth below ground that the collider is at, and what the different layers in a modern particle detector are designed to detect, and why we have this onion structure in the detector layers. Another model shows the actual detector itself. The scale of it is astonishing. It’s a bit of a paradox that the smallest structures in the universe have to be examined by enormous detectors that are the size of a 10-storey building.
You can get hours of endless fun with this book. The magnets are amazing—we have to use liquid helium. They already had the tunnel from the previous accelerator which was the LEP (Large Electron–Positron Collider). They already had the tunnel and realised that they could build this upgrade, but to get up to the kinds of energies that they needed to look for particles like the Higgs boson, the tunnel was essentially too small. They wanted a tunnel that had a much, much bigger circumference because to get particles up to a certain speed—to steer them around in a circle—you have to apply a very, very strong centripetal force. You couldn’t get that strong a steering force with the magnets of the time.
So, they pretty much had to invent these new superconducting magnets that are cooled with liquid helium. They realised it was cheaper to use the old tunnel and develop a whole new magnet technology than to build a new tunnel. People say ‘they spend billions of pounds in particle physics, so why can’t we alleviate poverty?’ But fundamental research does more than broaden our horizons. There are so many practical spin-offs. Apart from the whole World Wide Web being invented by CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee, those magnets are the magnets—the very antecedents—of the ones that are used in MRI machines.
This is the evolution of the universe and how we went from a hot Big Bang to the structure of the universe that we have now. This is a few hundredths of thousandths of a second after the Big Bang. What we are looking for is how the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider relate to the conditions of the early universe. How can we explain the formation of hydrogen and helium in the early universe and so on? It’s just enormous fun. It’s a beautiful but accurate overview of the biggest physics experiment in the world.
I know you wanted to mention it, so I’ll ask about it. One book you left off is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. You didn’t include it, but why were you keen to?
Because I think it’s a terribly important book. I get sick of people nowadays saying that modern life is rubbish and the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Pollution is terrible, the population of the world is just growing and growing, and there is so much war and suffering in the world. Hello, historical myopia!
You have forgotten what life used to be like. You have forgotten that war was the default state of most civilisations, that life expectancy, even 50 years ago, was 20 years less than it is now, what infant mortality rates used to be like, how people suffered and died like flies from infectious diseases, how prevalent famine was, how polluting energy generation used to be (compared to what it is now), the inefficiencies of everything—of machines, of cars. You have forgotten how difficult it was for anyone other than a white male to do anything of substance in the world.
The way to counter that is to count: to track and actually look at how things have gotten better—objectively so—for the vast majority of people on the planet. It’s to examine the driving factors, and importantly, to say that what we are doing is working in some regard. We have to look carefully to see what is working and what is not, and see what we can do to make it better.
Pinker picks through this process and encounters this intellectual aversion to so-called progress. He says something like, ‘intellectuals dislike progress, but intellectuals who call themselves progressives really dislike progress.’ He’s saying, actually, the changes of thought that were initiated in the Enlightenment—all the values of reason, humanism, of not taking things on faith, and daring to understand—have made the world better, and continue to make the world better. We need to defend them and laud them and say how wonderful they are, not go around saying, ‘The Industrial Revolution was such a bad idea; look at how much of a mess the world is.’ It’s exactly the opposite.
He backs everything up with terribly rigorous data that’s difficult to counter. It’s stuff you might not know, too: for instance, the rate of population growth of the world peaked in 1965 or so. It’s now down to almost one per cent. It’s predicted to be zero by 2050, and then the population is predicted to decline. The world population isn’t just growing—the rate has decreased markedly. Why is that? Educating women.
When women are educated and given access to contraception, they have fewer children. And the children they do have live longer and happier lives. As a result, the condition of life for whole cultures and peoples is improving.
The thing is, we are so good at reporting suffering nowadays and there is a lot out there that is bad. This is something that Hans Rosling says: “Things are bad—but they have never been better.” Both can be true at once.
Before you go, I want you to touch on the rather overworked question of why comparatively few girls study physics. What is your take?
There are—and always have been—brilliant women in physics. We need their ideas and we need the diversity of approaches and perspectives. Certainly, a lot of girls here want to do it. In Year 12, we have a third of our cohort doing physics—35 girls out of about 100. And in Year 11, we have about a quarter of the cohort taking physics for the full A-level. But we might be a bit of an exception.
If you look at movies from even 10 or 15 years ago, you will have a female scientist, but there will be something wrong with her; she’ll be ‘exceptional’ in some way. She’ll be peculiar, or she’ll be obviously the token female. But increasingly, I find that people are people—purple people with yellow stripes can be physicists too. It’s become much more inclusive.
The degree to which universities and research institutions realise that they have to engage with kids of this age has completely transformed since I was doing my PhD. These institutions now do a lot more to show what they are working on, and why it’s so amazing. They’re running courses, giving talks, and getting people in to do all sorts of fun stuff—even with primary school kids, because that’s when the interest starts. The interest doesn’t begin at the age when kids are asked what sort of job they’d like to do; it’s when they’re six. That’s when they say ‘look at this amazing stuff!’
The big problem, I think, is not getting girls to study physics in the first place or even to take it at degree level: it’s keeping them in the profession. The problem with an academic career or a research career is that when you get your PhD, it is still the case that you then go on to this post-doctoral position treadmill. It’ll be three years here and two years there. If you’re in a slightly niche field, your first posting will be in Brighton and your second in New York and your third in Stuttgart. Though it’s a traditionalist view, this coincides with the stage in a woman’s life where she’s expected to reproduce.
So, what are you going to do? Are you going to knowingly go into this profession when you’re not going to be able to stay in one place for more than a few years at a time, with no guarantee of a permanent job at the end of it? Or are you going to take your huge raft of skills and do something similar but different, where you would effectively have a job for life? That was the decision I made.
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