A Little Cosmic Reading: Favorite Space Books

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The clock is ticking for the Christmas holiday, and if you’re stumped about what to get for the science enthusiast on your list, here’s a list of seven great books released this year on cosmology, astrophysics, astronomy, and astrobiology guaranteed to fit the bill.

REVIEW: A Little Light Reading: 2011 in Physics Books

1. The Particle at the End of the Universe, by Sean M. Carroll. The discovery of a Higgs-like particle at the Large Hadron Collider is inarguably the biggest physics story of the year, and this book delves into the complete history behind the discovery: not just the science, but the people. Carroll also touches upon quantum field theory and symmetry breaking — “I had to restrain myself from going even deeper … into … spin and chirality, but this is supposed to be

a bodice-ripper, not a brain-flattener,” he joked on his blog — as well as “the role of the internet and bloggers in the changing landscape of scientific communication.”

(Full disclosure: Carroll is my spouse. But you don’t need to take my word that this is a great read for physics buffs: check out the reviews at New Scientist, Nature, NPR and the Los Angeles Times.)

2. Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos, by Caleb Scharf. What science (and science fiction) fiend doesn’t adore black holes? But you may not know as much about them as you think. Scharf is an astrobiologist at Columbia University who also writes the Life, Unbounded blog at Scientific American. Here he explores the cutting-edge science demonstrating that black holes don’t just suck (gobbling up any matter that gets too close). They also blow bubbles: huge beams and clouds of matter. And that could have fascinating impliciations for the origins of life. We are, after all, made of star stuff.

3. Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond, by Paul Halpern. This is the latest from physicist and science writer Paul Halpern, who contributes regularly to NOVA”s Nature of Reality blog.

Halpern explores some of the most puzzling mysteries facing cosmologists in the 21st century: not just dark matter, dark energy, and the holographic universe, but also “dark flow,” a strange phenomenon that seems to be driving galaxy clusters toward an unknown destination, and could be evidence of “regions beyond the observable universe” — possibly even other universes.

SLIDE SHOW: Reader’s Choice: Favorite Space Story of 2011

4. Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt. Another framing of the question might be, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Writer Jim Holt might not have found the answer, but this book is a nice overview into the many different facets of the question. Holt’s book was also a New York Times Editor’s Pick, which described it as “an elegant and witty writer converses with philosophers and cosmologists who ponder the question of why there is something rather than nothing.”

5. Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin, by Michael Lemonick. There was a time, not so long ago, when astronomers could only speculate about the possibility of other planets. Since the 1990s discovery of three gas giants orbiting stars in our Milky Way galaxy, the hunt for exoplanets has exploded. Science writer Michael Lemonick chronicles the ongoing search for Earth-like planets capable of supporting life by leading so-called “planet hunters,” including those involved with NASA’s Kepler mission.

6. A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss is a leading popularizer of cutting-edge science and the author of numerous popular books, most famously The Physics of Star Trek. Here, he presents a compelling case for the origins of the universe based on the latest advances in cosmology. As Neil de Grasse Tyson observed in a blurb for the book, “Nothing is not nothing. Nothing is something. That’s how a cosmos can be spawned from the void.”

SLIDE SHOW: Top 10 Space Stories of the Decade

7. The Story of Earth, by Robert M. Hazen. The subtitle says it all: “The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet.” Hazen, an astrobiologist at the Carnegie Institute, presents a kind of biography for the Earth, looking at how the co-evolution of the geosphere and biosphere—of rocks and living matter—shaped our planet into something truly unique in the Solar System. AScience declared Hazen’s latest book to be “a sweeping rip-roaring yarn of immense scope, from the birth of the elements in stars to meditations on the future habitability of our world . . . Anyone new to Earth history will find Hazen’s account a revelation.”

Image credit: Jennifer Ouellette

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