Reviews Physics World  January 2018

Inferior by Angela Saini wins Physics World Book of the Year 2017

The winner of the 2017 Physics World Book of the Year is a bold book that takes a hard look at the bad science that has been used to diminish women.

This year’s winner of the Physics World Book of the Year is Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini. It provides an extremely well-researched and impartial analysis of the science behind the gender stereotypes that hold women back. An accessible entry to the world of gender studies, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology and primatology, Saini travels the world to establish whether it is biology or bias that causes the social imbalance of women. Despite its troubling findings, the book remains upbeat as Saini finds campaigners throughout history who stand up for equality. Inferior serves not only to shed some light on bad science but to provide young women with the scientifically-accurate ammunition to change the world.

We chose our Book of the Year from among the 54 books we reviewed in Physics World in 2017, picking the 10 titles on our shortlist and the overall winner using the same three criteria that have been in place since we launched the award in 2009. These are that the books must be well written, novel and scientifically interesting to physicists.

Following on from a tumultuous 2016, 2017 saw much political strife and human-rights crises, along with the rise of the unexpected demon of “fake news”. Unsurprisingly, the books we reviewed in Physics World last year reflected a lot of these global issues, which means that, along with the usual mix of popular-physics titles, the 2017 shortlist included a few books that at first sight might not seem to have direct links to physics. However, we feel these titles are nevertheless important and relevant to physicists (and of course scientists in general).


The other nine titles in our shortlist are:

Marconi: the Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy

Marconi’s complicated disposition, which shaped his work as well as his personal life, and the lives of many others, thanks to his embryonic “wireless telegraphy”, is described in this “major and long overdue biography”.

Mapping the Heavens: the Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos by Priyamvada Natarajan

This “greatest hits” of cosmological discoveries tackles the science behind concepts such as the accelerating expansion of the universe. It also describes how such “radical” scientific theories gain acceptance and how the line between scientific idealism and scientific realism is blurry, as all scientific endeavours are affected by human bias.

Hidden Figures: the Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

The inspiring tale of the African-American female mathematicians who helped the US to win the space race, through their work at NASA following the labour shortages of the Second World War. The book provides a detailed account of the remarkable impact these intelligent and brave women had on some of NASA’s greatest hits.

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

Going further back in time to the early 1900s, this book reveals the revolutionary work done by women were hired as “human calculators” at Harvard Observatory. This talented team went on to make huge contributions to astronomy.

Scale: the Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies by Geoffrey West

West is a pioneer in the field of complexity science, and this book is the culmination of years of research geared toward answering one fundamental question: could there be just a few simple rules that all complex organisms obey, whether they are animals, corporations or cities?

Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan

This year, the Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2017 is “fake news”. While this term has been lobbed at a multitude of media organizations, politicians world over have a long and troubling history of subverting science to suit their own political agendas, which Levitan explores.

We Have No Idea by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson

Frequently hilarious, deeply charming and full of excellent comics, this book does a commendable job of explaining deep ideas with wit and humour. The authors include clever analogies and very clear explanations of the basics of relativity and particle physics, while pondering about things such as the maximum speed of the universe.

The Secret Science of Superheroes edited by Mark Lorch and Andy Miah

This collection of 15 eclectic essays was written by a team of scientists who came together to try to suss out the real-world science behind everything from Wonder Woman’s lasso to the Hulk’s gigantic transformation. The book makes excellent use of science fiction as a vehicle for science fact and covers a wide scientific territory.

The Death of Expertise: the Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols

“Buy this book. And read it. Regularly.” That’s the powerful summary of the book by our reviewer Philip Moriarty. This is an exceptionally timely, carefully reasoned and impassioned analysis of why some people seem proud of not knowing things. At a time when trust in science, scientists and experts is in question, Nichols’ book has some suggestions on to fix this cult of ignorance.


You can learn more about the books and why we picked them by tuning in to the December 2017 Physics World podcast.