How the Universe Works: Physics for the Layperson | Collection Development

Does physics bring to mind tough college classes and scientists covering chalkboards with long equations? While it’s an advanced science, it is also a fascinating field with many new ideas for your patrons to explore. People of all kinds are curious about how the universe works, and physics is the very root of all physical science. Physicists study matter, energy, and forces. The laws of physics explain how objects interact on every scale, from the subatomic to the galactic. Learning about physics is not just entertaining—it’s an important component of science literacy. Citizens with a basic understanding of science are prepared to make critical decisions about vital issues like climate change and energy source policy.

Patrons usually ask for books on physics, but they also enjoy videos on all sorts of science topics. A typical request may be for material to help them understand topics in the news or concepts they have heard of, such as superstring theory, quantum mechanics, or the Big Bang Theory. Be aware that they may not know their question is within the realm of physics. When confronted with unfamiliar terms, it is useful to begin by consulting a basic science dictionary or encyclopedia to determine the overarching subject matter. Note that this approach is also useful for reference questions stemming from science fair projects and high school and college physics classes, although these are outside the scope of this article.

Physics books fusion

Evaluate books more than five years old for weeding. Look closely at comprehensive works and cosmology titles written before 1998, when it was found that the universe was expanding at an accelerating rate. This development negated previous theories that the universe would at some point stop expanding and ultimately collapse into itself. This Nobel Prize–winning revelation also spurred the hunt for dark energy and dark matter. However, the core of classical physics is still made up of some long-standing mechanical concepts that have changed little over decades, including Newton’s laws of motion and Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Retain or replace classic works like those by Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Richard Feynman, Werner Heisenberg, and Stephen Hawking.

Like all science, physics changes with new discoveries and theories. Modern physics evolved from natural philosophy, with many subfields developing over time. Astrophysics studies celestial objects, geophysics investigates the physical properties of the earth, nuclear physics is well known for energy and weapons. There is now a trend toward interdisciplinary science, with scientists from diverse fields working together on the same problem. For instance, biophysics applies biology, chemistry, and physics to living systems. Biophysics revealed DNA’s double helix and is expected to produce major medical breakthroughs. Some universities now offer a degree in interdisciplinary or applied physics.

New discoveries

The last few years have seen several important discoveries that revealed clues about the direction of physics for the near future. For example, significant evidence was uncovered in 2012 of the mysterious dark energy that makes up most of the universe, so expect questions about dark energy and dark matter. Some of the most exciting recent developments have come from particle physics, and further changes may indicate a need to review quantum physics sources. The first glimpse of a Higgs boson particle was recorded at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in 2012, providing support for the theory that a Higgs field gives mass to all matter. Patrons will want specifics on Higgs bosons and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Black holes have been of great interest since 2009, when Hubble and radio telescopes began generating dramatic evidence of black holes consuming heavenly bodies and even producing “burps” of excess energy. There is now strong evidence that black holes exist at the center of most large galaxies, including our own Milky Way.

This is an exciting time to learn about how the universe works, so use the following suggestions to refresh your collection or introduce some new titles suitable for your community’s interests. The focus here is on authors who bring physics to life for readers with a minimum of intimidating scientific jargon and mathematics. General titles offer a good base for collections and for answering reference questions. Starred titles Library Journal Reviews starred review are recommended for all collections.

The Basics

Gibilisco, Stan. Physics DeMYSTiFieD. 2d ed. McGraw-Hill. 2010. 576p. illus. index. ISBN 9780071744508. $20.

This self-study guide is ideal for the layperson who wants to learn the foundation covered in a basic physics course. By the founder of the “DeMYSTiFieD” series.

Library Journal Reviews starred review Pickover, Clifford A. The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics. Sterling. 2011. 528p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781402778612. $29.95.

This attractive reference by biophysicist, biochemist, and science writer Pickover is composed of lucid one-page explanations of physics concepts, alternating with full-page color illustrations.

Susskind, Leonard & George Hrabovsky. The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need To Know To Start Doing Physics. Basic Bks: Perseus. 2013. 256p. index. ISBN 9780465028115. $26.99.

This unique guide is tailor-made for the independent learner who wants just enough math and mechanics to think like a physicist or move on to more advanced topics.

Library Journal Reviews starred review Zitzewitz, Paul W. The Handy Physics Answer Book. 2d ed. Visible Ink. (Handy Answer Bk.). 2011. 450p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781578593057. pap. $21.95.

This question-and-answer guide provides brief explanations suitable for quick reference and curious browsers. With a useful list of symbols and glossary. (SLJ 6/1/11)

Big ideas

Al-Khalili, Jim. Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics. Broadway. 2012. 256p. illus. index. ISBN 9780307986795. pap. $15.

Readers with some science knowledge will enjoy tackling puzzles like perpetual motion machines and Schrödinger’s famous cat with physicist and BBC personality

Library Journal Reviews starred review Ford, Kenneth W. & Paul Hewitt. 101 Quantum Questions: What You Need To Know About the World You Can’t See. Harvard Univ. 2011. 304p. illus. index. ISBN 9780674050990. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9780674066076. $17.95.

The physics of the subatomic world is very different from the classical physics that explains the visible world. Physicist Ford’s guide is presented in Q&A format and can be read as a reference or for pleasure. (LJ 3/15/11)

Orzel, Chad. How To Teach Relativity to Your Dog. Basic Bks: Perseus. 2012. 336p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9780465023318. pap. $16.99.

Eavesdrop on Orzel (How To Teach Physics to Your Dog) as he uses tennis balls, squirrels, and other canine interests to give his pooch a course in relativity. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 2/17/12)

Fun for all

Kakalios, James. The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World. Gotham: Penguin Group (USA). 2011. 336p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781592406722. pap. $17.

Kakalios, physics professor and science consultant for Hollywood, uses examples from graphic novels to enliven this introduction to quantum mechanics. (Prepub Alert, 10/1/09)

Lewin, Walter. For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time: A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics. Free Pr: S. & S. 2012. 320p. illus. index. ISBN 9781451607130. pap. $15.

A great teacher can infect students with love for his subject. Professor emeritus Lewin shares his passion for physics in this enjoyable introduction for lay readers. (LJ 9/1/11)

Muller, Richard A. The Instant Physicist: An Illustrated Guide. Norton. 2010. 144p. illus. ISBN 9780393078268. $16.95.

Cartoons illustrate each of the intriguing nuggets of physics in this little book by physics professor Muller (Physics for Future Presidents), making it entertaining for perusers and trivia hounds. (LJ 9/7/12)

Scharf, Caleb. Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos. Scientific American: Farrar. 2012. 272p. illus. index. ISBN 9780374114121. $26.

Black holes have always gripped the imagination, and now we are discovering that they may dramatically shape the universe around them. Scharf, director of the multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center at Columbia University, brings this new picture to life for both general readers and science buffs.

Schwartz, Joseph & Michael McGuinness. Einstein for Beginners. Pantheon. 2003. 173p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9780375714597. pap. $12.

In a fun, graphic format, the authors explain Einstein’s accomplishments and put them into the context of science from ancient natural history to the physics of his times.

Hot topics

Library Journal Reviews starred review Carroll, Sean. The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World. Dutton. 2012. 352p. illus. index. bibliog. ISBN 9780525953593. $27.95.

Carroll, particle physicist and popular science writer/blogger, makes the story of “the God particle” and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider accessible for popular science readers. Appendixes provide more explanation of particle physics. (LJ 1/13)

Greene, Brian. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Knopf. 2011. 384p. illus. index. bibliog. ISBN 9780307265630. $29.95; pap. ISBN 9780307278128. $16.95.

The idea of parallel universes will be familiar to sf and popular science readers. Delve into the theories that predict a multiverse with Greene, a superstring physicist, best-selling author, and Pulitzer finalist.

Kaku, Michio. Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. Doubleday. 2011. 416p. illus. index. ISBN 9780385530804. $28.95; pap. ISBN 9780307473332. pap. $15.95.

Popular science readers will be fascinated by the potential future of science and technology in our lives to come, from robotic limbs and magnetic cars to new sources of energy and routine space travel, as put forth by physicist and best-selling author Kaku. (LJ 2/1/11)

Library Journal Reviews starred review Panek, Richard. The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. Houghton Harcourt. 2011. 320p. index. ISBN 9780618982448. $26; pap. ISBN 9780547577579. $15.95.

General readers will be fascinated by this journalistic investigation into the search for the elusive dark matter and dark energy that comprise the vast majority of our universe.

Deeper and wider

Denny, Mark. Their Arrows Will Darken the Sun: The Evolution and Science of Ballistics. Johns Hopkins. 2011. 248p. illus. index. ISBN 9780801898570. pap. $30.

The field of ballistics appeals to physics readers and military history buffs alike. Physicist Denny makes this introduction comprehensible to readers with some science knowledge. (LJ 6/15/11)

Gubser, Steven S. The Little Book of String Theory. Princeton Univ. (Science Essentials). 2010. 184p. illus. index. ISBN 9780691142890. $19.95.

String theory offers tantalizing possibilities for a unifying concept to explain how the universe works. Gubser introduces the field with enthusiasm and a bit of humor. (LJ 2/15/12)

Krauss, Lawrence M. A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. Free Pr: S. & S. 2012. 224p. illus. index. ISBN 9781451624458. $24.99; pap. ISBN 9781451624465. $15.

Discoveries in cosmology have given us glimpses of the origin of our universe. Cosmologist and best-selling author Krauss (The Physics of Star Trek) suggests that something may always and inevitably arise from nothing. (LJ 1/12)

Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. Vintage: Random. 2007. 1136p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780679776314. pap. $26.

This masterly volume will serve double-duty as a thorough physics reference and a surprisingly readable guide for independent learners. (LJ 2/15/05)

Pretor-Pinney, Gavin. The Wave Watcher’s Companion: From Ocean Waves to Light Waves via Shock Waves, Stadium Waves, and All the Rest of Life’s Undulations. Perigee: Putnam. 2010. 336p. illus. index. ISBN 9780399534263. $22.95.

The author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide tells the story of water waves with fascinating side trips to investigate unfamiliar waves like the contraction of heart muscles, Big Bang waves, and earthworms on the move.

Spruce up your classics

Feynman, Richard P. Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher. 4th ed. 176p. ISBN 9780465025275. pap. $13.99.

Feynman, Richard P. Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time. 4th ed. 184p. bibliog. ISBN 9780465025268. pap. $14.99.

ea. vol: Basic Bks: Perseus. 2011. illus. index.

Nobelist Feynman was a beloved character who brought physics to the public through TV and books. These two little volumes, selections from his seminal Lectures on Physics, explain the core theories of classical physics. (LJ 12/94)

Library Journal Reviews starred reviewHawking, Stephen. The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. expanded & updated ed. Bantam. 1996. 248p. illus. index. ISBN 9780553103748. $40.

In this expanded edition of the landmark best seller by one of the most respected and popular scientists of our time, Hawking uses wit and hundreds of images to bring cosmology to life. (LJ 7/96)

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. 25th anniversary. ed. S. & S. 2012. 896p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781451677614. pap. $21.

This in-depth study of the science and personalities behind early nuclear physics won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In a new foreword, Rhodes reflects on the current state of nuclear arms. (LJ 3/1/87)

Library Journal Reviews starred reviewSagan, Carl. Cosmos. Ballantine. 1985. 324p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780345331359. pap. $7.99.

Sagan’s passion for teaching cosmology made the Cosmos television series a hit and the book a worldwide phenomenon. Despite some outdated science, it remains a fascinating and important work.


Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. color. 135 min. Discovery Channel, 2011. DVD ISBN 9780766251649. $14.98; Blu-ray ISBN 9780766257443. $14.98.

The most famous scientist in the world takes viewers on a tour of modern physics, using brilliant computer-generated imagery to explore time travel, alien life, and the search for a unifying theory of everything.

NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos. 2 discs. color. 240 min. PBS, 2011. DVD ISBN 9781608835119. $29.99; Blu-ray ISBN 9781608835126. $34.99.

Inspired by Brian Greene’s book of the same name, this miniseries tackles cutting-edge physics. Countless amazing animations help viewers grasp concepts from relativity to the accelerating expansion of space.

Physics in Your Life. 6 discs. color. 18+ hrs. Teaching Co., 2006. DVD ISBN 9781565859388. $374.95.

Professor Richard Wolfson uses demonstrations, animations, and diagrams to reveal the physics of everyday life, from how CDs store data to how airplanes make sonic booms. The Great Courses are perennially popular with independent learners, and this set is accessible and fun for newbies and science buffs alike. (LJ 11/15/05)

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. Science Channel, ea. vol: 2 discs. color. Season 1: 373 min. 2011. DVD ISBN 9780766251717. $19.95; Season 2: 420 min. 2011. DVD ISBN 9780766254930. $29.95; Season 3: 445 min. 2012. DVD UPC 018713596673. $14.95.

Morgan Freeman interviews authoritative scientists in this series of investigations into big questions, such as what existed before the Big Bang, is time travel possible, and are we alone in the universe? Video clips and animations, as well as Freeman’s charisma and gentle humor, help make the series approachable and entertaining.

Susannah Hamm is Science & Technology Specialist, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Parma, OH, where she advocates for lifelong learning for all ages through reading and science programming. She has worked in reference and collection management in public libraries for 14 years.

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