The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age
by David N. Schwartz.
Basic Books, 2017 ($35)
No one can know everything, but Enrico Fermi might have known everything it was possible to know about physics, writer Schwartz suggests. The Italian-born physicist was a prodigy, unusually gifted at both experimental and theoretical work, and made breakthroughs in particle physics, astrophysics, nuclear physics, condensed matter physics, and more before his premature death at age 53 in 1954. Best known for his pivotal role on the Manhattan Project, he was prolific in his field. Among other achievements, he helped to develop statistical mechanics and discovered that some elements become radioactive when bombarded with neutrons, a breakthrough that won him the Nobel Prize in 1938. In this engrossing biography Schwartz delves into Fermi's childhood in Italy, his move to the U.S. to flee fascism and his ambivalent feelings about his role in inventing nuclear weapons. —Clara Moskowitz
Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World
by Noah Strycker.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017 ($27)
Birds inhabit nearly every corner of the earth, occupying landscapes as diverse as barren tundra and lush rain forest. They can be as small as a bumblebee or as big as a pony. One recent estimate put the total number of bird species at 10,365. For serious birders, a major goal is to see as many of these species in a year as physically possible. They call it the “Big Year.” Bird fanatic and journalist Strycker undertook this quest in 2015, setting out on a 40-country tour with hopes of spotting roughly half of the planet's known bird species (5,000) and crushing the previous Big Year record. Along the way he encountered the elusive and towering Harpy—a bird of prey with a seven-foot wingspan—and a glistening green Resplendent Quetzal, an endangered tropical bird with a three-foot streamer tail.
Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science
by Karl Sigmund.
Basic Books, 2017 ($32)
On Thursday evenings, from 1924 to 1936, in a University of Vienna lecture hall, mathematician Moritz Schlick would call to order an impressive meeting of minds. The “Vienna Circle” was formed after the First World War with the goal of rebuilding the foundations of math, science and philosophy. Sigmund, a mathematician who teaches inside the same university walls, gives a passionate and subtly humorous account of the group, which included such figures as mathematician Hans Hahn, philosopher Otto Neurath and logician Kurt Gödel. The circle became the center of a movement called logical empiricism and shaped modern scientific thinking, enduring in an anxiety-ridden Austria on the cusp of the Second World War. —Yasemin Saplakoglu