Before he became “the architect of the nuclear age,” Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was known to his colleagues as The Pope of Physics (Holt, $30) for his infallible accuracy. One of the rare physicists equally adept as a theorist and an experimentalist, Fermi was also one of the few to be self-taught; a math prodigy, in 1915 he discovered a book on mathematical physics written in Latin in the 1830s and was hooked. As Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin recount in their masterful history of Fermi’s life, times, and work, the Nobel laureate was “seemingly impervious to fatigue, frustration, or dissatisfaction,” where science was concerned. Yet the authors, both related to people who knew Fermi, draw out the unfailingly thoughtful, complex man behind the world-changing discoveries. Claiming to be apolitical, Fermi was eager to make Italy a center for scientific research. Later, he was more attuned to the anti-Semitism of Mussolini’s Italy than his Jewish wife was, and it was he who persuaded her to emigrate to the U.S. With World War II, physics grew ever more inextricably linked to politics, and Fermi, who won the Nobel in 1938 for induced radioactivity (picking up the award on his way to Columbia University), could no longer practice “science for the sake of science.” In the U.S., though his Italian citizenship made him suspect, he was integral to the Manhattan Project and built the world’s first atomic-fission pile. Without getting too technical, the authors give readers enough science to appreciate Fermi’s achievements; while he was absorbed in the question of “could” nuclear physics be done, the world still wrestles with the “should“ of it.
People are living longer today, but the subject of aging has received relatively little literary attention. That paucity of what Canadian journalist and author Ian Brown calls “authentic” writing about aging inspired him to keep a diary beginning on his sixtieth birthday and continuing until his sixty-first. And thus was born Sixty (Experiment, $24.95), an unvarnished examination of his foibles and fantasies, failures and fulfillments. With a literary touch, humor, and charm, Brown meditates on gardening, marriage, uncooperative body parts, and how to measure one’s life and work. His story is particularly poignant when recounting the challenges of raising a severely disabled son, (the subject of his highly acclaimed first book, The Boy in the Moon). While it’s easy for those of us of a certain age to recoil at the thought of reading a book about getting older (who wants to go there?), Brown’s work is the perfect entry point. One discovers reading Sixty that there’s really nothing to fear about the topic!
Let’s be honest: when a celebrity puts out a memoir it often seems nothing more than an easy way to cash in on their moment. I confess I wasn’t expecting that much from Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (Spiegel & Grau, $28) outside of a few laughs. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Born a Crime is a revelation, and easily one of my favorite books of 2016. Noah tells his extraordinary story of growing up bi-racial in apartheid South Africa, and while there are gut-busting set pieces involving bad dates and cultural misunderstandings, the true heartbeat of this memoir is Noah’s complex and fiercely devoted mother who guides him through a childhood of painful—and sometimes violent—situations. Superstar editor Chris Jackson (Just Mercy, Between the World and Me) has worked his magic again—the prose here is raw and wrenchingly smart and it flows beautifully from one section to the next. Born a Crime is the book to take on a family vacation this year: pass it all around the cabin—everyone, from the pre-teen son to the family matriarch, will find something to connect to in this heartbreaking, hysterical, warm, and unforgettable book.