Who are the top six physicists of the 20th century? The answer depends upon whom you ask. My list is as follows.
First half of the century: Albert Eistein, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac (all Europeans).
Second half: John Bardeen, Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann (all American born).
I wonder why is this so?
The book below are read by both the professionals and the laymen as well. Different people focus on different chapters and paragraphs according to their backgrounds and interests.
Albert Einstein, A Biography, Albrecht Fölsing, 1998, ISBN 0-140-23719-4, $18.95. Very carefully prepared biography about Einstein who was very interesting personality as young man, not quite what most of us would think.
Richard Feynman, A Life in Science, John and Mary Gribbin, 1997, ISBN 0-525-94124-8, $24.95. Read this excellent book of perhaps the most important physicist of the second half of the twentieth century.
Genius, James Gleick, 1993, ISBN 0-679-74704-4, $15.00. Well in fact, I have not read it yet. It's about Feynman.
The Quark and the Jaguar, Murray Gell-Mann, 1994, 1995 pb ISBN 0-316-90741-3, $15.95. The author (retired) is the creator of the quark theory and colleague of Feynman (deceased) at Caltech - during the glorious days of particle physics from the late fifties untill early eighties. The book is a splendid panorama of science and more. A must to read. I was expecting, on the other hand, a bit more intuition between the lines... After all, it was Feynman and Bjorken who, while dining near Stanford, showed that pointlike quarks exist in nature (so I heard at the location).
Strange Beauty, George Johnson, 2000, ISBN 0-679-43764-9, £18.99. Very illuminating about the perhaps a bit "strange" personality of brilliant Murray Gell-Mann and the physics he did.
Crystal Fire, the Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age, M. Riordan and L. Hoddeson, 1997, ISBN 0-393-04124-7, $19.25. The name of the book says it all. A must to read.
The Universe in a Helium Droplet, G.E. Volovik. June 2003, ISBN 0198507828, $115.00. The author tells you about the low temperature helium behavior, the universe and the emergent gauge theories of all particles.
Before the Beginning, Martin Rees. 1997, ISBN 0-201-15142-1, $25.00. Our Universe and others, well written.
The Life of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin, 1997, ISBN 0-19-510837-X, $30.00. If you thought evolution applies only to living cells you may be mistaken. Read why. And why not! Smolin stumbles with God: to hire (absolute theory) or to fire ?
Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, John Wheeler with K. Ford, 1998, ISBN 0-393-04642-7, $27.95. Wheeler and Feynman had an early paper together. Otherwise Wheeler's book complements historically books written by or of Feynman.
The Inflatory Universe, Alan Guth, 1997, ISBN 0-201-14942-7, $25.00. The new view of the Big Bang written by its main creator.
The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene, 1999, ISBN 0-393-046885-5, $27.95. Very beautifully, elegantly written book of recent developments in the "ultimate theory". The reader has the (illusory ;-) feeling of understanding it!
The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos, Robert P. Kirshner, 2002, ISBN 0691058628, $ 20.97.
Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Lee Smolin, 2000, 2003, ISBN 0753812614, GBP 6.39. Difficult subject, if you thought you knew something about it, read this book anyhow, it includes some personal history. The last chapter "What chooses the Laws of Nature?" is most interesting.
Several interesting books were published during the first decade of this new centennium, like
Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, Brian Greene and
Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond, Lawrence Krauss.
The Cosmic Landscape, String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, Leonard Susskind, I read in December 2005. This book has triggered a lot of discussion of Susskind's new paradigm in the blogosphere. While logically possible, it is hard to accept Susskind's landscape in this form. For conservative, realistic views see frequent writings here. Rather strong antistring views are found here, and there is his book, which I have not read (Oct 5, 2006).
IMHO the discussion of the present situation in particle theory and cosmology has got out of hands - one needs to be patient with progress.
Even if there were none for a while. Read of Burt Richter's Final Hope.
The Strangest Man, The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Graham Farmelo, 2009, ISBN 978-0-571-22278-0, GBP 22.50. This is excellent reading literally, as a psychological description of a genius, and as a short history of 20th century atomic physics.