The Best Books of 2009 in History & Philosophy

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

Graham Farmelo

As the Large Hadron Collider gears up at CERN in Switzerland, the general public is having to swot up its quantum physics. There is no better guide to doing it than this thorough biography of one of the geniuses who invented quantum theory and, through the beauty of his mathematical insights, made far-reaching predictions about the microstructure of reality that have since proved right.

A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

Neil Sheehan

The story of the U.S. development of a nuclear armory is a surprising and instructive one, not least because it owes so much to the energy and belief of one man: Air Force general Bernard Schriever. In telling this tale, the book absorbingly spans the military and diplomatic history of the Cold War world.

The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Iain McGilchrist

Few books this year can match this one in breadth of erudition, scope, and ambition. Though not many of its readers will agree with what McGilchrist says follows from the brain’s asymmetrical division for the nature of Western civilization, it is a highly stimulating read all the same.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Anne C. Heller

Heller’s biography is a riveting examination of the fascinating but in many ways rebarbative and challenging libertarian novelist who told wonderful stories in promoting raw-meat capitalism and lived a life of passionate commitment to her cause that swallowed some of her followers whole. Many love her ideas; this uncompromising account asks whether the thinker is equally lovable.

The Life You Can Save

Peter Singer

This might be the most important book of the year. Philosopher Peter Singer shows not only that almost everyone in the developed world can easily contribute 5 percent of their gross income to help reduce world poverty on a massive scale; but that it is immoral not to do so, because it means we value our own convenience far more highly than the lives and health of people struggling in desperate Third World poverty. He is right.