Pippa Goldschmidt has already been longlisted for the prestigious Frank O'Connor Short story award for this collection, but don't let that nomination be the only thing that makes you rush to read it.

Read it because it's exceptionally good: a collection of science-based tales that feature Einstein, Brecht and Oppenheimer, along with various unnamed scientists grappling with the source of life as well as the everyday fact of it.

Goldschmidt's stories are a testimony to the aspects of science that those of us who aren't scientists, or have any aptitude for the subject, like: the constant searching and questioning, the disturbance of the factual as much as the reassurance of it, the intersection between science and humanity. She balances the last two especially well. Robert Oppenheimer in The Equation For An Apple is an out-of-place physics student at Cambridge, a Harvard graduate struggling to come to terms with warm beer, 'digs' for 'lodgings', cultural deference that means you don't interrupt a lecturer even when he gets his equations wrong, and desire for his boss's wife, in this case Mrs Blackett. Oppenheimer did supposedly confess to leaving a poisoned apple for Professor Blackett, as at the end of this story. But Goldschmidt takes the biography and the science, and makes a terrific and utterly absorbing tale of ordinary, human, covetable desire out of it.

She does something similar with Einstein, who is confronted by a giant baby in a lift when he goes to visit his mistress's apartment. His marriage is floundering under the weight of having two young children at home; his wife, once a promising physics student herself, is concerned only with nappies although she wants him to still talk to her about his work. And underneath it all lies the first child, the daughter they gave away because they were too young and poor when she was born. Cyril Connolly once remarked that the enemy of art was the pram in the hall; science too must wrestle with the domestic, with the messy human aspects of our lives.

Death - and possible murder - raises its head again in Furthest South, when Joe, who is based in the Antarctic on a scientific project, finds that a member of the new crop of scientists joining them for the next seven months is Smith, the man his ex-girlfriend possibly left him for ("Because of the hovering Sun, the immobility of day and night, he feels jammed up against all his history. Here, she left him only a few hours ago"). There's an inevitability to what might happen between them, especially when Joe trial-runs, possibly unwittingly, a dangerous expedition to Scott's memorial. It's fine by motor, not so much on foot, yet he persuades Smith to join him. Smith is likeable, generous; Joe, alas, is not.

And yet we feel for him. Just as we feel for the portrait of Alan Turing that the recent film, The Imitation Game, largely avoided: the lonely homosexual man whose "theoretical ideas become real" when his hormones change. He, too, will consume a poisoned apple; scientists are forever to be punished for eating at the tree of knowledge, it seems. Goldschmidt shows a more idealistic Turing in the late 1940s at Cambridge, fantasising about Snow White with a lover, Neville: "He doesn't tell Neville that the true end of the story came earlier, as he cried in the cinema watching Snow White in her glass box. He cried because he was remembering the death of Christopher Morcom at school. Touching his coffin at the funeral was the nearest he ever got to touching Christopher himself." In only six years, he will be dead from cyanide, after agreeing to oestrogen injections.

Science doesn't save these men; on the contrary, it seems only to do them, and others, more harm. In the second story in the collection, The First Star, the assistant to the Astronomer Royal will perish in the First World War, at the mercy of man and machine, one could argue. But one of the women who works for him, "girls who have the right touch" when handling photographic plates, will find that science gives her the liberation that she needs to escape a life proscribed for her, marriage and babies, even as the suffragettes are bombing and destroying the very places where she wants to work.

It's not very often that science gets a collection of short stories to itself, and Goldschmidt's attitude to it is refreshingly ambiguous, full of complications and doubts and human mishaps. She takes real-life figures and makes them breathe in such a way that we can understand them and their motives a little better, and make us warm to them. It's a genuinely fascinating volume, rewarding and stimulating.