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Einstein and Relativity – Paul Strathearn ***

This is part of author Paul Strathern’s ‘Big Idea’ series, with each book in the series aiming to provide a condensed, readable introduction to a particular scientist’s life and work. The format is the same each time, so we also have, for instance, ‘Darwin and Evolution’, ‘Curie and radioactivity’ and ‘Newton and Gravity’.
This offering on Einstein really is very short – at under 90 pages, it can be read in about 90 minutes. Still, Strathern manages to get in a good overview of the major episodes of Einstein’s life, encompassing his political activities and his ultimately unsuccessful work towards the end of his career on unification, and we get some insights into Einstein as a person.
Clearly, given the length of the book, you will need to go elsewhere to get a full account of relativity. But, again, the book does well to fit in what it does into such a small amount of space. We get brief but useful explanations of the special and general theories, Einstein’s thinking whilst coming up with each, and the context within which the breakthroughs were made. And via discussions of the Michelson-Morley experiment, the differences between Galilean relativity and Einstein’s relativity, and the action at a distance problem in Newton’s theory of gravitation, the truly revolutionary nature of Einstein’s theories comes through.
The book is easy to read throughout and would be particularly good for those new to popular science, and as something to look at before going on to, say, Walter Isaacson’s detailed Einstein: his life and universe. All in all, this is a useful summary of the man and his ideas, which definitely has a place in the popular science genre.

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Review by Matt Chorley

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