Monday, 20 June 2011

Relativity for the Questioning Mind – Daniel Styler ****

On first inspection my paperback copy of this book had the look of a self-published title, with the small text on the back cover going right to the edge of the page and the front cover looking a little amateurish. The book is, however, published by Johns Hopkins University Press – and, luckily, once you get inside, there are no problems with the layout and no doubts about the quality.
Relativity for the Questioning Mind is a little different from most popular science titles. It is ostensibly a workbook, with the idea being that the reader gets to grips with (mainly special) relativity through problem-solving rather than passive reading alone. Each short chapter sets a variety of problems to get you thinking, having first briefly introduced the relevant ideas and concepts, with hints and answers at the back of the book. Here is one of the simpler problems, in the chapter on time dilation, to give an idea of what these problems are like (the additional information and equations you need to solve the problems are always covered beforehand):
“I trim my moustache every six weeks. If I were in a rocket ship flying past you at [four-fifths the speed of light], then how much time, in your frame, would elapse between my moustache trimmings?”
The problems get trickier as the book goes on, and whilst they’re generally fun, many end up being quite a bit more difficult than you might expect, having been told at the beginning of the book that you will be gently introduced to relativity theory – although the author believes that the mathematics in the book is all elementary, some of it will still appear fairly forbidding to non-specialists. I do still like the approach, though – Styler is absolutely right in emphasizing that exercises like these can be of great use if you want to deepen your understanding of a subject area, and the author’s philosophy – work things through for yourself and don’t take anyone’s word for it – is a good one.
If you didn’t want to work through all of the exercises, there is still plenty to get from the book. The introductions to such things as time dilation, length contraction, the relativity of simultaneity, and the equivalence principle are useful in their own right, and there are interesting detours throughout the book on, among other things, the nature of science and its limitations.
There is one other aspect that I liked a lot – incorporated into the text are regular question and answer dialogues, in which Styler imagines confused readers interjecting with requests for clarifications or objections to what’s being discussed. Styler poses and answers the questions he believes most people have when coming across ideas in relativity theory for the first time, questions which he feels are not answered in most other places, and the conversational, and often humorous, tone of these sections makes them entertaining to read.
Overall, then – informative, challenging, and fun at the same time. Perhaps not the ideal introduction to relativity, but this would complement well books on the subject that take a more standard approach.
Also in Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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