Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Also in Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…