Sunday, 13 November 2011

Galloping with Light – Felix Alba-Juez ***

I’m more than a little wary of self-published books, especially ones with subtitles like ‘Einstein, relativity and folklore’, but this looked like a book that would be different from the masses – and it is. It’s not one of the interminable ‘Einstein was wrong’ books, but rather one that tries to really give an in-depth understanding of Einstein’s ideas to the general reader.
Unfortunately, Felix Alba-Juez seemed far too obsessed with the definitions of words to give us useful insights into what is going on. In the first chapter he bangs on and on about nuclear power not being based on E=mc2. It’s certainly true that, contrary to popular belief, the equation isn’t a central part of the effort to make a nuclear bomb. But his repeated assertion that the idea of converting mass to energy is folklore totally misses the point, probably because of his obsessive pursuit of the term inertia, something that in some senses doesn’t exist but is merely a reflection of Newton’s second law. There is conversion between different forms of mass-energy in nuclear reactions, and for convenience we conventionally label some aspects of this as matter and some as energy. It’s not folklore, it’s scientific convention. It’s hard not to think ‘get a life.’
Similarly in the second chapter, Alba-Juez gets all heated about the famous Einstein quote about time passing quicker with a pretty girl than sitting on a stove, suggesting that this throw-away line is generally considered an attempt to explain relativity to the common man. But it’s obviously not that. Come on, the acronym of the supposed journal is JEST. It was always supposed to be a joke – has the author no sense of humour?
And so it goes on. While the philosophical musings about the words used in relativity are mildly interesting to those who already know the area quite well, and there is a lot of good basic science in here, I can’t recommend this as a science book for the general reader. Perhaps because it’s a translation, it is just too turgid and heavy handed. Although a lot of relativity is explained, the approach is often through extremely wordy and impenetrable prose. My undergrad textbook on relativity, which I still have (A. P. French) is often more readable.
The book, with its densely packed text (the layout has too little white space), doesn’t fill the reader with the delight of science but instead is like sitting through a rather dull and decidedly nit-picking science lesson. It’s an interesting idea, but the execution disappoints.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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