Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Wonderful World of Relativity – Andrew M. Steane ***

This book has what is possibly the worst cover of any popular science title I’ve ever seen (even worse than the old Macmillan edition of my own Light Years, which is saying something). It’s muddy and dark – even the yellow lettering is muted. The illustration is a line drawing apparently by a ten-year-old that is just about visible on the black background. This doesn’t bode well, but of course the author isn’t responsible for the cover.
Unfortunately, the text is often equally impenetrable. The subtitle is ‘a precise guide for the general reader’ and the problem here is that there are two words in that sentence that really don’t fit well together. If you are going to be precise with a subject like special relativity, you will need to go into more maths than the general reader is comfortable with. Stephen Hawking was famously told that he would half his readership for every equation included – I reckon there are sufficient equations here to take the readership down to one.
It’s a shame, because there is the kernel of a good book here. I particularly liked the way Andrew Steane used some of the paradoxes of relativity to explore the subject. These are so good (except where he gets over-precise on us and loses most of us) that I could envisage a whole book just based on the paradoxes. Some, of course, are well worn, but I particularly liked the bug and rivet paradox (see my blog post about it here).
What this looks like is a closeted academic’s idea of what the general reader can cope with. You have to admire the author’s braveness – but ultimately it is a futile exercise because no one who isn’t about to embark on a physics degree would get anywhere with this book.
The title makes this book sounds like a Disney ride, but it’s anything but that. In the end it’s not a popular science book at all, it’s a watered down text book. And that isn’t the same thing at all, I’m afraid.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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