Skip to main content

The Perfect Theory – Pedro G. Ferreira ****

Despite the quote from Marcus du Sautoy on the front referring to this
book by astrophysics professor Pedro Ferreira as a ‘guide to the outer reaches of the universe’, this is far more a book about what goes on in human brains – and specifically the development and partial solutions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which turned our understanding of the nature of gravitation upside down.
For me it’s a three bears porridge book. We start off with a section that’s just right, then get a bit that’s far too long and end with a bit that’s far too short. (Okay, I know, the porridge was about temperature, not length, but this wasn’t supposed to be taken literally.) That ‘just right’ opening section gives us Einstein’s work and specifically the development of his masterpiece, the ‘perfect theory’, the general theory of relativity.
This takes a totally opposite approach to, say, Cox and Forshaw’s The Quantum UniverseWhere that book does not shy away from presenting difficult detail, Ferreira’s swift, breezy and very readable style wafts us through without any detail at all. Biographically this results in a sanitisation of Einstein’s life (for instance, his first child is never mentioned, and Ferreira makes it sound as if he divorced his first wife before becoming romantically entangled with his cousin). Taking the advice given to Stephen Hawking literally, Ferreira doesn’t show a single equation, not even the central equation of general relativity. I think this is a pity – it is perfectly possible to explain what’s going on there without doing the maths. But his approach does make for an easy read.
The centre section is where Ferreira gets boggled down. While he (probably wisely) continues to omit the details of the theoretical developments themselves, he gives us far too much detail of how this person, and then that person, and then this other person, made some small addition to the understanding of general relativity. This part just seemed to go on for an unnecessarily long time – it was a bit like one of those endless Oscars speeches.
The narration starts to pick up again with gravitational waves. The sad rise and fall of Joseph Weber is very well chronicled, though I think Ferreira is over generous on the matter of LIGO, the extremely expensive gravity wave detector that has never detected anything. He is relentlessly optimistic that the upgrade will succeed – which is not a universal view by any means – and says nothing about the very interesting problems of detection which have all too often produced spurious results.
Finally, at the end, the book got really interesting again – and here, I think, Ferreira spent far too little time. This was particularly the case with the short chapter on alternatives to and developments of general relativity like MOND and TeVeS. This area could usefully have taken up a third of the book, rather than a single short chapter. Overall, though, a worthwhile addition to the popular science canon on gravity, quantum theory and cosmology.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …