Skip to main content

Einstein Relatively Simple - Ira Mark Egdall ***

This review has turned out entirely different from the way I expected after the first chapter or two of Ira Mark Egdall's exploration of the special and general theories of relativity. Frankly, I was all set to give up, as I initially found the book very irritating, but I'm glad I continued, because it turned out to be like a good friend. Just as you like the friend despite their irritating habits, so there was enough here to make it worth suffering a little - at least, if you are part of the right kind of audience.

Let's get the irritating bits out of the way. Because the book is trying to be popular science, it includes a reasonable amount of biography, but it is pretty lightweight. The most glaring example is that we read 'He and his wife Mileva Marić were becoming increasingly estranged during this period. Nonetheless, Albert fathered a second child with Mileva, their son Eduard, in July of 1910.' No, that would be their third child. Poor old Lieserl doesn't get a mention. I also found the way that Edgall goes out of his way to use US units rather than scientific units, without even offering both (except on one single occasion, which makes me wonder if the publisher took them out) frustrating. Seeing the speed of light in miles per hour was just weird.

Perhaps the worst aspect was the author's determined attempt to drive the reader mad by repeated misusing the word 'per'. This Latin term has very specific uses in English, such as 'miles per hour'. But it is really painful when the author regularly uses it to mean 'taking the view of' or 'according to'. On one spread alone we get 'Per Einstein, you see my watch...', 'Per Einstein's theory...', 'Per special relativity, the length of an object...' and 'Per Einstein's formula...' I visibly flinched each time this happened, and never got over it.

All in all, the book feels like a de-mathematised text book, with a bit of historical context sprinkled in, while the examples are made cringingly embarrassing by the attempt to make them 'friendly' by putting in childish characters like Surfer Sally and Crash the rocket jockey. It's a bit like trying to make a limo out of a racing car by stripping out all the powerful stuff and adding in faux leather seats. You end up with something that isn’t satisfying for either requirement.

However, here's the weird thing. By about half way through the special theory section I discovered that I was finding the book interesting, and though there was lots that was familiar, there were also some examples I'd never seen before. What's more Egdall genuinely does have an ability to present his subject in a way that isn't too dry, only optionally includes equations (though I found them very useful) and really enhances the understanding. All the way through the general theory I continued to appreciate what I was getting.

So here's the payoff. This isn't really a popular science book. Ignore the so-so biography and it's real nature shines through: an easy reader textbook. And that is something that could genuinely be of interest to, say, an engineer who wants to pick up some basics of relativity, a science graduate who has forgotten half he was taught, or someone who has started with popular science books but wants something with a bit more teeth. This might be a quite narrow market, but the book fits into it brilliantly, and really delivers 100 per cent for that kind of reader - for them it's highly recommended. As long as they can cope with the 'per's.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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 …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …