Friday, 3 April 2015

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.

Review by Brian Clegg

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