Skip to main content

Einstein's Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity - John Gribbin ****

Of the various anniversaries turning up in 2015, none is as significant to science as the development of Einstein's general theory of relativity. As the C. P. Snow quote on the back of this compact and highly readable book suggests 'If Einstein had not created the general theory (in 1915) no one else would have done so... perhaps not for generations.' The acclaimed British science writer John Gribbin is the ideal person to guide us through this key period of Einstein's life - after all he was co-author with Michael White of the less tightly focussed Einstein: a life in science.

Because this a relatively small book (physically) it sits somewhere between a full scale scientific biography and a short introductory guide. It's quick to read, compact and highly accessible. Gribbin makes a good tutor, providing an experience that is not unlike being lectured to by a slightly pernickety but insightful and friendly professor.  (Pernickety, for instance in his careful insistence that it should always be the 'special theory of relativity', not the useful shorthand 'special relativity' (and likewise for the general theory), because it is the theory that is special/general, not the relativity.)

If I am honest I wasn't looking forward to yet another set of biographical information on Einstein. Not long ago, a reader sent me an email commenting that he had enjoyed one of my books, but he was a bit fed up reading yet another potted biography of the great man. There seems an obligation to do it, yet when you've read a few popular science books about relativity (or gravity, or light, or quantum theory) it does seem that, like Douglas Adams' bowl of petunias, the natural response to reading about Einstein's life should be 'Oh, no, not again.' But somehow, as if by magic, Gribbin manages to make the same old personal history interesting, with real insights that show the links between the man's life and work.

If anything, the biographical sections are a little more successful than those that concentrate on the physics. Gribbin knows his stuff (forwards, backwards and upside down), but the book's approach is just a bit too summary to give the best insight in the special theory and particularly the general theory of relativity. For instance, he gives the usual rubber sheet/trampoline with a weight analogy for matter producing a warp that bends a straight line path, but doesn't explain why this warp should cause a stationary object to start falling. The compactness means he doesn't show the actual equations of the general theory, which in compact form are beautiful and aren't difficult to be guided around, if not comprehended in detail. And he perpetuates the myth (as, I confess, I often have) that John Wheeler coined the term 'black hole.'

This isn't, then, a book for someone who wants to get their brains entangled around the nitty gritty of Einstein's theories of relativity, but it is an excellent way to get a feel for Einstein the man, and a simple, easy to grasp overview of relativity theory - an ideal marker for this centenary year.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…