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On Gravity - A Zee ***

This is the first book I've read where I had to force myself to stop thinking about the author's name - and specifically from asking myself if his middle name is 'To' (I bet he hasn't heard that one before) - to be able to concentrate on the subject. It's the second book I've read on gravity and gravitational waves in the last few weeks, and it didn't work for me as well as the Pierre Binétruy title Gravity! In part it's down to A Zee's writing style, which is extremely mannered (not to mention constantly referring to his other books), but the content also simply didn't put the information across very well.

Things start in a promising way (despite the style). The first lines of the prologue give a suitable feel: 'Finally, finally, the long wait was over: we the human race on planet earth collective heard the song of the universe. Yes, we, a rather malevolent but somewhat clever species, can now proudly say we have detected the ripples of spacetime...' (i.e. gravitational waves). Sometimes the wording is a little odd, and the tone can be irritatingly breezy, but what we get to begin with is exactly what we are promised - an introduction to gravity that is not too technical, but above the trivial level. Admittedly, the use of end notes for what should be footnotes - usefully expanding on a point rather than providing reference information - is irritating as you either painfully flick back and forth or (more likely) simply miss some of the best content, but things are going quite well.

However, a couple of chapters in, Zee falls for the classic error of a scientist writing for the general public (especially common when they're writing for a university press). Probably without even noticing that he's done it, he changes gear and suddenly we've gone from popular science to the level of accessibility of an introductory textbook (though still with the same odd tone). This means that much of the material on electromagnetism, relativity and more becomes increasingly impenetrable as you read on.

What is particularly sad is that the transition happens before Zee gets on to the principle of least time/action (and action in general). He covers this at considerable length (pointing out, for example, that it makes Einstein's field equations for general relativity in some ways a simpler concept) and that is brilliant. This is by far the most interesting and original part of the book as far as a general audience goes, because it's something that is usually only touched on (often in reference to Richard Feynman), but unfortunately it is virtually incomprehensible in the way it's put across.

Overall, then, a strange book that seems sadly to be poorly matched to its audience.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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