Skip to main content

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 BinĂ©truy 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.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…