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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…