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 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.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…