Skip to main content

Relativity for the Questioning Mind – Daniel Styler ****

On first inspection my paperback copy of this book had the look of a self-published title, with the small text on the back cover going right to the edge of the page and the front cover looking a little amateurish. The book is, however, published by Johns Hopkins University Press – and, luckily, once you get inside, there are no problems with the layout and no doubts about the quality.
Relativity for the Questioning Mind is a little different from most popular science titles. It is ostensibly a workbook, with the idea being that the reader gets to grips with (mainly special) relativity through problem-solving rather than passive reading alone. Each short chapter sets a variety of problems to get you thinking, having first briefly introduced the relevant ideas and concepts, with hints and answers at the back of the book. Here is one of the simpler problems, in the chapter on time dilation, to give an idea of what these problems are like (the additional information and equations you need to solve the problems are always covered beforehand):
“I trim my moustache every six weeks. If I were in a rocket ship flying past you at [four-fifths the speed of light], then how much time, in your frame, would elapse between my moustache trimmings?”
The problems get trickier as the book goes on, and whilst they’re generally fun, many end up being quite a bit more difficult than you might expect, having been told at the beginning of the book that you will be gently introduced to relativity theory – although the author believes that the mathematics in the book is all elementary, some of it will still appear fairly forbidding to non-specialists. I do still like the approach, though – Styler is absolutely right in emphasizing that exercises like these can be of great use if you want to deepen your understanding of a subject area, and the author’s philosophy – work things through for yourself and don’t take anyone’s word for it – is a good one.
If you didn’t want to work through all of the exercises, there is still plenty to get from the book. The introductions to such things as time dilation, length contraction, the relativity of simultaneity, and the equivalence principle are useful in their own right, and there are interesting detours throughout the book on, among other things, the nature of science and its limitations.
There is one other aspect that I liked a lot – incorporated into the text are regular question and answer dialogues, in which Styler imagines confused readers interjecting with requests for clarifications or objections to what’s being discussed. Styler poses and answers the questions he believes most people have when coming across ideas in relativity theory for the first time, questions which he feels are not answered in most other places, and the conversational, and often humorous, tone of these sections makes them entertaining to read.
Overall, then – informative, challenging, and fun at the same time. Perhaps not the ideal introduction to relativity, but this would complement well books on the subject that take a more standard approach.
Paperback:  
Also in Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…