Skip to main content

Einstein Relatively Simple - Ira Mark Egdall ***

This review has turned out entirely different from the way I expected after the first chapter or two of Ira Mark Egdall's exploration of the special and general theories of relativity. Frankly, I was all set to give up, as I initially found the book very irritating, but I'm glad I continued, because it turned out to be like a good friend. Just as you like the friend despite their irritating habits, so there was enough here to make it worth suffering a little - at least, if you are part of the right kind of audience.

Let's get the irritating bits out of the way. Because the book is trying to be popular science, it includes a reasonable amount of biography, but it is pretty lightweight. The most glaring example is that we read 'He and his wife Mileva Marić were becoming increasingly estranged during this period. Nonetheless, Albert fathered a second child with Mileva, their son Eduard, in July of 1910.' No, that would be their third child. Poor old Lieserl doesn't get a mention. I also found the way that Edgall goes out of his way to use US units rather than scientific units, without even offering both (except on one single occasion, which makes me wonder if the publisher took them out) frustrating. Seeing the speed of light in miles per hour was just weird.

Perhaps the worst aspect was the author's determined attempt to drive the reader mad by repeated misusing the word 'per'. This Latin term has very specific uses in English, such as 'miles per hour'. But it is really painful when the author regularly uses it to mean 'taking the view of' or 'according to'. On one spread alone we get 'Per Einstein, you see my watch...', 'Per Einstein's theory...', 'Per special relativity, the length of an object...' and 'Per Einstein's formula...' I visibly flinched each time this happened, and never got over it.

All in all, the book feels like a de-mathematised text book, with a bit of historical context sprinkled in, while the examples are made cringingly embarrassing by the attempt to make them 'friendly' by putting in childish characters like Surfer Sally and Crash the rocket jockey. It's a bit like trying to make a limo out of a racing car by stripping out all the powerful stuff and adding in faux leather seats. You end up with something that isn’t satisfying for either requirement.

However, here's the weird thing. By about half way through the special theory section I discovered that I was finding the book interesting, and though there was lots that was familiar, there were also some examples I'd never seen before. What's more Egdall genuinely does have an ability to present his subject in a way that isn't too dry, only optionally includes equations (though I found them very useful) and really enhances the understanding. All the way through the general theory I continued to appreciate what I was getting.

So here's the payoff. This isn't really a popular science book. Ignore the so-so biography and it's real nature shines through: an easy reader textbook. And that is something that could genuinely be of interest to, say, an engineer who wants to pick up some basics of relativity, a science graduate who has forgotten half he was taught, or someone who has started with popular science books but wants something with a bit more teeth. This might be a quite narrow market, but the book fits into it brilliantly, and really delivers 100 per cent for that kind of reader - for them it's highly recommended. As long as they can cope with the 'per's.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under