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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 dealing with physical objects where, for example, heat can cause movement of atoms, corrupting a very small observational shift.

After this first example, Will and Yunes go on to cover deflection of light observed during eclipses, including both the original 1919 Eddington observation (they support the results which have been queried by some historians of science) and a recent recreation using modern amateur equipment which did far better. We get the opposing time effects of the general and special theories, including the usual GPS example, gravitational waves and black holes (of course), experiments to determine the effect of frame dragging and considerably more.

All this was interesting, but what the book really lacks is any sense of narrative. We are told lots of information, but there's a slight feeling for the reader of 'And...?' Although the authors present much of this information well, they can suffer from a common communication problem when physicists try to explain physics to a general audience - they can't really understand what the rest of us struggle to get our heads around. So, for example, relatively simple explanations, such as the path of light being warped as it crosses an accelerating spaceship, and from the equivalence principle, the expectation of the same thing happening under the influence of gravity, are quite difficult to follow here.

For the right audience, which I think might be someone about to start a physics degree, this is an excellent book, but I'm not sure it quite works for a general reader.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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