Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The Elegant Universe of Albert Einstein – Tom Barnes et al ***

Like all books that are collections of essays – in this case, a series of talks given on New Zealand national radio – there is a certain degree of dislocation to this book – but it works better than many, as most of the sections are lucid and readable in their own right. The main disadvantage is a tendency to leap from topic to topic with the fragile linking theme of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s great year 1905 (although the book didn’t come out until 2006).
So we get topics from a brief history of the universe and the history of our knowledge of the age of the Earth, to relativity, quantum theory and more, including the often difficult interaction between science and religion.
Some of these topics only have a very tangential link to Einstein – in fact only one strongly covers Einstein’s work, and includes a potted biography of the man. This is where the segmented nature of the book comes out strongest as there is also a mini-biography in the introduction – you’d think the author of the introduction would have been aware of the overlap.
Generally the subjects are covered in a very approachable fashion. The first (the brief history of the universe one) suffers from occasional moments of wince-making whimsy – for example, the author Matt Visser says ‘These days, when your child wanders up to you and says, “Dear parental unit, why does the sun shine?”‘ Only the very desperate would find ‘dear parental unit’ anything other than cringe-worthy. The other section that is a little weak is the second by Hamish Campbell on the age of the earth. This lists the naming of the different periods at tedious length and is rather stodgy. But the rest of the pieces read very well.
I particularly enjoyed Paul Callaghan’s ‘Journey to the Heart of Matter’ section on the discovery of the nature of matter (inevitably, and why not, strongly featuring the work of New Zealand’s biggest scientific star, Ernest Rutherford) and the final section by John Stenhouse, called ‘Galileo’s Dilemma’. Stenhouse steers a careful course, identifying where (for instance) the Catholic church went very wrong with Galileo but also being clear that not all problems ascribed to religion (such as the fictional insistence on a flat earth in medieval times) really existed. It’s too easy for scientists who are very vocal against religion, like Richard Dawkins, to paint things just as black and white as any religious fundamentalist – this section gives a much more balanced view.
All in all, it’s an enjoyable little taster around aspects of the physical sciences that can be loosely tied in to Einstein. Each section then needs opening up further with a whole book on the subject – but it’s a good starting point.
Review by Brian Clegg

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