Skip to main content

Einstein's Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity - John Gribbin ****

Of the various anniversaries turning up in 2015, none is as significant to science as the development of Einstein's general theory of relativity. As the C. P. Snow quote on the back of this compact and highly readable book suggests 'If Einstein had not created the general theory (in 1915) no one else would have done so... perhaps not for generations.' The acclaimed British science writer John Gribbin is the ideal person to guide us through this key period of Einstein's life - after all he was co-author with Michael White of the less tightly focussed Einstein: a life in science.

Because this a relatively small book (physically) it sits somewhere between a full scale scientific biography and a short introductory guide. It's quick to read, compact and highly accessible. Gribbin makes a good tutor, providing an experience that is not unlike being lectured to by a slightly pernickety but insightful and friendly professor.  (Pernickety, for instance in his careful insistence that it should always be the 'special theory of relativity', not the useful shorthand 'special relativity' (and likewise for the general theory), because it is the theory that is special/general, not the relativity.)

If I am honest I wasn't looking forward to yet another set of biographical information on Einstein. Not long ago, a reader sent me an email commenting that he had enjoyed one of my books, but he was a bit fed up reading yet another potted biography of the great man. There seems an obligation to do it, yet when you've read a few popular science books about relativity (or gravity, or light, or quantum theory) it does seem that, like Douglas Adams' bowl of petunias, the natural response to reading about Einstein's life should be 'Oh, no, not again.' But somehow, as if by magic, Gribbin manages to make the same old personal history interesting, with real insights that show the links between the man's life and work.

If anything, the biographical sections are a little more successful than those that concentrate on the physics. Gribbin knows his stuff (forwards, backwards and upside down), but the book's approach is just a bit too summary to give the best insight in the special theory and particularly the general theory of relativity. For instance, he gives the usual rubber sheet/trampoline with a weight analogy for matter producing a warp that bends a straight line path, but doesn't explain why this warp should cause a stationary object to start falling. The compactness means he doesn't show the actual equations of the general theory, which in compact form are beautiful and aren't difficult to be guided around, if not comprehended in detail. And he perpetuates the myth (as, I confess, I often have) that John Wheeler coined the term 'black hole.'

This isn't, then, a book for someone who wants to get their brains entangled around the nitty gritty of Einstein's theories of relativity, but it is an excellent way to get a feel for Einstein the man, and a simple, easy to grasp overview of relativity theory - an ideal marker for this centenary year.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…