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01 July, 2007

Relatively Simple Book On Relativity

It bothers me sometimes that I don't have a really good grasp of relativity. So much so that I was driven recently to read Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified by Richard Wolfson. I've got to say it was probably the clearest exposition of special relativity I have ever read but was a real let-down when it came to general relativity.

Interestingly, it was one of those attempts to present the argument for relativity rather than just to blast away at the reader with maths. As such, it was almost just what I wanted. I tend to believe that when somebody tries to explain something and what they're telling me sounds confused or dogmatic, it is usually because they don't really understand their subject well enough to explain it. If I'm right, Wolfson certainly has a good grasp on special relativity since he was as clear as could be. If I have one criticism, it is that he tended to repeat himself an awful lot in his attempt to keep his audience with him. However, having done such a sterling job on special relativity, his treatment of general relativity was pretty sketchy. He seems to think that he can't present the reasoning behind general relativity the way he can with special relativity. Maybe it's true. Maybe there's so much else you need to know to get through the arguments that he knew he couldn't get it all into a slim paperback but, honestly, I'd have been happy to go through it all even if the book had been ten times as thick.

The lack of maths was also a bit frustrating. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather hear arguments in words rather than symbols any day – and I must admit, my facility with maths is verging on pathetic – but there were points where I simply needed it. For example, Maxwell's equations are so important in the argument that I wish he'd put them in (instead of just talking about them for several pages) and I really would have liked to get into the geometry of spacetime, even if it is hard. But all is not lost. I have found I can supplement a well-argued book with articles from Wikipedia – which tend to be very short on explanation and quite heavy on maths. (Check out special relativity, general relativity and the Maxwell equations for example.)

I finished the book with the feeling that I hadn't actually learned anything new (well, maybe a couple of new insights or emphases). This, I suppose, reflects the fact that I've actually read lots of other layman-oriented material on the subject. At least it shows I've understood what I already think I know! It also shows, I suppose, that if I want to learn any more about it, I'm going to have to get into more heavyweight books. Wolfson suggests a few and, having established his credentials as a teacher with me, I'd probably accept his recommendations next time I feel the urge to dig deeper into this.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for a very easy-to-read exposition on what relativity is all about – even if you don't know anything about it and gave up maths as a lost cause years ago – Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified by Richard Wolfson is the book for you. As for me, I could really do with knowing more about quantum mechanics...

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