Saturday, March 27, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Why does E=mc2?

“From the simplest of ideas” ... If there were ever to be an epitaph written for humanity’s greatest scientific achievements, it might begin with these five words.

- Why Does E=mc2? (And why should we care?), by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Let me just cut to the chase and say I highly recommend this new primer on relativity, in which two British physicists reveal how all the really big ideas in science came out of asking simple questions. And they do it with such charm, wit, and modesty you almost forget you’re reading a science book.

I learned many astonishing and/or useful things reading this book. Here are five:
  1. WHY someone who travels really fast to another galaxy comes back to Earth to find everyone they knew long dead. (I mean it. I really get this now – even the basic math behind it.)
  2. What makes the speed of light a constant of nature, and why it's critical to modern physics.
  3. What the Higgs particle is and why CERN has spent so many euros trying to observe one in captivity. (There is a marvelously simple analogy about a ping-pong ball suspended in maple syrup.)
  4. That 100 billion subatomic particles generated by the sun pass through your thumbnail every second.
  5. That contrary to the laws of probability, even particle physicists can have a sense of humor.
Now, this book has been touted as relativity education for the masses, but I have to say...the "maths" are hard. Once we got past the Pythagorean theorem, they pretty much left me in the dust. Fortunately, it’s not critical that you follow the numbers to benefit from the book. They spend far more time on concepts, and for the most part I found those easy enough to grasp. But it does make you feel a bit inadequate when they’re flinging out equations that might as well be written in Martian. My advice: Unless you're into that sort of torture, just skim those bits and move on.

Despite the intimidating math, it’s a compelling, educational, and yes, entertaining read. If you’re a fan of the world’s most adorable particle physicist, don't miss it. The book is rife with interesting perspective and eloquent insights -- here's one of my favorites:

It is worth remembering not only that scientific hubris has often been shown to be folly in the past, but also that the perception that we somehow know enough, or even all there is to know, about the workings of nature has been and will probably always be damaging to the human spirit.

These authors respect their audience, and you get the feeling that they hope, more than anything, to deepen our sense of awe at the beauty of our world and universe.

We walk in the midst of wonders, and if we open our eyes and minds to them, the possibilities are boundless.


  1. I'll be adding it to my must-read list!

  2. Fabulous review, Sharon. I have this book in my stack of "to be reads." I need to bump it up to "must read next!"

  3. Great review and I love this book! I'm the geek girl who could actually communicate with my physics major friends on concept and theory in college! No, not my major, not nearly. But I was and still am the biggest sci-fi fan ever!

    Now I write SFR. Did I mention that I'm also a romantic at heart?

  4. Thanks, Laurie! I really think it's right up your alley. (You too, Nick.)

    Hi Kaye! Good to see a fellow member of the SFR Brigade. Geeks with heart - that's us. :)

    Have you read Quantum Enigma? That's next on my list!


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