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on 28 June 2011
Before I start this review, just let me tell you where I stand re: popular science. I'm a complete beginner! The most amateur of amateurs. I'm intrigued, interested verging on passionate - but I've only read a handful of science books. So, I came to this book knowing nothing about the famous equation other than "energy equals mass times the speed of light squared" which, pre facto, was pretty much meaningless to me.

As I understand it, the success of this book varies wildly depending on the individual reader's pre-existing knowledge of science/quantum physics etc. As such, this is a review for people like me: utter beginners in the field.

In brief: the first half of the book is brilliant! Informative, well-written and mind-blowing in the way that high-concept astronomy often is. The second half of the book, however, is an incredibly difficult, long-winded explanation of vectors and the so-called 'master equation', most of which flew right over my head. I read it all, and bits of it made sense to me but, like many people here; this just feels like two books. The first half is clearly for people like me (beginners) whereas the second half is a radically different reading experience, which I imagine is much more suited to hardened afficianados of popular science.

Now for more detail: The first 150 pages or so don't explain the famous equation, as such; rather, they explain the things we *need* to know in order to understand the equation; such as the relative nature of time and space. All of this is articulated with very helpful diagrams, metaphors and fictional anecdotes. Any basic maths here (such as Pythagoras) is re-capped for the forgetful student(i.e. me) and parts of the book are also strikingly funny. I can imagine Brian Cox's lilting Manchester tones narrating.

The second half, however, carries a massive tonal shift, which is characterised by an increase in technical diagrams, equations and much more intense demands on the reader's mathematics. Similarly, very new (to me) terms are introduced at a frightening rate and explained very quickly 'muon', 'vectors', 'tachyon', 'higgs', 'neutrinos', 'W' and 'Z' particles etc. etc. The reader is then expected to have a perfect and instant recall of ALL of this information, sometimes tens and tens of pages later. This, added to the massive equations makes an awful lot of demands on the reader's memory, especially for a beginner.

All of this is fine, except that it's so at odds with the initial 150 pages (or so). Stylistically, there're two different books here. The first half takes a long time to explain basic maths like Pythagoras' theorem, but the second half rushes into incredibly difficult algebra with only the most cursory attempts to elucidate; there's too much of a disparity here.

How is it written? Well, again, this is a book of conflicts. The early descriptions of space and time and wonderful; enlightening, understandable and articulate (but a warning: some of the metaphors used to explain things (such as a man on a bike riding through a desert) are often more baffling than the physics itself). I really dug the first 150 pages - but then things changed (for the worse).

The phrase 'more about this later' is used ALL the time, which makes me think that maybe the book's chapter structure isn't optimal. Similarly, the phrase 'this is all you really need to know' is used SO much that I often felt patronised/spoken down to by the writers. And I know they're physicists, not writers, but some of the sentence construction (especially with regard to negative articles) is terrible, like this little blighter:

"Might spacetime not be the same everywhere, and might this not lead to consequences that we can observe: the answer is emphatically yes!"

The negatives here took quite a few minutes of de-coding before I realised that was actually going on. With subject matter so difficult, poor sentence structure really damages this book's eloquence.

So... the first half is truly excellent (almost worth the price of the whole book); but, if you're a beginner like me, expect to find the second half difficult, confusing, poorly written: it makes a lot of demands on the reader.

If you've read A LOT of popular science, then I imagine this book will be fine.
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on 21 October 2010
With so many books to read and so little time to read them, it's rare to find one worthy of being read repeatedly; however, for me, why does E=mc² certainly fits into that category and I found my latest reading to be just as enjoyable as the first. Undoubtedly, Cox and Forshaw have produced one of the outstanding introductory texts to Einstein's theories of relativity, presenting their arguments in an absorbing prose that stimulates the imagination and challenges one's intellect. That said, this book is not without its shortcomings and, consequently, I am not quite convinced that it qualifies as a popular science "classic".

Firstly, whilst acknowledging that Cox and Forshaw did not intend to write "a book about mathematics", the concept of special relativity does benefit from a comprehensive mathematical explanation: its simplicity is what makes the idea so beautiful and the authors fail their readers by simply presenting information without bothering to demonstrate its derivation (for instance, the time dilation equation (p.127)). In essence, readers without the requisite scientific or mathematical training are simply required to accept such assertions (or seek their explanations elsewhere) and that dilutes the impact of the reasoning. Ironically, this is as much a presentational failing as anything else and the authors could have avoided this problem, without a significant increase in explanatory text, by simply improving the quality of some diagrams and including the stepwise transformations of Pythagoras' theorem.

Secondly, notwithstanding my (genuine) praise for the authors' lucidity, there are times when the prose becomes unnecessarily convoluted. In part, I suspect that this over-elaboration arises as an artefact of collaborative authorship and, in part, that relativistic concepts can be extremely counter-intuitive. However, if this is your first foray into relativity, be prepared to re-read passages in order to elicit understanding.

Many of those that have read the book will (rightly) view my criticisms as overly harsh and, to be sure, this is an extraordinary book. The authors' chatty style, occasional humour, and constant detours make the subject matter interesting and accessible as well as making for a thoroughly good read!
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on 8 October 2009
I really enjoyed this book. Recommended by my son who is interested in all things cosmic, I anticipated a better understanding of modern physics, something I never got to grips with at school.

It wasn't an easy read because of the formulae and maths - I think a few more occasions where the formulae were written out in words would have helped. I found myself having to flip back to remember what the letters stood for until they eventually sunk in.

Having said that, once past the fog, it was great, and very satisfying to gain some understanding of curved space, mass and the speed of light. Now I wish I had paid more attention at school. The writing style is entertaining, engaging and not at all patronising.A great journey, well guided - I intend to read it again to make sure it stays in my head.
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on 12 December 2010
For anyone interested in special relativity and the relationship described by the most famous of all equations, this is a fantastic read. Even though the book is low on math content, the authors still get to the core of how the equation was arrived at, with good thought experiments and a little bit af abstract thinking. For me, the most fascinating aspect of the book is how the conservation laws (invariants) pop up beautifully in 4-dimensional spacetime. The knowledge of how special relativity works really turns every intuitive thought one might have about space and time on its head, making the world around us a much more fascinating place, where time can be measured in meters and mass and energy are interchangable.
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on 22 April 2010
Like many others no doubt, I'd bought this book off the back of the Wonders of the Solar System series, but I've always had an interest in space, time and the universe, and I've previously devoured Hawking's book as well. This was a revelation though. It manages to put an incredibly complex subject into words that, even without a mathematical background (and the reader need not even engage with the maths to get the premise of the book) open up the beauty and simplicity of nature and the universe around us to anyone.

I sped through it in a couple of weeks, and it's a really well-written book, explaining theories in ways and with examples that take them from the alien to the obvious, and with a slow creep of complexity that means by the end of the book you're dealing with theories that would have been pretty impenetrable in Chapter 1.

I recommend it to people of all interests, ability and scientific competence. I'm a novice, working off my GSCEs and a childhood and teen love of space and time, but came out of it feeling much more alive to how our universe works. I only wish it was longer.
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VINE VOICEon 19 September 2011
I enjoy reading popular science and totally agree with other reviewers who suggested this book was rather unbalanced in structure. The first hundred or so pages are quite clear and straightforward. Indeed the early chapters involve rather long winded explanations of very basic algebra including Pythagoras' theorem and what a square root is. I can't imagine anyone picking up such a book without this very basic knowledge. All was easy to follow until the concept of 'spacetime' was introduced with hyperbolic diagrams. From there it became a little more challenging; I could follow why a traveller on a fast moving rocket ages more than the observer at the point from which he departed, but then we are told that because either could be viewed as the party in motion because motion in relative, there is an apparent paradox and the party at the point of departure could be considered to be moving away at the same speed and hence age more slowly. OK, but the explanation as to why this is not so (something to do with rapid time dilation as the rocket turns round an accelerates homeward) was completely baffling.
I understand that some might say that this is not the authors' fault but my own inability to grasp it, but the explanation of these difficult concepts was performed with much less text than we were treated to for basic algebra, and it is the job of the authors to be clear to the reader not to leave them baffled.
Similarly, the explanation of the 'standard model' seemed quite poor and confusing. We are introduced to an equation that appears quite baffling to all but those with maths or physics degrees, and it is constantly refered back to as if the reader were completely familiar with it. I am quite familiar with Feynmann diagrams, but the explanation of these was simply terrible.
Again, the final chapter seemed to me to be implying that the warping of spacetime by massive objects such as the stars and planets creates tracts along which falling motion can occur, and therefore gravity becomes something of an illusion. Surely a misunderstand on my part or a miscommunication on the part of the authors.
It almost seemed to me the authors had given up on the reader about two thirds of the way through and just wanted to finish it off.
I guess if astrophysics was easy everyone would be doing it!
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on 13 January 2010
This book will delight anyone, of any age possessing an enquiring mind and has ever wondered what theoretical physicists get up to. The authors make it clear that this book does not teach the reader mathematics. However, it may inspire some to seek out the knowledge required to appreciate the detail. It would have been a bonus if an appendix had been included providing a little more detail on, for example, transformation of equations. From cover to cover the authors communicate their enthusiasm for the subject matter with humour. They state their desire was to produce a book that allows non-scientists to understand Einstein's beautiful theories. How successful they have been will clearly depend on the individual reader. What they undoubtedly do achieve is an appreciation of the giants of science, both ancient and modern. The reader is left with a clear appreciation of the underlying foundation principle of science i.e. any theory, however well loved and respected, survives only as long as it is supported by experimental evidence. It may be that all the subject matter contained within this book will need to be significnatly revised or abandoned sometime in the future. This reader is beginning to share the excitement amongst theoretical physicists as to whether the Higgs particle will be discovered in the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Highly recommended.
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on 8 August 2010
I have always wanted to know more about the famous equation but I have always thought it would be difficult to understand without going into the mathematics of it all (it was after all written by a genius). This book has been the answer to my prayers. The book is written with a non-mathematical audience in mind and succeeds in drawing the reader into Einstein's weird and wonderful world of relativity. The book does contain maths but nothing which I would class as difficult.

The book is both entertaining and educational in equal measures. Do not get me wrong there at times where you are left scratching your head and having to re-read entire sections of text to make sense of some of the ideas in the book but it is well worth the time and effort. At the end of it all I was left with a sense of achievement in learning something new about the formula, the history behind it, and its application in the modern world. This book has helped re-kindle my thirst to learn more about physics and science in general.
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on 10 September 2011
Just as in introduction, I am a 15 year old, so clearly I had no prior knowledge of such things, but I was very much interested in physics and I had finished watching Brian Cox's programs on TV, and so decided to acquire this book.

It was simply amazing and mind blowing at the same time. They completely took me through everything, from the basics of special relativity to the work at particle accelerators and the world of particle physics. I find it quite a feat for an author to make a non-physicist with no mathematical or scientific knowledge, understand the foundations of our universe. It was beautifully written, you could easily tell which parts were written by Brian Cox, as you had the occasional humour that he regularly blesses us with during his TV programmes (and also some bits were also copied from his Wonders of the Universe book or vice versa, but shh!).

If you have no prior scientific knowledge and you are even vaguely interested in physics, this is simply a must-buy as it's so easy to understand, they way they explain the content. In fact, it's pretty much swayed me to wanting a career in particle physics.

It's probably the best book I've ever read.
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on 29 July 2012
I decided to purchase the Kindle version. I have only just started reading it and having reached chapter 3, already have come across some errors. These errors are with the simple Pythagoras-based equations dealing with how fast a clock ticks on a moving train according to someone standing on the platform. I am no professor, but this is pretty basic maths as taught in secondary schools. The errors come in the form of what I believe to be badly converted text, where the conversion process from printed page has incorrectly recognised some characters. Unfortunately, this would imply that the converted book has not been properly proof-read.

The problems I have found are on page 48:

The first suspect equation is quoted as 2T = 2/sqrt(c^2) u v^2 (As best as I can write it here!)
This should be 2T = 2 / sqrt(c^2 - v^2)

The next is quoted as c/sqrt(c^2) u v^2
This should be c / sqrt(c^2 - v^2)

Finally, the equation 1 / sqrt(1) - v^2uc^2
should be 1 / sqrt(1 - v^2/c^2)

Please note that the symbol for square root can not be entered here, so I have written sqrt.
Also, part of the problem is that on the Kindle, the square root symbol does not extend far enough across to envelope all the terms. So it can look as though it's meaning the square root of just c^2 when it should be the square root of c^2 - v^2.

This could confuse some readers who are not so familiar with Pythagoras and put them off the subject. What concerns me is that as I progress through the book and possibly come across mathematics I'm not familiar with, if there are similar errors will I recognise them, or assume they are correct and give up totally confused?

I am also wondering if the printed book is actually different. Guess I will either have to exchange the Kindle version for the book, or try and find the book in a book shop to make a comparison.

Apart from that, so far I am enjoying the read and believe it will be worthwhile working through the whole book, albeit with some trepidation.
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