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Relativity for the layman (and dogs)
on 27 July 2012
A large number of books have been published in recent years that attempt to explain relativity to the layman. Many cover the standard topics, often in a similar way; very few have a really original approach to what is, after all, well-trodden ground. So what makes this book different? Well, for one thing there is the dog; the book is partly a continuing dialogue between the author and his (talking) dog Emmy. It follows his successful book "How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog". Not haven't read that, I approached the present volume with some hesitation, because a talking dog seemed to be a rather twee device and I assumed it would be simply annoying. But I was wrong. Yes, the dog doesn't always add much to the narrative, but the exchanges are often humorous, and usually to the point. Moreover, the conversations are interwoven with somewhat more technical discussions (but still without mathematics) covering the same ground, so the canine ones provide lighter intervals to break up these latter explanations. Overall, it works rather well, certainly better than I had expected.
The first half of the book deals with difficult concepts like measurement, simultaneity and synchronization. These are vital to appreciate relativity and so are discussed in considerable detail, with many examples and some repetition. Without care, there is an obvious danger of this being rather dull, but the author, in the main, successfully avoids this by the extensive use of easily understood diagrams, and exploiting the device of the dog. The book covers special and general relativity, and in the second half discusses some interesting applications of the latter. As to be expected, these are mainly from the field of cosmology, although there is a brief discussion of the GPS system that we all rely on, and a quick venture into the field of particle physics, with a chapter on attempts to unify the forces of nature and the difficulties of constructing a quantum theory of gravity. Of particular note is the excellent detailed description of the physics of black holes, done without significant `dumbing down'. These discussions do mean that the book is somewhat longer than some other popular expositions (there is a useful glossary if you forget some definition), but including this material gives a much better overview of the importance of relativity in modern physics and brings the subject alive.
Above all, the book works primarily because the author is a highly skilled expositor of intrinsically difficult concepts. His students must love his lectures, with or without the dog.