199 of 203 people found the following review helpful
Why does E=mc2,
This review is from: Why Does E=mc2? (Paperback)
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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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 21 Jul 2011 23:40:05 BDT
Last edited by the author on 26 Dec 2011 00:33:42 GMT
The thing to bear in mind about popular physics books, is that in order to be popular they need to provide stuff that people want to read about. That is why they tend to dwell on things like time travel, black holes, the mysterious aspects of special relativity, and telling people what a genius Einstein was.
Humans have always had a fascination with the mystical and mysterious. Today Kepler is famous for describing the elliptical orbit of planets, but in order to make a living he had to use his knowledge of the heavens to produce horoscopes for the rich and powerful. Today's popular physics writers are certainly no Keplers, but they are in sense following in his tradition, by making a living out of the mystical ideas on the fringe of the physics of their time.
Just in case anybody is interested, here is a brief overview of the famous equation:
The idea that energy has mass, was actually formulated by Hendrik Lorentz. He realised that the faster an object moves through space, the heavier it must become, because of the extra energy carrying it along. He came up with the formula 1/sqrt(1-v²), to describe how the mass of a moving object varies, where `v' is the speed of the object expressed as a fraction of the speed of light.
Particle physicists measure both energy and mass in terms of electron volts. So they are in effect using the equation e=m. In other physics, energy is measured in joules or kg m²/s², whilst mass is measured in kilograms. The sole function of e=mc², is to transfer between these different units.
All e=mc² does, is express the mathematical relationship between the definition of the energy unit kg m²/s², and the actual mass of energy attached to a slow moving object, as given by Lorentz's mass dilation formula 1/sqrt(1-v²).
In reply to an earlier post on 25 Jul 2011 13:13:12 BDT
Please don't use comments on my review to sell your own book. Thanks.
Posted on 28 Aug 2011 22:00:11 BDT
Dear Tom Cat,
about the "terrible sentence" : "Might spacetime not be the same everywhere, and might this not lead to consequences that we cannot observe: the answer is yes!"
please note that the EXACT quotation of p.221 is far more simpler :
"Might spacetime not be the same everywhere, and might this lead to consequences that we can observe? The answer is emphatically yes."
In reply to an earlier post on 22 Sep 2011 00:02:54 BDT
Last edited by the author on 22 Sep 2011 00:04:05 BDT
"Please don't use comments on my review to sell your own book. Thanks."
I accept it is annoying, but all except the last sentence of my comment did relate to the book and your review. You say that the second half of the book did not make much sense, which you put down to your lack of knowledge and poor explanations. However applying Occam's razor, the first assumption about a book that does not make sense, ought to be that it contains nonsense and that the author does not really know what he is talking about.
If such a book had been written by anybody other than a famous scientist, I expect that is what you would have concluded. However because science is the new religion, people seem to be unable to contemplate the possibility that a famous scientist could actually talk rubbish. As Einstein put it "if you really understand something you can explain it to your grandmother", and the real problem is that many of the ideas in the book are actually wrong, and therefore do not make sense to the author. Physics has always been partly right and partly wrong, and the same is true today, so people ought to rely more on their own judgement rather than believing in the infallibility of physicists.
You are certainly right that such a book would be easier for experienced readers, that is because they have been conditioned to blindly accept that the universe is strange and mysterious, and that only official geniuses have the necessary mental faculties to understand it.
Posted on 11 Oct 2011 09:01:15 BDT
Last edited by the author on 11 Oct 2011 09:22:34 BDT
TomCat, thank you for a very helpful review. I have 36 years behind me as an electronics engineer in the defence business, so have some science & maths. My son, however, has a BSc in Astrophysics so I try to look into his world. This sounds a little too far for me, so thank you, I have decided to avoid the frustration (& ignominy) of finding myself struggling beyond my depth.
William Newtspear's review has an underlying bitterness which smacks of narrow-minded zealotism. To refer to my son again, he has attended lectures by Cox & praises his simplicity of explanation & a readiness to see Einstein proven wrong - as early pioneers often are, at least in part. Evidence the latest research from Cern which may prove that in fact it is possible for some particles to exceed the speed of light. Cox & others are excited to see where this may lead, not in blind denial as I suspect William may be.
Posted on 24 Nov 2011 19:28:04 GMT
Paul Harrison says:
I read the book and thought it pretty damn good, but I was left thinking what about the squared bit? if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (300.000kms/sec) why multiply it by itself to get an even bigger number !! I have now worked out that its a dimensional thing (the 2D surface of a sphere) but I've read a few of these type of books and never seen anyone even mention it. I dont know, maybe it was obvious to everyone else, durh
Posted on 5 Dec 2011 19:31:53 GMT
C. Campbell says:
fantastic review, looking forward to reading the book myself. Kind regards 'A fellow beginner'
In reply to an earlier post on 30 Dec 2011 23:44:57 GMT
Last edited by the author on 15 Mar 2012 22:27:18 GMT
It shows the extent to which physics has been religiosised, that novices like Sparks seem to think that initiation to the communion involves describing people who question current belief as zealots.
Rather than starting with a book like this, beginners would do better to start off learning the history, and realising that progress comes from people like Kepler and Newton, overturning the rubbish of their era; not from people like Cox and Hawking mindlessly repeating contemporary nonsense.
A good starting point is `The mechanical universe' lecture series on google, which is an excellent mix of physics, history, and maths. It is a complete contrast to a typical Cox programme, where much of the time the screen is filled with the Cool Fox grinning like a Cheshire Cat, and much of the script involves him saying how wonderful and mysterious the universe is, without actually discussing the physics.
Posted on 12 Aug 2012 15:53:44 BDT
Mr. D. Gilmore says:
I started this book with high hopes also but didn't finish it, mostly for the reasons given by this reviewer and others. I have read other books of the same ilk from other authors and so wasn't at a complete disadvantage but the level of mathematics needed was way over my head. No mention of the level of maths needed was indicated in reviews and blurbs.
One thing I have to say about it is, that given the education and training that the two authors needed and have undoubtedly achieved to get where they are, I found it somewhat arrogant of them to to pretend that this small book would come to anywhere near capable of explaining this profoundly difficult subject.
Posted on 12 Jan 2014 02:01:31 GMT
Herr Holz Paul says:
I have not read this yet, but I totally agree - I HATE mathematical equations and so much of this subject matter is drowning in the stuff! I am looking forward to the day when someone can explain this stuff easily - maybe our brains will have evolved by then.