Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars Relativity in the Very Short Introductions Series, 2 July 2014
This review is from: Relativity: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Paperback)
The Very Short Introductions Series of Oxford University Press offers a gateway to the broad scope of knowledge in books usually slightly more than 100 pages in length written by distinguished scholars. I have learned a great deal from the series, both about subjects that I know and about subjects that I don't. Relativity falls easily into the latter category. I wanted to give "Relativity: A Very Short Introduction" (2008) a try after enjoying other works in the VSI series on scientific subjects. The author, Russell Stannard, is Emeritus Professor of Physics at The Open University and has had a lengthy career as a high energy nuclear physicist. Stannard has written many books for both children and adults which attempt to explain scientific concepts in an accessible way. Stannard has also written several books on the relationship between science and religion.

Stannard's book consists of two sections covering, in turn, special relativity and general relativity. Einstein developed the theory of special relativity in 1905. Stannard defines it as dealing "with the effects on space and time of uniform motion." In 1916, Einstein presented the general theory of relativity which "includes the additional effects of acceleration and gravity." Special relativity is a special case of general relativity. Stannard shows how relativity revolutionized scientific thinking and how it runs contrary to a number of ideas considered part of common sense.

The book is clearly and engagingly written given the complexity of the subject. Stannard shows how Einstein developed his theories by thinking about seemingly commonplace observations together with the work of earlier scientists. Stannard offers effective illustrations and examples showing the development and content of relativity. His diagrams also are clear and useful. For both special and general relativity, the book works from the relatively simple to the extraordinarily complex. The book does not require a knowledge of mathematics but it makes, for me, a substantial use of mathematical formulas which I couldn't follow. I found it easier to understand the verbal discussions of a point rather that the formulas, regardless of how elementary the formulas might be to some readers.

The book gave me, a reader with no mathematics and little background, a better understanding of relativity than I probably had a right to expect. Reading the book proved a humbling experience as well. For all Stannard's skill in writing for lay readers, this book is difficult to understand. Making readers aware of the difficulty undoubtedly is part of the purpose of the book. There is little chance that any reader will consider him or herself an instant expert after reading this VSI. I became more fascinated with the book as I continued to read. The final pages show how general relativity forms part of broad questions about the nature of the universe. It explores matters such as black holes, gravitational waves, dark matter and dark energy. Stannard offers a strong sense of the sheer enormity of the universe and its mystery. I was reminded again about how little I know and more importantly how little scientists know even with astonishing accomplishments such as the theory of relativity.

The book includes a short three-tiered bibliography based upon the reader's level of mathematical knowledge. Together with the book, I learned from the reader reviews on Amazon. Some of the reviewers have a professional-level knowledge of the subject while others are lay readers such as myself. It was valuable to read these differing perspectives on Stannard's book. This is an excellent book for readers wanting a basic understanding of a complex and profound scientific theory.

Robin Friedman
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Robin Friedman

Location: Washington, D.C. United States

Top Reviewer Ranking: 271