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4.3 out of 5 stars
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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 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 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 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 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 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 20 June 2012
For me, the high point of the book is in Chapter 3, where we get an overview of Special Relativity, and - astonishingly - get to prove it with something as simple as Pythagorus!

But Cox and Forshaw have this annoying, matey style which is something like having a Radio 2 DJ for a teacher. They're always telling you what's coming up soon, how interesting it will be - and with minimum of complexity. When the explanation actually starts, there are lots of digressions, apologies for digressions, spot checks on where we've got to, how far we've got to go, motivators to say how well we're doing and how worthwhile this will be when we've got there.

But after all, I don't feel I'm spared any complexity, just worn out with the whole journey. If only the excess chatter had been put into better explanations, this would be a much better book.
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on 13 April 2011
Having heard so much about Brian Cox and being swayed by the blurb on the cover I was spurred to but this book. I studied physics at University as part of another degree course and have kept up an interest in it and mathematics since, so I am no novice: so although I was able to follow their reasoning I felt that to someone without a background in these subjects it must be quite a struggle. It was certainly not something I could read without giving it my full attention, and I often found that their explanations required re-readings and mental adjustments.
Sometimes I felt that their attempts at dumbing down actually made the subject matter more absruse.

One thing they did very well was the jokey/pallsy dialogue with the reader. This made you feel much less like the stupid reader to their clever professor, and more like the slightly less clever friend in a relationship. However one thing I did find irritating was when they took you to a certain stage of an argument and then said that to go any further would either take to long or would take far too much complicated mathematics/physics so you would just have to take their word that the following was true. Although I am sure no-one doubts their veracity it just seems like an cop out, and if you have to accept a large part of the explanation as a given then what's the point of working out the easy bits? I think it would have been better to have at least presented the complicated calculations even if they meant nothing to us. Also, although I'm sure it was not meant, it comes across as patronising: I'm sure that at least a small number of readers would have been up for the challenge.

Overall I felt it was a less successful attempt at popularizing science than say that adopted by Brian Gribbin, who seems to get the idea across in fewer words and without resorting to as many equations and clever bits. I wondered if this was because of the co-authorship: I am never sure how this works in practice. Do they alternate chapters or do they write sections which are closest to their hearts? Or do they literally sit down and agree the wording of the whole book? It often seems to me that more than one author frequently seems to mean a less successful and readable outcome- as one might expect from something produced from a very small committee!

The book certainly covers some very importance science, and certainly some of it is explained very well, but given Brian Cox's pedigree I think one would be expecting something much more accessible.
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on 23 July 2009
I was really looking forward to reading this book, but it quickly became apparent that unless you've got (or can quickly get) a pretty firm understanding of physics, this becomes treacherous reading. There are a lot of equations, which is fine given the subject, but the explanations are often not nearly clear enough to aid understanding (especially for the lay person).

I'm sure for those who've already got a good grasp of the underlying physics this book will be a great read (hence the 3 stars rather than 2), but for most I fear it will be a book which is started but not finished - and we will be no closer to genuinely understanding why E really does =mc2, I know I'm not.
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on 26 October 2010
As many reviewers before me have said, this is a difficult, mind-boggling subject and it would take a great teacher to explain all these concepts to someone interested in popular science in a completely amateurish way. Unfortunately, the authors don't manage it. Despite various unnecessary sections, I've re-read this book hoping to understand why E=mc2 (I still don't understand why, nor why I should care, as the cover promises). I am not new to popular science - I loved Fabric of the Cosmos, Brief History of Time and User's Guide to the Universe so was not quite prepared for the frustrations that this book would kindle.

Firstly, it 'explains' the most basic maths operations in unnecessary detail (for example, the fact that forward slash means divide or Pythagoras's right angle theorem). Would anyone who does not know how to do basic division be reading a book like this? But then it glosses over the really difficult sections in just a couple of lines, so when you actually DO need an explanation you're just given loads of incomprehensible maths jargon without any indication whatsoever of how it actually works (for example, I didn't have a clue what the authors were on about when they brought up, out of the blue and without any reasons, a hyperbola in the Spacetime chapter). Or, sometimes, the authors don't even bother to explain and reassure the reader 'to take our word for it'.

Secondly, I felt a bit of exasperation being promised every day examples of science at work - especially when these 'examples of science in every day life' turn out to be a 2 page digression on the prophecies of Nostrodamus. After a humourous conclusion to Nostrodamus I still wait for the example from every day life. Of course, it never comes and the chapter concludes with the reader made fully aware that quantum physics is present in every sphere of his life but without a single useful example being provided. A lot of paper in this book seems wasted on such silly examples or unnecessary, patronising explanations of basic maths operations - but not enough on explanations of ideas that really require it, eg Planck's constant - absolutely awful and bewildering discussion of this concept.

The second part of the chapter on 'Spacetime' was equally unclear and patchy, going from having breakfast in your room, to an imaginary space shuttle, to a motorcyclist whizzing through spacetime, all the while including references to points on a hyperbola without a single mention of how or why the graph actually relates to reality... what does it mean if a point is moving along the hyperbola in spacetime terms??? I'd urge you to read Natural Laws of the Universe instead if you want a clear, succinct and lucid account of the laws of the universe. And to understand E=mc2, buy A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation which does a far better job than Why does E=mc2. Simple language and not very mathematical, but at least it genuinely is aimed at non-physicists.
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