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Customer Review

on 5 March 2010
As a teenager, you hear music for the first time. The excitement and revelation of new musical inventions is fantastic, a real `high' in life. Then over the years you get used to it all and although some of the music is still enjoyable, you can't `hear it for the first time' anymore. But, very occasionally, you hear something new that brings back some of that original excitement , some of that thrilling bafflement and intrigue.

This book has it in abundance. If you think everything in science is pretty much solved, understood and in fact fairly boring, I would recommend The Great Equations. By following, in some depth, the original journeys, the original struggles and blind alleys, Robert Crease captures the excitement and, in fact, the mystery of all these equations. This is not a straightforward analytical look at the known products, instead it is probably as close as you can get to following the paths of creation through the protagonists' eyes and thoughts. Philosophical issues are here, as they should be (scientists who try to dismiss these aspects are missing something) but the central stories are the personal stories.

At first sight The Great Equations looks like just another popular science book (and there is nothing wrong with that - there are a lot of good ones out there) but I think it is more. It goes deeper than the run of the mill popular science and is so much more rewarding for it. Having said that, it is very well written -I found I was carried along - and apart from chapter headings, equations are largely absent.

I learned a lot from this book, for every equation covered in fact. Some of the equations are quite familiar to me but it is like seeing them for the first time. The fact that they are not given laws of nature in the form written by God, but are contingent on how our minds perceive reality, is really brought home. Of course they have some deep connection with reality, but to me, the fact that there is still a mystery as to what that connection could be, restores the excitement.

Einstein's journey from the first inkling that mass should depend on the motion of the observer to the final famous form of his equation is well covered. It hadn't occurred to me before that the key bit of maths in the derivation of special relativity is the Pythagorean theorem! To mention another chapter where I was learning throughout - Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. I thought I knew the stories but I had little idea of the intense arguments over the approaches to quantum mechanics in Europe in the `20s. Again, this chapter was a bit of a revelation. I felt, after all these years, that I had a fresh insight into quantum mechanics after my struggles with it as an enthusiastic undergrad. It makes me want to have another go at some serious maths (another good book for rekindling excitement is The Art of the Infinite by R & E Kaplan.)

Finally, this book has the best system for looking up chapter notes I have seen. Highly recommended.

Oh, and Cameron Diaz has gone up no end in my estimation! (Robert Crease quotes something from The Biography of an Equation by David Bodanis - another cracking good read).
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