Review: Why does E=MC²?

28 09 2009

Why Does E=MC2In my experience non-fiction books come in two categories: mind-blowingly fascinating or eye-wateringly crap. There is very little in between. Thankfully, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s book is squarely in the fascinating camp.

The concept of the book, unsrprisingly, is to take the question Why does E=MC²? And why does it matter? as a starting point for explaining why Einstein’s famous theory is so important and – as the authors are at pains to stress – why it is so elegant. This involves a tour through the history of physics and some of its most important theories on the way to General Relativity. It’s a slim volume with a tight goal but does it succeed?

This is one of those science books you wish you got given when you were in school, written with a clear passion for the subject and a gentle, clear prose style that complements the author’s goal of illuminating Einstein’s theorem.  The principle challenge of the book is to stay on subject because, due to the nature of the theory, it is possible to go off on lots of interesting tangents. An admirable job is done of avoiding this trap whilst still including plenty of interesting asides that add to the understanding.

It is the nature of physics that it is extremely difficult to refer to more interesting theories and laws without referring to formula and mathematics. This is troublesome as mathematics is usually the aspect of physics that turns most people off and this provides something of a quandary for the writers. For the most part they handle this well with a series of well-crafted explanations of the mathematics involved but I’d be lying if I said I followed all of it, particularly the Standard Model of Particle Physics. It should be noted this may say more about my mathematical ability than the authors’ explanatory skills.

I thoroughly enjoyed Why does E=MC²? As a basic primer on Einstein’s theory of relativity it serves its purpose and moreover is an enjoyable read. I recommend it for anyone with a desire to understand a little bit more about physics.