Having just missed one hundred books in the first year of The Book Challenge, in 2010, I made the full tonne. Still reading, but without the challenge, take a look at the reviews for the books that I have read this year.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Book 83 - Why Does E=mc2? (and Why Should We Care)

Book - Why Does E=mc2? (and Why Should We Care)
Authors - Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
Year - 2009
Genre - Physics
Bought for me by Mark Holdaway

By this stage in the challenge, getting through a book in under a week and a half should not exactly be quantum physics.  However, this quite literally was quantum physics.

Why Does E=mc2? written by professor of physics at Manchester University Jeff Forshaw, and former D:Ream pianist (and admittedly, a physics genius as well) Brian Cox, sets out to explain in an easy to understand way, and without using too much mathematics, everything there is to know about Einstein's famous equation, and what it means to our perception of physics over the past century.  It halfway achieves it.

Einstein's theories of relativity are very complicated, and involve you thinking in four dimensions, imagining movement of invisible particles that have a mass of literally nothing, and generally abandoning everything you may have learnt in GCSE science in order to understand.  Yet somehow, these writers managed to get me to that point.  After fifty pages of almost baffling science-speak, I somehow knew enough of the principals behind relativity to understand that they were not making it up when they wrote that someone on a bus ages slower than someone sat on the side of the road watching the bus go by.  This is genuinely true, and blew my mind to the extent that whilst walking down a road by myself at around midnight, I stopped and said out loud 'No way!' whilst looking around to see if anyone else was affected by understanding this ridiculous fact.  What made me even more pleased than finding out about this new perception of the world, was the fact that I understood not just the fact itself, but also why that was the case, and that is down to the excellent writing of the book.

As the book progressed, I realised that I was understanding more and more, with Einstein's second theory, that of general relativity, also osmosing into my brain.  I cannot stress enough how much I have taken out of this book, and in that token, it is a truly brilliant read, no matter how long it took me struggling over my third or fourth reread of a sentence until I finally half understood what it meant.

It is not without its faults though.  Despite continually stressing that they are trying to avoid as much maths as possible, through the nature of the beast there is still a lot, and whilst they do an amazing job of explaining it, I think that a lot of readers - especially those with zero maths or physics knowledge behind them - would struggle with these chapters.  They say that you can skip over the maths part if needs be, but I think that the amount you would take from the book would be massively reduced should you do so.

The second fault is that towards the end they devote a lot of time to the Standard Model.  This is pretty much a quantum physics equation which explains everything in the world ever (except gravity - a small point of annoyance to all physicists).  As you would expect, it is therefore pretty tricky, and despite dedicating a lot of time to it, I feel they barely scratched the surface, and I don't really understand as much about it as I would like to.  I realise that it ties in with E=mc2, but I think that it may have fit better either being covered in full length, possibly in another book, or just taken out with an aside that it exists and people may look further if they wish to know more.

In summary, this is essential reading if you really want to know something about the universe and how it works.  However, if you are not particularly interested, then I wouldn't even bother starting as it will be a hard slog to understand what it took several genius minds to discover.


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