Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Why Does E=mc²? (And Why Should We Care?)

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw © 2009

“A spirited, easy-to-understand collaboration… ...Why Does E=MC2? promises to be the most exciting and accessible explanation of the theory of relativity in recent years.”  This lofty promise graces the last paragraph of the dust jacket of this book.

Quothe the Dwight, “False.”

After reading (grinding?) this book, I do have a deeper understanding of Einstein's general and special theory of relativity, but it was neither easy-to-understand or fun—but the authors are having fun...

Imagine you're reasonably fit, and you have always wanted to go backpacking. You think a couple guides on your first solo trip would be wise. You hire Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, two lean twenty-somethings that have backpacked this particular trail 781 times, and have even summited Everest. They bounce with energy and are always excited. Now imagine Jeff pointing to a craggy peak away a piece called, “Understanding Energy”. It doesn't look too far, your legs are feeling sound, “OK, lets roll!” you say.  But instead of a direct line, Jeff and Brian take you on a long circuitous route. Sometimes Brian offers his arm across a puddle, “No thanks, I'm good."  Then later bounds like a mountain goat through perilous terrain, all the while saying, “Just follow me, this is so easy!” Three or so re-readings later, you feel like you can pick your way through the terrain. You're a sweating mess and Jeff and Brian are running in place to keep their heart rates up.

By the end of the book, you've visualized each of them finding a faulty handhold and plunging to their demise… “Wasn't so simple, was it Bri-an.”

The bottom line: if you have an understanding of physics, Newtonian, Einsteinian, and are familiar with the works of Maxwell and Faraday—and you're not easily annoyed, then this book promises a deeper understanding of the fabric of the universe. You'll understand that mass is interchangeable with energy, and that working with only those two can never bring you any closer than an approximation (Newtonian Physics); for something even closer, we must factor in the speed of light. (Physicists have yet to uncover the Grand Unified Theory.)  You will come to understand spacetime, that it is a pliable thing dented and creased by mass and acceleration and you may even be able visualize it as the fourth dimension; this was first for me. You will also play with star fusion, light, quantum physics, visit CERN in Geneva, and more. This book doesn't require intelligence so much as it requires mental flexibility, focus, and imagination… and the ability to not strangle the authors in the process.


  1. Another good one, Any!

    My only question is, if I were traveling east by stagecoach, and Brian and Jeff were carrying Einstein west by litter, would Newton's cat have accelerated to the necessary velocity to achieve holographic occlusion of the galaxy's central matrix?

    Thanks in advance to your diligent and steadfast response to this vexing conundrum. :)

  2. Assuming Newton's cat would be accelerated by technology available in his time, I postulate that Jeff and Brian would trot Einstein off our earthen plate balanced on the back of the giant tortoise. You might want to watch out for that too...

  3. Doh! I always forget about that darned tortoise!

    1. You're very clever, young man, very clever, but it's turtles all the way down! :)