Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Review: why does E=mc2 by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw

Possessing a fairly technical background -- engineering degree, college calculus and calculus-based physics -- I'm not completely lost when I read science books. Still, I'm 20 years removed from college and have not found a lot of cause to use any of that. And brain cells are readily killed by lack of use and beer.

So, when I heard of why does E=mc2? on the Daily Show and I read its cover promising, "the most accessible, entertaining and enlightening explanation of the best-known physics equation in the world ...", I was encouraged. The following excerpt from the book does a good job of confirming my optimism:

"the provocation lies in the way the science challenges us to think
about the world around us
. Scientist or not, each of us has intuition and we all infer things about the world from our everyday experiences. If we subject our observations to the cold and precise light of the scientific method, however, we often discover that nature confounds our intuition. As this book unfolds, we will discover that when things whiz about at high speeds, common-sense notions regarding space and time are dashed and replaced by something entirely new, unexpected, and elegant. The lesson is a salutary and humbling one, and it leaves many scientists with a sense of awe: The universe is much richer than our everyday experiences would have us believe. Perhaps most wonderful of all is the fact that the new physics, for all its richness, is filled with a breathtaking mathematical elegance.

... science at its heart is not a complicated discipline. ... it is an attempt at removing our innate prejudices in order to observe the world as objectively as possible. It may be more or less successful in that goal but few can doubt its success in teaching us how the universe “works.” The really difficult thing is to learn not to trust what we might like to think of as common sense. By teaching us to accept nature for what it is, and not for what our prejudice may suggest that it should be, the scientific method has delivered the modern technological world. In short, it works."

That's part of the strength of this book - It gives a general perspective on the role and scope of science while explaining a specific concept. I guess that helps to make it less of a dry and scholarly tome.

The basic thing to take from the theory of relativity is that mass and energy are interchangeable. Also, space and time are not not mutually exclusive entities but rather interwoven ones. Our observations of each are dependent on our location and our speed. That may seem abstract, but it has been experimentally proven. If the variations of time predicted by Einstein were not taken into account, the GPS system in your car would not work. "Time ticks at a different rate on the orbiting satellites than it does on the ground."

That's the big kicker. People could not get through a single day without using technology that has been developed using science, and theory, and experimentation. Though, many would pretend they are not and would deny science and would seek to deny others from using it.

Science does not revel in perpetuating myth, but rather in destroying it: "Science is at its heart a modest pursuit, and this modesty is the key to its success. Einstein’s theories are respected because they are correct as far as we can tell, but they are no sacred tomes. They will stand, to put it bluntly, until something better comes along. Likewise the great scientific minds are not revered as prophets but as diligent contributors to our understanding of nature. There are certainly those whose names are familiar to millions, but there are none whose reputations can protect their theories from the harsh critique of experiment. Nature is no respecter of reputations."

Besides the previously mentioned technology that relies on an understanding of E=mc2, there are experiments going on right now that will further our understanding of the nature of particles and will perhaps lead to an even better understanding of the nature of our universe. If you want to know that they are trying to do and what they are trying to find at the Large Hadron Collider, I would suggest you read this book and, perhaps, Particle Physics – A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close, as reviewed very well by Cyberkitten.

I liked this book quite a bit. It's not a book filled with equations. But don't kid yourself. When they say "accessible", they are stretching it a bit. There is still a lot of talk about "Minkowski spacetime", the "Higgs field", quarks and gluons. But any reasonably clever person can read this book and get a better handle on relativity.

Note: For anyone that might want to download this book to their PC or book reader, I found a full PDF version at: why does E-mc2?


wunelle said...

Most intriguing. Without grasping any of the details of Einstein's thinking, I love that he was able to make exactly the leap that the quote you include here says we have such trouble making: he was able to intuit how the world REALLY is rather than how it APPEARS to be to our slow-speed, small-numbers, survival-oriented brains.

I fear that the book will be more challenge than I'm up to, but anything that popularizes science for the innumerate (that's me!) is worth a look.

Added to my list!

CyberKitten said...

Sounds like an interesting - if challenging - read.

I have a lot of time for Brian Cox. He recently delivered a very good BBC series called Wonders of the Solar System which I think you'd really like. It's out on DVD over here so should be available there too.

Thanks for the cite.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle - Yeah, it's really difficult to fathom how the important scientists of history were able to make the cognitive leaps without even being able to test their hypothesis.

CK - I think it was Cox that I must have seen on the Daily Show. I'll look for those DVD's.

Having a pretty good feel for both of your mental acumen, I don't think either of you would have any trouble with this book. One of the nice things about the book is that if when it gets a little heavy and you just gloss over some of the details of the formulas, it doesn't detract from getting a feel for the general concepts.