Monday, December 07, 2009

Cannonball Read II - #2 - "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it." (Why Does E=mc2?, by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw)

I make no bones about the fact that I'm a complete and utter physics nerd. It really shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given that I have a pesky little physics degree (and given that my friends continually amuse themselves by calling me a rocket scientist because of don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it stint working at NASA). But I realize that I'm in the minority. Most folks can't stand physics. Fewer still would actually call physics beautiful. But it is. Take Maxwell's equations (in their simplest form):

Most look at those and have grim flashbacks to to those heinous math and science classes they took in high school and college. But have no doubt that these four little suckers are a thing of absolute beauty, elegantly summarizing and explaining pretty much the entirety of classical electromagnetism - without these four little equations, our world would be a much colder and darker place, without whatever gadget you're using to read this review right now. Physics is the art of our universe.

Many people enjoy revisiting pieces of art with which they are already intimately familiar, be it paintings, books or media. I'm one of those people. But for me, the same is also true of physics. This is particularly the case given the fact that: (i) it's been over a decade since I've done any real work or study in the field; and (ii) I have a piss-poor memory. As a result of both of these factors, especially the later, I may remember and still have the ability to speak to some very basic things, but the vast majority of what I learned in college is long gone from my head (to be replaced with "Simpsons" quotes, fantasy football stats and legal mumbo-jumbo). So I love reading new physics books, even if they're already on topics I studied once upon a fortnight ago. Because I sorta get to rediscover the beauty of physics.

There are many good physics books for laymen. Books designed to give the average reader at least a basic understanding of some of the cooler things that exist in the study of physics. While E=mc2 tries to be one of those books, it fails on almost every level. Essentially, the book's goal is to first teach the reader how Einstein's famous equation came into being, and then show some of the implications of that very famous equation. And it does actually do both of these things, but you have to follow along, very carefully, with a relatively mess of a narrative.

There are two primary problems with E=mc2 (the book, not the equation). First, early on, the authors tell us they are going to steer clear of pretty much all math beyond the Pythagorean theorem (think back to your school days, and you'll remember it: "for a right triangle, the sum of the square of the two sides that meet at a right angle equal the square of the hypotenuse ... i.e., a2 + b2 = c2"). And it's possible to break a lot of these ideas down in a way that relies on very little and uncomplicated math. I've read several books that do it well. But Cox and Forshaw clearly love the math too much and can't help themselves, so they bring little bits in here and there, and talk around other bits of math here and there telling you, the reader, simply to trust them. But the whole thing does more harm than good.

Particularly when coupled with the book's other major problem, which is its structure. Cox and Forshaw cover a wide range of topics often covered in many of these types of books (with the major exception that there's not a single reference to string theory): special relativity, general relativity, the Standard Model, the Higgs boson (and, thus, the Large Hadron Collider), the derivation of Maxwell's equations, the formation of stars, how we all come from stars, the death of stars, etc. Point being, they cover a lot. And because their book is centered on Einstein's little equation, they go about a way of covering all these topics in an order a bit different from the standard way one might present these topics. Which may have worked in a book twice this one's length (242 pages). But in such a small space, they have to jump around and take diversions so often that it just reads as a mess. I was able to follow it all, because of an albeit-faded familiarity with the topics. But I suspect that many readers, with no real physics background, could find it a little overwhelming and, more problematically, just plain confusing and convoluted.

Point being, the book's just a bit too scattershot. Coupled with writing that attempts to be too flowery at times (in discussing the violent forces at play with pulsars: "We have discovered wonders beyond imagination." ... yes, I realize the irony in calling this quote out, given my "Physics is the art of our universe" above, but still ... blech), it all adds up to a big disappointment. By the end, I couldn't wait to just be done with the thing.

(The quote used for the title of this review is courtesy of Richard Feynman a favorite physicist of myself and many, many others. In fact, the book actually provides a great Feynman quote explaining the simplistic beauty of the scientific method:
In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to Nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is - if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That's all there is to it.
Seriously, Feynman rules.)


At 10:49 AM, Blogger SBrown said...

Nice review! The thought of reading a book about physics makes me twitch, but your review is great.

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Nicole said...

Well done, although this only reinforces my initial decision, when I picked this up from the table by the front door, that it would put me into a coma. You NASA geek.


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