08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Book Review: Why Does E=MC^2?

In the spring of 1905, a twenty-six-year-old unknown clerk (technical expert, second class) in the Swiss Patent Office named Albert Einstein produced a series of four papers in theoretical physics. The first paper was the light quantum paper. The second paper suggested a means to measure the size of atoms using diffusion and viscosity of liquids. The third paper explored Brownian motion using methods of the molecular theory of heat. The fourth paper was an analysis of the electrodynamics of moving bodies that used a modification of the theory of space and time. The whole package was astonishing, but the fourth paper, the relativity paper, challenged Isaac Newton's view of the universe, shocked physics, rattled science, and confused the public so much that Einstein soon became famous as the genius who could be understood by only six people in the whole world.

This last idea was poppycock, since most theoretical physicists understood Einstein without difficulty. The arguments and theory were not difficult to follow. Einstein, in fact, wrote clear theoretical physics, no games, no cleverness, no fancy mathematical punches. All his scientific papers are prime examples of clarity in exposition by a man with no interest in impressing you with his remarkable intelligence. Still, the public could not read the original papers because they were written for physicists who had a common technical language and common mathematical tools. Since the relativity paper essentially produced a revolution in the way science looked at the world, everyone wanted to understand it and know what it meant. During the past century, hundreds of books explaining Einstein's work have been published. Einstein himself tried to help by publishing a popular book with Leopold Infield that remains a classic.

One of the important problems with popularizations of science is that there is not one public, there are many publics, and each public has its own formal education and interest in science. Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, two physicists, have managed to produce an account of relativity physics accessible to a wide range of various publics. If you're not a physicist (or not yet a physicist) and you want to understand what Einstein and relativity theory are all about, you would do well to read this book. The writing is clear, sparkling in places, and totally without vanity. Relativity theory, Einstein's supreme gift to us, is at the heart of the way science currently looks at physical reality, and anyone with an adventurous mind should be intrigued by what two smart physicists say about it in plain language.

The last two sentences of this delightful little book reveal it all:

"We walk in the midst of wonders, and if we open our eyes and minds to them, the possibilities are boundless. Albert Einstein will be remembered for as long as there are humans in the universe both as an inspiration and an example to all those who are captivated by a natural curiosity to understand the world around them."

Read this book. It's your world, isn't it? [Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw: Why Does E=MC^2? (And Why Should We Care?) (July 2009). Da Capo Press.]