Books · Science

Book review: Relativity – The Special and the General Theory

A long time ago I discovered the Folio Society. They make incredibly beautiful editions of books and for a while, I collected them. At this time they often had offers that would bring the average price down a little, which was great because books like this aren’t cheap to make, but eventually, the prices rose and the offers got less enticing and I stopped collecting them. Occasionally I pick up a second-hand copy of one. Before I gave up collecting I bought this copy of Relativity by Einstein which, probably because I was mid-way through my undergraduate physics degree and was reading quite enough physics thankyouverymuch, I never read.

Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein

For some reason, since finishing my PhD, I’ve been more drawn to the science books that have been sitting unread on my shelves for so long. I guess it’s because before if I was reading science but it was nothing to do with my research, I felt a bit guilty about it. Now I can read whatever science takes my fancy totally guilt-free. That said, I realise I’m not an entirely unbiased reader when it comes to these things.

Relativity is Einstein’s attempt to explain Special and General Relativity to a general audience. He states at the beginning of the book that he’s trying to keep it concise and at a level where most people should be able to understand the small amounts of mathematics he uses. He mentions that it would be elegant, feeling he ought to leave that to artists but that, with a little effort on behalf of the reader, it should provide an adequate understanding.

It’s hard for me to tell whether Einstein was just hopelessly optimistic about the efforts his readers might put in and about their mathematical prowess, or whether the education system in 1916 Germany was just a lot better than it was when I went to school. If I wrote a book about relativity I would not take the same approach but then, I’m not about to volunteer. I understood just fine, but then, I have just finished a PhD approximately related to the subject.

I think perhaps we just have a more clear definition now of what is a popular science book and what is a textbook. This seems to sit on the line between the two, clearly, the aim is to educate rather than entertain but since the goal seems to be to educate a reader without a scientific background it does seem to assume a high level of knowledge. Even just a few more diagrams might have helped a bit.

Still, it makes a good read if you already have some background in the subject area and I did find a few new ways of explaining one or two things, which is always good. I think it would be a good handbook for an undergraduate student to read alongside their lectures on the subject. A casual reader might want a more modern pop-sci text instead.


7 thoughts on “Book review: Relativity – The Special and the General Theory

      1. Okay, thanks for letting me know. I’ll maybe look out for others instead (although it seems a bit harsh that others can explain something that he came up with better than the man himself 🙂 ).


      2. There’s a difference between a great scientist and a great communicator. I think he was probably great at both at the time, but science communication has moved on.


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