Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and posting her thoughts on The Great Beyond every Friday between now and the prize ceremony on 21 October.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a work of fiction that features an awful lot of complicated mathematics. Understanding the maths isn’t crucial in enjoying the book, fortunately, and it was a runaway hit back in 2003.
Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw pull off a similar trick in their explanation of Einstein’s famous equation, tackling maths that could intimidate some readers. The authors are gentle from the off, and reassure that following the sums isn’t crucial to following the book, but do urge the reader to give it a try.
Why does E=mc2? takes the reader on a journey from space and time, via spacetime to the warping of spacetime – black holes. At each step maths underpins the theory, and each step becomes more complicated. Many readers will begin to skim the maths as they go, as I did in the later chapters, but will experience some of its beauty.
The penultimate chapter about the Standard Model of Particle Physics may not bring the so called ‘Ionian enchantment’ described by mathematicians upon realising that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of laws but It does break down the equation for the lay reader and this brings a certain satisfaction.
Equations and symbols aside the authors’ explanations throughout are clear, accessible and enjoyable. Although I gave up on the maths somewhere along the way I did learn a lot, and enjoyed the tone of the authors. In places they could have been more brief, and acknowledged our 21st Century desire for speedy gratification.
It may not achieve the popularity of Haddon’s novel, but Why does E=mc2? will be well received by non-specialist readers. Although it can be tough going it is an enjoyable and educational read.
Previously on Ruth’s Reviews: