Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell


Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell
By A. Zee
Princeton University Press – £62.00

  Physics should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.

                                                                                                             Albert Einstein.

Just as the word Prince is synonymous with the word(s) multi-talented and Hitler is synonymous with the word(s) utterly- wretched, if not having lost the plot at a very early age (ad infinitum); then Einstein is essentially synonymous with the words clever, rather intelligent and genius – although not necessarily in that order.

This may partially have come about due to the German theoretical physicist having won the Nobel Peace Prize in Physics in 1921, for his colossal contribution to theoretical physics; especially his discovery of the law of the Photo-Electric Effect (an effect whereby electrons are emitted from liquids, solids or gasses when they absorb energy from light). This may also have partially come about due to Einstein having published literally hundreds of scientific documents – somewhere in the region of three-hundred supposedly – along with countless non-scientific works.

Either way, Albert Einstein was a very bright bloke, which Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell more than substantiates.

An uber weighty-textbook of well defined parameters if ever ther was one, its author, A. Zee (who is himself a professor of Physics at the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara),
has herein endeavoured ”to make Einstein gravity as simple as possible.” But things begin to get a little more involved almost immediately, especially when Zee then goes on to write: ”I believe that Einstein’s theory should be readily accessible to those who have mastered Newtonian mechanics and a modest amount of classical mathemetics. To underline my point, I start with a review of F = ma.

To be sure, the word nutshell is in this instance, just a tad misleading. Reason being, when one thinks of anything in a nutshell, one thinks of a simple, if not succinct explanation for that which they are endeavouring to place in a nutshell.

And in this instance, such is absolutely not the case.

The book may well provide an accessible introduction to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, emphasize symmetry of the Einstein-Hilbert persuasion, as well as cover an array of topics not usually found in similar textbooks; BUT,
one really does need a thorough, colossal and majestic understanding of Newtonian mechanics – let alone a mere ”modest amount of (classical) mathematics.”

Once this is fully ascertained, then these 792 pages (which includes a ‘Timeline of Some of the People Mentioned’) will make a whole lot more sage-like-sense, especially to those of us on the periphery of physics. Indeed, once this is fully realised, one will be in a position to wholeheartedly agree with Pedro Ferreira of Oxford University, who on the back cover has written: ”Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell is a remarkably complete and thorough textbook on general relativity, written in a refreshing and engaging style; Zee leads us through all the major intellectual steps that make what is surely one of the most profound and beautiful theories of all time. The book is enjoyable and informative in equal measure.”

Of this I have no doubt, but one has to be completely and utterly initiated, otherwise the reader will surely trip up almost every step of the way.

For instance, there’s a section in ‘Closing Words’ on page 780, where Zee writes: ”Quantum field theory in curved spacetime is a well-developed subject and leads to Hawking radiation, for example, but again I have lingering doubts. In calculating a loop diagram for some quantity, say the electron’s magnetic moment at the horizon, are there subtleties involving virtual particles propogating inside the horizon and then out again? Presumably it is okay over a distance scale on the order of the Compton wavelengh of the particles involved.”

Presumably it is, but for a section entitled ‘Closing Words,’ I have to say they are far too dense for their own good – let alone understanding. Within the same section, what made the most sense, were the words of Einstein himself at the outset: ”The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.”

I couldn’t agree more. Fine words by a veritable genius; some of which have been captured throughout Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell, some of which one has to delve a little deeper and navigate a little further in order to (find and) fully comprehend.

Either way, this is a comendable, if not momentous work; of which A. Zee can and should feel rightfully proud.

David Marx


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