60 of 64 people found the following review helpful
Pedro Ferreira's book "The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity" essentially tells us what other people did with Einstein's general theory of relativity after he developed it. While one chapter is devoted to Einstein's hard struggle with learning the non-Riemannian geometry and building the field equations that define the theory, the book really takes off after 1917 when a series of men and women discovered the awesome implications of these equations. The book is a fast read and it does a very good job portraying the colorful personalities and exciting discoveries unearthed by general relativity.
By 1919 the theory had been well-established as part of the scientific enterprise, especially after it retrodicted the correct value of the perihelion of mercury and predicted the bending of starlight observed by Arthur Eddington, a discovery that splashed Einstein's name on the front pages of the world's leading newspapers. Eddington was Einstein's heir, thoroughly learning the theory and grasping its implications for stellar structure. Ironically he did not dare to take these implications to their logical conclusion. That task was left to a young Indian astrophysicist named Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who paved the way toward the discovery of black holes by considering what happens when stars run out of fuel and collapse under gravitational contraction. Famously Eddington rebuked Chandrasekhar's findings and revealed himself to be much like Einstein, a revolutionary in young age and a reactionary in old age.
The story of black holes is one important thread that the book follows. Chandrasekhar's ideas were further developed by Lev Landau, Fritz Zwicky and Robert Oppenheimer in the 30s. Oppenheimer's story is especially interesting since he was the one who theoretically discovered black holes but later completely dissociated himself from them, showing no interest in general relativity until the end of his life. In fact Oppenheimer's view of relativity was similar to that of the vast majority of physicists who were caught up in the revolutions in nuclear and quantum physics in the 30s and 40s. Quantum mechanics and particle physics were the new frontiers; relativity was a speculative backwater.
It was the eminent Princeton University physicist John Wheeler who picked up where Oppenheimer had left off. Wheeler is really the father of modern relativity since he was the one who rejuvenated interest in the topic in the 50s and 60s. Many of his students like Jacob Bekenstein and Kip Thorne became leaders in the field. In Britain the field was fathered by Dennis Sciama, whose students Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking led the way in understanding singularities and the Big Bang. Hawking especially forged a very important link between information, relativity, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics through his exploration of what we now call the "black hole information paradox".
Hawking's work on singularities connects to the second major thread of the book, this time involving the applications of general relativity to the entire universe. The story begins right after Einstein developed his framework when Russian bomber pilot Alexander Friedmann and Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre found out that one of the solutions of the equations would be an expanding universe. In a famous mistake which Einstein called "the greatest blunder of my life", Einstein had found this solution but, based on the observation of a locally static universe, had applied a fudge factor - a "cosmological constant"- to halt the expansion which turned out to have great significance almost eight decades later. Lemaitre and Friedmann's story logically leads to that of Edwin Hubble who in 1929 observed the redshifting of galaxies, thereby inaugurating one of the great eras in the exploration of the cosmos. This era culminated in the discovery of dark matter and dark energy and the transformation of cosmology into a precision science, all of which has opened up frontiers undreamt of by Einstein. And Ferreira hopes there's much more in store than can flow from those beautiful equations.
Ferreira is quite adept at describing these two main threads. One of the most important aspects of the development of relativity was the shot in the arm which the theory received from experimental observations of distant objects by radio telescopes made by Martin Ryle, Jocelyn Bell and others. In fact the book underscores the fact that without these observations relativity would have continued to be considered mathematical doodling at worst and speculative science at best. The grounding of relativity in the real world through the discoveries of quasars, pulsars, neutron stars and black holes makes the paramount significance of experimental evidence in lending respectability to a theory quite clear. Personally I would have appreciated it if Ferreira had also considered some other evidence for general relativity, such as the observation of frame-dragging by Gravity Probe B, a technical marvel and a jaw-dropping exercise in accurate measurement if there ever was one.
The last part of the book concerns the quest over the last four decades to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics, an effort that was started by Wheeler and his student Bryce DeWitt in the 60s. The same techniques of field theory that led to such spectacular successes in particle physics - culminating in the Standard Model - failed abysmally when applied to relativity. One possible way out is string theory whose virtue is that gravity emerges naturally from the theoretical framework. Another promising framework is loop quantum gravity. The problem with string theory, as well known by now, is that it makes no testable predictions and its solution space is so vast that virtually anything can be accommodated in its expansive embrace. In science, a theory that can explain anything and everything is usually considered a theory that can explain nothing.
One thing that again struck me is how important experiment and observation are for actually taking a theory from a realm of fanciful speculation to hard reality. It's worth comparing the progress of quantum mechanics, general relativity and string theory in this context. Quantum mechanics was fully developed in the 1920s and immediately explained scores of previously confusing experimental facts. Its success only grew in the 30s and 40s as it was applied to solid-state physics, chemistry and nuclear physics, always amply supported by experiment. The philosophical conundrums in the theory - which we still struggle with - did not harm the theory because of its great experimental success. In contrast, general relativity was developed about ten years earlier. By 1940 or so it had two major experimental predictions to its credit: the bending of starlight and the expansion of the universe. But even by the late 1950s it had not become part of mainstream physics and was considered more mathematics than physics, mainly because the experimental evidence was lacking. As mentioned above, it was only the development of radio astronomy that really put the whole framework on a firm pedestal.
Thus it took quantum mechanics no time at all and relativity almost forty years to become respectable, even when there were two astonishing experimental observations which the latter had successfully predicted. The great difference was the experimental evidence, copious in case of the former and spotty and only slowly emerging in case of the latter. Compared to this, string theory has been around for about forty years and there is still no unambiguous experimental evidence in its favor. Purely on a historical basis this might hint that it may be on the wrong track. There's a reason why Feynman said that the only true test of a scientific theory is experiment.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
This book is the story of the Theory of General Relativity, Einstein's explanation of gravity, beginning with its conception in his thought experiments, its being overshadowed by quantum mechanics, its reemergence due to its cosmological significance and finally the inevitable last stage of all scientific theories, its being attacked, adjusted and perhaps ultimately replaced by scientists as they seek to better understand and predict Nature.
Since first studying relativity as a graduate student I have over the many years continued to be fascinated by it, and have read and studied various works on it, including a short book by Einstein which I re-read every few years and which invariably teaches me something new every time. The theory is amazingly seductive to me, something which I have pondered. Perhaps it is the fact that it is the ultimate example of pure reason, epitomized by the image of the young Einstein sitting alone on his lunch break with just a pad, pen and ideas and formulating an almost transcendentally elegant and indeed beautiful physical theory captured by complex but inviting mathematics. Many have tried to encompass Relativity within the intellectual framework which included Freudian psychoanalysis and artistic Cubism in the beginning if the 20th century, but to me it is really a perfect example of classical science as opposed to the post modernism of quantum mechanics with its uncertainty and conceptual ambiguity.
Perhaps the Theory's allure lies in the feeling of satisfaction one gets when even a small part of it is understood. When you begin to grasp the true meaning of spacetime and see why Relativity is considered a geometrical explanation of gravity you cannot help but feel Einstein at your shoulder, smiling, and that is a heady feeling indeed.
Whatever the reason, as this book shows, for over a century Relativity has been the focal point of the work of some of the greatest scientists in history, some who have championed it, others who have sought to reconcile it with quantum theory and a few who have tried to replace it. In the telling this book also reveals aspects of the scientific enterprise many aren't aware of such as the part politics and personal animosity plays, and even the influence of self-interest. We tend to romanticize the scientist, envisioning the objective intellectual who only seeks the truth. When it comes to people nothing is ever that pure or simple.
While this book tells what I found to be an interesting story, one thing it is not is a primer for the science it discusses. I suspect that if you don't already have a fairly decent understanding of relativity, quantum mechanics and cosmology you are going to be either terribly bored or confused, and probably both. While it appears that the author offers simplified explanations of the topics, in truth they are the kind of abbreviated discussions which only familiarity will make understandable.
The book is also relatively [sorry but it was the best word to use!] short and disjointed, with the narrative jumping back and forth in time and location [and yes I realize the irony of this criticism] which means it is also occasionally repetitive. And the last two chapters confused me. In the penultimate one it appears that relativity is fated to be replaced and several possibilities are discussed. In the final chapter however it appears that the theory is the center of a lot of the ongoing research and experiments. Maybe I am just obtuse but this seemed to be a jarring disconnect. However, even given these criticisms, the book is informative and the author writes in a lively and engaging style which moves along at a brisk pace, and it can be read in a day or two.
Who then will read this book? Well leaving out those who just like to sound intelligent and who peruse books like this to pick up a few key phrases to throw out to impress people, I would again say that someone unfamiliar with the subject will just be lost, while an expert will find it too simple with nothing really new presented. That leaves those whom I call dilettantes as defined originally as amateurs who love science or art. That is to say readers interested and acquainted with the subject who will have the knowledge and interest to find this book edifying. For such a reader this book will be the perfect companion to accompany them as they follow the trail of Einstein's perfect theory as it winds its way through the 20th century.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2014
I approached this book with anticipation and wound up experiencing, in turn, disappointment, enlightenment and then more disappointment. Ferreira starts out more or less okay, though I think he could have spent more time in the early part of his story illuminating the essence of general relativity with concrete examples and analogies that would have provided a better gut feeling for the theory and its methods. And, if you are a frequent reader of science history, particularly about relativity, you won't find anything really new about the early years of general relativity. The chapter on Oppenheimer's brush with collapsed stars actually seems to spend more time on Oppenheimer the person and his involvement with the Manhattan Project -- reasonably so, I suppose, but it does constitute quite a detour around the main subject of the book. Where this volume gets truly good is in its treatment of the slow renaissance of general relativity in the 1950s and 1960s and on into the 1970s. There's a lot of historical detail about the role of individual researchers, and the theoretical and experimental aspects are described very well. However, the last two or three chapters become amorphous and unfocused. It's at the end that the book falls into the trap that snares so many works in the field of science popularization: Ferreira talks about concepts and methods without ever describing them. It's perhaps an intractable problem, since so much of the understanding lies in the mathematics itself, and physical arguments using the everyday world just can't be used, because the relativistic and quantum worlds are, of coures, not the everyday one. If you want an excellent, brief recounting of general relativity in the three decades from 1950 to 1980, this is certainly a good place to go. For the history before then, this is okay but nothing special. From 1980 onward, there's nothing much to be gained here except a sense of confusion.
45 of 57 people found the following review helpful
What a great read, and so informative too. It's rare that someone of Ferreira's technical caliber (he's a professor of astrophysics at the prestigious University of Oxford) can also write well. Note that, at the time of this review, he has over 360 published items (e.g., articles, books) and he is cited over 1300 times in other works. Nowhere does he use the title "Doctor," and I couldn't find any reference thereof. But in trying to find it, I was duly impressed with his credentials otherwise. Maybe that's why he's a professor at a major university even if (and that's not certain) he doesn't have a PhD (he might, I just can't verify that).
His writing is excellent, both in style and in technical merit (that is, his grammatical competence is high). Because of this, the book is quite accessible to the lay reader with an interest in something as mind-boggling as the Theory of General Relativity. Rather than trudging through dense text and trying to figure out what the author is saying, readers of this book can enjoy a nicely narrated explanation of what has gone on with the Theory of General Relativity from its inception to where it is today.
In this review, I won't explain anything about this very famous theory. I assume the reader of this review has not been on a deserted island since 1905 and thus has been amply exposed to it through at least some of the pop culture, thousands of articles, common mentions, and even movies that have explained, amplified, or even misrepresented it since that time. If you were stranded on a deserted island all this time, please accept my apologies; I did not mean to slight you.
This book isn't a tutorial on the Theory of General Relativity. Whatever you know of it from the popular culture or the reading of relevant books for the layperson is sufficient background for reading this book. It's really about the human drama that this theory evoked. And that is quite a story. As Ferreira tells us in the Prologue and then shows us through his writing, the Theory of General Relativity has taken on a life of its own. It occupied, or perhaps consumed, many of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. And it is a career topic for many brilliant minds in this century.
In telling this story, Ferreira delves into how science and culture have responded to the Theory of General Relativity. But his focus is mostly on the scientists, with their cliques, battles of ideas, and personal feuds. The intrigues and backstabbing have much in common with a season of the 80's television show Dallas. People who challenged the orthodoxy or the "powers that be" sometimes found their lives destroyed (even though they were right).
What many people don't know is the Theory of General Relativity actually fell by the wayside in the larger physics community, and stayed in the ditch for many years. Then suddenly, it made a big comeback. It's now central to emerging science. As Ferreira so deftly shows us, the Theory of General Relativity has value in taking us further in both physics and cosmology.
When the topic of a book is the Theory of General Relativity, perhaps the most relevant question a reviewer can answer is, "What about the math?" Being a quant myself (MBA, with an engineering undergrad), I happen to like math. Use math to explain something to me, and you help me understand. Except when it comes to the strange, very advance, mind-numbing math used by physicists and their ilk. Count me out. Ferreira does the reader the favor of not trying to prove he's an egghead. There's no math to mystify the reader. Just a great story, well-told.
Just as an example of the threads that Ferreira pursues in this book, consider black holes. These are mentioned in several chapters, and of course you know that means he talks about Stephen Hawking. The drama around this one celestial object makes for a story in itself. It was that story that made Hawking a pop icon. "Hawking radiation" solved a major puzzle regarding black holes.
This book consists of 14 chapters across 235 pages. In addition, it has an informative Prologue, extensive notes, and an impressive bibliography.
Technical note on this review:
I reviewed a paperback Advance Reading Copy for Amazon Vine. Normally, these advance copies are rife with copy editing errors. That was not at all the case with this one. Over the past few years, I've noticed a distinct difference between authors from the UK and those from the USA, in terms of understanding and implementing Standard Written English (SWE). Sad to say, my countrymen do quite poorly in this regard, nearly every time. Ferreira is a UK author, and his writing reflects the much higher standards there.
A disclaimer at the front said there may be corrections. As I write this review, I cannot recall a single error of either a technical or style nature. Well done, Mr. Ferreira.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
We live in a strange universe. We've tried to explain it to ourselves from the very origins of our species. At many points along the way, we've come to realize that there's something not quite right about our descriptions. At the end of the 19th century, we were at one of those impasses. The laws of Isaac Newton had described the world well for two centuries, but there were cracks in the edifice, especially when describing things at planetary scales.
In the first decade of the 20th century, in what was without doubt the most extraordinary act of human intuition ever known, Albert Einstein imagined General Relativity. With only a desktop and some books as a laboratory, he gave us a new universe--one that has proved remarkably robust for a century. Because of its theoretical foundations, as well as its surpassing strangeness, it came in and out of favor. Supplanted for a while by the tidier ideas of a quantum universe, it languished until the evidence began to pour in from satellites, radio telescopes and a new generation of gigantic optics.
But there remain deeper and less tractable problems. The relativistic universe and the quantum universes both work beautifully within their own domains. But they don't quite work together. Once again there are cracks. We have theories of multiverses, of multidimensional strings, of variable laws of gravity--all vying to be the next true explanation. Some may be right. Some will clearly be wrong. All will make your head hurt.
Pedro Ferreira's book covers all of these topics very well, but where I think he really shines is his description of the process. There have been some real characters in this saga: Einstein himself, Paul Dirac, Fritz Zwicky, Arthur Eddington, Edwin Hubble, Stephen Hawing. There are the admirable human virtues of inquisitiveness and persistence, along with the less-admirable traits of tribalism, machismo and pettiness. Often all of these characteristics appear in the same scientist. There are fads, edged out by evidence, growing into other fads. The competition for resources is brutal. Ferreira's approach reminds me of the much-missed Stephen Jay Gould, who knew that we couldn't help but be human. The very intuition that led Einstein into relativity betrayed him when the implications became too strange. There have been so many things in the century of relativity that just couldn't be true: except that they were.
But in John Adams' immortal words "facts are stubborn things". He could have easily said that about the scientific process. A bad idea can only hold sway for so long until its pushed out by incontrovertible evidence. In some future time, Relativity will take its place as the foundation of an even larger and more complete theory, just as Newton's world lives inside Relativity. We'll know when we get there.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
“The Perfect Theory” is an excellent read. It is the “biography” of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity…the theory that unseated the mathematical and physical Laws of Nature established by Isaac Newton which had served humanity well for several hundred years.
It is an important book in several ways. For instance, it shows us that even geniuses can have a hard time doing math. Einstein avoided math when he could. In his is earlier “Theory of Special Relativity” Einstein relied mostly on what might be described as mental pictures of how things relate to one another while falling freely in space etc., and he used mathematics sparingly.
Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity did not, however, sufficiently account for the effects of gravity, and Einstein found that he had to learn some tough mathematics to come to terms with gravity. His friend Arthur Eddington gave Einstein a text book to start him off. But it wasn’t enough. Einstein then turned to David Hilbert for assistance. Hilbert had showed up at one of Einstein’s lectures, and when Einstein asked Hilbert for help with the math Hilbert gave Einstein what he needed. He found Hilbert’s mathematics daunting. He couldn’t understand it. But he resolved to learn.
Eventually, he mastered Hilbert’s ideas and after much struggle he resolved all the problems posed by the force of gravity and he published his great work.
David Hilbert, in the meantime, had become intrigued by Einstein’s ideas, and Hilbert worked out the Theory of General Relativity and published it a few days before Einstein was able to publish his own paper!
This resulted in some hard feelings between Hilbert and Einstein, but eventually Hilbert conceded that Einstein was truly the original source of the theory and he always afterward spoke of it as “Einstein’s Theory.” This shows you that even mathematicians can be nice. It also shows you that when you find something to be difficult you shouldn’t give up. You may change the world.
One of the great things about “The Perfect Theory” is it provides you with many sources to go to for further reference in the various topics. These sources are sprinkled throughout the text and additional references are provided in the Notes. For a book on such a complex set of subjects…singularities, colliding black holes, gravitational waves, etc., it is a surprisingly fast read, carried by the author’s enthusiasm for his subject. Highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Recently, Time magazine identified Albert Einstein as the Person of the 20th Century. When I first read that, I thought, well he is an interesting selection, and I'm sure that many folks thought - what??
However, Einstein was a great man and his Theory of Relativity is the greatest concept of the 20th century, and when compared with all of the politicians, especially (since they were responsible for what has to be considered the most conflict oriented century of man) and scientists, he stands tall.
His Theory of Relativity enhanced Newton's Laws which is another great man and scientist. And, as highlighted in this book, for the past 100 years, individuals including Einstein, tried to challenge his Theory of Relativity and continued to prove it to be accurate. Further, this theory led to some of the great astronomical discoveries of the 20th century including the "Big Bang" theory and "Black Holes".
This is all covered very well in this very readable book that I highly recommend for individuals who are/are not scientifically oriented. Read this book and find out why Einstein is the greatest person of the 20th century.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2014
If you're looking for a quick review of how cosmology came to be and where it seems to be going, this is a nifty read. The author provides an unusually clear vision of how the field has progressed, why it got stuck when it did, and how progress was once again made. Of particular interest to me was the description of the revival of alternative theories of large-scale gravitation, to try to eliminate the problem of dark energy and dark matter rather than to find out what they are.
Perhaps because the author is in the field, the book seems to be able to talk about the personalities involved in creating the science, without becoming a silly soap opera. It should be emphasized that the book is a history and not a text: there is essentially nothing here about how special or general relativity works, even at the intuitive level at which Einstein himself was so adept. So it helps if you have a bit of acquaintance with the technical issues, and thus can conceive generally of what the arguments are about.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2014
A 20th century physics book without quantum mechanics is always an ambitious project. The author did well to keep out the QM largely if that was one of the objectives and the resultant exclusive focus on relativity leads to a somewhat different popular science book than what one is used to. That said, the book mysteriously skips any reasonably detailed discussion of the theory itself with almost entire discussions on the stories of its fall and rise.
In a way, most recent books on astronomy or cosmology cover the same grounds starting from the usual 1905 papers to the inadequacies of special relativity, the great proof through the bending of the light around the eclipsed sun, the accidental discovery of the CMB, black hole time horizon/radiation, the coming in/going out/re-coming in of the cosmological constant, dark energy/matter mysteries, loop quantum gravity versus superstring etc. This book covers the same topic in similar details - the difference is the context: rather than an attempt to explain the mysterious world, the attempt here is to explain the evolution of the relativity theory.
The main problem is scant description of the theory that is at the centre of the book. The author might have been warned by publishers or friends to keep the popular science book simple and without equations, but he could have easily inserted a skip-able chapter or two on the description and implications of the ten field equations. He should have discussed in detail why these equations are open to discoveries from within even a century later because of their interactions and non-linearities. He should have discussed the near infinite possible solutions of these equations including the most implausible, unproven wildest that exist today along with those that appeared impossible before but were proven right (which he discusses quite abundantly while showing the repeated fallibility of the great man himself).
To a degree a missed opportunity.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2014
I'm an engineer, not a physicist but I've read and listened to many books about Physics & Astronomy. This was a good combination of history and science... And I got excited (again) about GR. It's a great overview with some depth here and there, not too technical, but not completely spare of technical detail. If you're not deeply familiar with GR, it's a good intro to the history and science of GR. It was lucid and clear and, unlike some books I've listened to, I was bummed when it was over! I wanted more. Other books that go well with this or I enjoyed in a similar way: Caleb Sharf's "Gravity's Engines" and "The Day We Found the Universe" by Marcia Bartusiak.