The Perfect Theory

Pedro G. Ferreira

Why I looked at this book

This book is a contender for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. I did think that I might not get to read it: I look for books in the Oxford central library, but if I can't find them then I can usually read them in the Bodleian library. For a long time it was 'on order' in the central library, and when it appeared it was quickly borrowed. The Bodleian should get a copy of all books published in the UK, and being published in the UK is a condition for entry for the prize - but strangely it doesn't seem to be there. Even stranger when you realise that the author is an Oxford professor!

I was in the central library, checking whether I could find The Cancer Chronicles (I couldn't, but it's in the Bodleian), but just on the off chance I decided to check whether this book was there and fortunately it was, so I borrowed it immediately. The previous borrower must have returned it quickly (unlike me - I tend to hang on to library books for ages)

First impressions

This book is aiming to be the biography of general relativity. It's a challenge to be able to explain a difficult subject to the novice reader. The book starts off well, looking at how Einstein got started on the subject, but it's hard to see at this stage whether Ferreira will succeed in dealing with the mathematical parts of the theory without scaring the reader away.

Main review

In fact there are no equations in this book, except for the one on the front cover. No diagrams either. At first I thought that this was a problem, but I feel that the later parts of the book manage fairly well without them, in particular the experimental results such as the evidence for the expansion of the universe, the big bang vs steady state arguments dark matter and dark energy. These are described in a readable and easy to understand way, as is the search for gravitational waves. Something I found of particular interest was how doubtfully results are treated by the scientific community - how they move towards acceptance or rejection. Ferreira also descibes how different areas of the the subject (such as the theory of black holes) have gone into and out of fashion.

I did think, though, that some parts suffered from the avoidance of anything that looks to technical. For instance, it's hard to appreciate quite what Einstein was working on if you omit anything that looks theoretical, and I think that you need to see a few λ's to get the idea of the cosmological constant. And would it have hurt to show a Penrose diagram when they are being discussed.

If you really want to avoid anything that looks in the slightest like a textbook, or if you have read about that elsewhere, then this book provides a readable and informative account of the development of general relativity. I wouldn't choose it as the winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, but I think it deservedly got into the shortlist.

Reviews Elsewhere

The Amazon Reviews are positive, but the ones giving less than 5 stars do tend to point out the avoidance of an explanation the details of the theory. The reviews are similar at Goodreads, although the one by John Gribbin has some interesting comments. Brian Clegg gives a considered review of the book at PopularScience You might want to check out Peter Woit's review - this has links to some other reviews as well.