The Perfect Theory – Physicists’ Battles for Muggles

After the ceremony, as the audience and speakers milled around, ready to escape into the London evening, a Polish physicist named Ludwik Silberstein ambled over to Eddington. Silberstein had already written a book about Einstein’s more restricted “special theory of relativity” and had followed Eddington’s presentation with interest. Now he pronounced, “Professor Eddington, you must be one of the three persons in the world who understand general relativity.” When Eddington was slow to respond, he added, “Don’t be modest, Eddington.” Eddington looked at him firmly and said, “On the contrary, I am trying to think who the third person is.”
From Prologue to The Perfect Theory, by Pedro G. Ferreira

Welcome to the secret world of physicists – the acid-tongued trailblazers who tower above their peers, the heads of powerful scientific dynasties, the disillusioned legends who are shunned by the younger generation. This is a world where a formidable mind keeps creating while confined to a wheelchair, a world than spans a handful of universities and virtually excludes women. You can meet them all in The Perfect Theory, A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity.

The author, professor Pedro G. Ferreira from Oxford University, is a cosmologist, who studies the “evolution of our universe and large scale structure”. He writes about his field of expertise; he personally knows many of the people he writes about. And this first hand experience is invaluable.

The Perfect Theory is dubbed as “the biography of general relativity,” and reads like fiction. I expected it to focus on physics. The book, however, focuses on human-stories – the people who were involved in general-relativity and related discoveries, rather than on the breakthroughs that made them famous. Fast pace and a complete absence of equations make the book accessible to non-scientists, even those who have only heard about cosmology from the media. Those who are looking for an in-depth discussion of physics might be disappointed. General relativity and other branches of physics are treated very lightly. So lightly that one wonders if the author mistrusts his readers’ ability to grasp the subject. Although the book is sprinkled with terms like “tensor” and “covariant”, those are not followed with explanations. For non-physicists this jargon might be as useful as magical spells for Muggles.

It is fitting that a biography of general relativity starts with Einstein “working as a lowly patent expert at the Swiss patent office in Bern.” The first two chapters recount Einstein’s struggles to formulate his idea about “the freely falling man” into a theory that would explain “how things moved if they were accelerating or were pulled by gravity.” Without dwelling on the evolution of the idea or the mathematical hardships Einstein had faced while developing his theory, the biography skips to “Einstein’s completed general theory of relativity offered an entirely new way of understanding physics, one that superseded the Newtonian view that had held sway for centuries. His theory provided a set of equations that came to be known as ‘Einstein Field Equations.’”

The book continues with stories about the geniuses who tackled these equations and came up with ingenious solutions. General relativity has captured the fancy of Dirac, Oppenheimer, Wheeler, Feynman, Sakharov, Landau, Zel’dovich, Hawking, and many others. Less-known heroes are also featured in the saga. If you read carefully, you’ll find out who is “The Girl Who Spotted the Little Green Men.”

Do I recommend the book? I would not use it to try and learn the rudiments of general relativity and its implications. Maybe ‘yes’, if you find collapsing stars, matter-devouring black holes and the enigmatic dark energy fascinating and mind-boggling. Definitely ‘yes’, if you would rather skip the technical drudgery of scientific research and prefer to read about prejudices and grudges, squabbles and the scooping of glory of real-life, often famous, physicists.

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4 Responses to The Perfect Theory – Physicists’ Battles for Muggles

  1. Sounds fascinating. I have Max Born’s book on General Relativity, but that really is a specialist one.

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    • tkflor says:

      The Feynman lectures (available for free online) have an accessible chapter on Curved Space and Einstein’s theory of gravitation.
      http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/II_42.html

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      • I am going to read the book. I am a sucker for ‘science biographies’ like this, not least because they give human dimension to theory, and in so many ways, theory IS a product of human endeavour. Physics is one of my fields (no pun intended, well, not much). I am very keen to see as much of Einstein’s stuff as possible made accessible because a lot of the stupid new-age misconceptions about what constitutes everyday reality go away with an understanding of General Relativity. And we know it’s true, not least because even the GPS satellites have to account for frame dragging (a term Einstein hated…)

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  2. tkflor says:

    If you enjoy ‘science biographies’ and want to read more about the thought process that started with Einstein’s initial idea and led to the publication of GR, you may want to try Subtle is the Lord: the Science and Life of Albert Einstein by Abraham Pais.
    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/282459.Subtle_Is_the_Lord
    It is my favorite biography of Einstein.

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