Book Review: E=MC²: Simple Physics by Jeff Stewart

You know that friend you have, the one who likes cars, watchin’ action flicks and talking about physics, except the last time they actually “studied” any science was in junior high? Yeah, that friend… Well, I read the book for them today.

E=MC²: Simple Physics: Why Balloons Rise, Apples Fall, and Golf Balls Go Awry by Jeff Stewart, published by Readers Digest.

A kind publicist sent a copy of the latest in the Reader’s Digest Blackboard Books™ series last week and I have to say, it was a pretty cute read.

The book basically covers all of the content that you’d find in a high school curriculum, but without any math, making it ideal for an adult learner looking for a qualitative picture of physics.  It also ends with a little bit of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and cosmology, because, frankly, that’s where popular interest lies (and should, because it’s the good stuff, after all).

What makes this book a little different from the sea of popular physics books out there is that it is written in very simple language (okay, so I wasn’t wild about that… or the fragment sentences) and is dense in everyday examples (if driving and action movies are everyday examples for you… okay, so they’re aren’t so much for me).  I did, however, throughly enjoy all the puns and pop-culture references contained within the witty section titles like, “Float like a feather, fall like a hammer”, “The good, the bad, and the impossible”, and “Why are so many physicists growing a GUT?”.

Often, one of my complaints with popular books written for such a general audience is that they are written from a perspective totally removed from how science is done and who scientists really are.  Authors often make physicists sound like these lofty pillars of men who are untouched by anything but the pursuit of ultimate universal truth, and blah, blah, blah.  I knew I was going to have respect for Stewart by the time I made it to the 20th page and came across this:

It’s also worth remembering that physics -like football, fashion, fishing, and even things we do that don’t start with “f” – is a human activity.  Physicists are people.  They argue about their ideas, they make mistakes, and they do what needs to be done to make sure they have money to continue their work next year.

Yes! So, after he starts with a nice introduction on what physics is, why people do physics, and who physicists are, Stewart starts into classical mechanics and begins defining the building blocks of our modern physical theories (with concepts like force, energy, work, power, etc.) without any offensive over simplifications.

I admit, 100 pages later, I was a little nervous when I started the relativity section, but again, all was (mostly) well.  I do have to give the author credit though for making general relativity (arguably the sexiest theory of all time, of any field) sound as unsexy as possible.

One way to picture the curvature of time and space and the movement that it causes is to think of space[time] as a cheap old mattress on a cheap old bed, the kind that sags a lot when you lie on it.  Whoever gets into bed with you will enter your gravitational field (which is the bit of space and time -that is, mattress- that you’ve curved).  Once that person is on that curved part, they’ll slide into your pit and there’ll be two of you down there, and with their mass added that gravitational pit will be even deeper and more difficult to struggle out of than it was.  If a couple of children, the dog, and Grandma then also climb on the bed and roll into the pit you’ve made, then together you’ve pretty much created your own black hole: an area of space and time so curved by a huge and compact mass that it is impossible for anything – even light – to escape its gravity.

Ugh. I wish light really couldn’t escape that scene so I never, ever, have to picture it again.

Thankfully, quantum mechanics made it out without needing the proverbial bag over its head for its walk of shame home:

I’m sure you remember our day on the beach: the sun, the surfers, the double slit experiment, which seemed to prove that light is made up of waves, not particles, because the light waves interfere and cause a diffraction pattern. You even made diffraction fringes in the gap between your fingers.

Alright, so a popular physics book with a good sense of humour is always fine by me.  Perhaps my favourite part was the brief section on inflation:

Maybe our universe was created by some bug-eyed monster who’d discovered the same laws as Alan Guth, a slimy bug-eyed monster who just happened to have some false vacuum handy.

Yeah, maybe that is what happened, Alan Guth, maybe it is…

In summary, this was actually a cute read.  I wouldn’t recommend it to someone with a science background, but I would definitely recommend it to an interested outsider whose regular meat-and-potatoes world wanted some added depth.  It’s the popular physics version of a Disney movie that is short and kind of shallow, but it has a few good jokes thrown in for mom and dad*.

I’ll end with another quote from Stewart:

Read on, and see for yourself.  Just remember, at all times, to keep your clothes on and your wits about you.**

*Apparently I am both mom and dad here.
**That quote followed that (apocryphal) Archimedes in the bath/”Eureka!”story, in case the context helped.
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5 Responses to Book Review: E=MC²: Simple Physics by Jeff Stewart

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  3. PhysGuy says:

    LOL The review makes me want to read the book even though it’s probably not aimed at me. Very funny stuff.

  4. Andrew Kircheff says:

    Agreed. This was probably funnier to read than the book would have been, but I’ll still recommend it to friends!

  5. shain says:

    Do you have an explanation for the apparent contradiction in chapter 7 about electricity. In the book’s text he calls a negative a cathode and the positive an anode on page 107, but in an illustration of the homemade lemon battery on pages 108-109 he has them reversed. Is this just a mistake that was not caught by the editors or is there another explanation?