Why does E=mc squared? – Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw present this summary of modern physics as an explanation of Einstein’s theory using mathematics no more complicated than Pythagorus’ theorem. This was a tempting proposition. I am not mathematically illiterate, but my maths education ended at the age of 16.  It did include Pythagorus, but didn’t stretch much further. I am also fascinated by the ideas of Einstein, by their relationship with quantum physics and by the whole hadron collider thing. I read Hawkings A Brief History of Time when it first came out, and have kept up to date recently by reading Simon Singh’s The Big Bang and Manjit Kumar’s Quantum, among others on this subject.

This book was the latest of that kind, and was shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books – 2010. It was an easy read, considering the topic, and written with enthusiasm and passion. Cox is especially well known for his TV programmes, Wonders of the Universeand his repeated use of large numbers – billions. I know people who watch that programme just to play word bingo along these lines.

As far as my understanding of the topic was concerned – well I think I learnt a little more. And they do try to stick to their position – little or no mathematics. However, even so there was a place in the chapter on special relativity when I had to go back over the maths again and again, and know I’ll have to reread the section to become fully confident that I understand it. In fact I may still be confused – following the logic of maths depends on being able to ask questions just at that point when the presenter takes something for granted that isn’t really as simple as they think. Oh well!

Cox and Forshaw can’t stop themselves proclaiming the beauty of the master equation that explains everything we know about the universe. It’s 4 lines long and indecipherable. By the end we are meant to feel like some geezer in his bath realising at one and the same time the beauty of nature and of mathematics.  That epiphany passed me by, but I still enjoyed the book, and got a lot out of it – if only I could remember what it was!

BBC – The Wonders of the Universe

The Guardian – Review


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