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Archive for February, 2010


Special Relativity: A First Reading List

Posted by jns on February 3, 2010

A long-time friend of mine, quite inadvertently and perhaps to his lasting regret, brought up the subject of special relativity : we briefly touched on the idea central to special relativity that the speed of light (in vacuum) is constant (as measured) in every inertial reference frame.*

At first hearing it’s a rather unsettling idea, and of course one wonders how one could possibly make a physical theory around such an idea and have it come out in any meaningful way. Well, one can if one is Einstein, and there are unexpected and startling consequences that flow logically from that simple idea about the speed of light.

The next step in our conversation–not surprising since I was party to the discussion–was “what book should one read to learn these things about special relativity?”

Well, that turned out a bit of a poser. I was certain that we should have something appropriate in our Scienticity Book Notes collection, but there was nothing. Nothing at all!

Well, that was a deficiency that needed some attention. So, we need to have some books read about special relativity and some notes written. Therefore, I’ve put together a tentative wish list of titles that look promising.

I say “promising”–there are no guarantees. Everyone who writes a book on a subject has unique ideas about what should be discussed and how to go about it, and I’ll admit that not all of those ideas align with my ideas about what should be in the book.

I’d like a book about light — not about vision, or color, or art, or optics, but light itself, what it is, how we think about it now, how we used to think about it, how unusual is its place in the physical universe, and then about how the idea of the constancy of the speed of light (in vacuum, in inertial frames, etc.) lies at the heart of special relativity (which is a theory of “electrodynamics”, i.e., a theory of moving charged particles and interactions with electromagnetic fields, i.e.2, essentially a theory of light).

I don’t think the readers I have in mind are much interested in deriving mathematical consequences and such, so there needn’t be a go at developing, say, the Lorentz-contraction equations, but the concepts and ideas must be explored for the average reader in a nonpatronizing way.

It may be too tall an order. I’d just as soon not write the book myself at this time, although it would make a fabulous subject if it’s not been written. (Please let me know if you personally know of such a book.)

And so, the following reading list, the result of a rather cursory look at some sources to try to uncover some candidate titles.

  • Brian Cox, Why Does E=mc2?: And Why Should We Care? (Powell’s synopsis). I’m not so interested in the “deeper” meaning of that famous equation — it’s really far from the most important idea of special relativity despite it’s explosive significance — but the synopsis suggested that Cox might explore the ideas in a useful way.
  • Richard P. Feynman, Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, & Space-Time (Powell’s synopsis). I know, even Feynman’s “Easy Pieces” are far from easy, but if one is in the mood to read slowly and savor, there’s a high density of delight in Feynman’s expositions, and I’d like to know just how hard these seem to normal people.
  • Alan Lightman, Great Ideas in Physics (Powell’s synopsis). This book isn’t exclusively about light or relativity, but the few other books I’ve read by Lightman were very nicely written and he impressed me with with profound understanding of the ideas he talks about, so it made this list with high hopes.
  • N. David Mermin, It’s about Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity (Powell’s synopsis). I knew Mermin’s name during my years as a working physicist from his writing, which I regarded highly. This apparently is his attempt to do just what I would like to see done, so I’m keenly interested in the result.
  • Nigel Calder, Einstein’s Universe : a Guide To the Theory of Relativity (79 Edition) (Powell’s synopsis). When I was a young pre-scientist, Calder had quite a reputation as a popularizer, but I’ve never read any of his writing so I can’t comment. Maybe this is the jewel we seek?

If you know about these, or have other titles to suggest, please chime in.

If you’d like to read and write about some of them as part of your Science-Book Challenge (What, not already signed up? Tsk. Use that link and do it now!), that would be fabulous and will help other people when the question comes up again, as it most certainly will.

*You can take this to mean any frame of reference, i.e., viewpoint, that is moving at a constant velocity, i.e, not accelerated; accelerated frames of reference are the subject of general relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravitation). If you’d like to know more about this idea of reference frames, I can recommend the now vintage but very fine film “Frames of Reference”, which you will find as the second video offering in this blog posting of mine.