The fundamentals of Einstein's theory of special relativity, presented in the form of a series of imaginary dialogues among scientists of three different eras. Fritzsch (Max Planck Institute for Physics, Munich; Quarks: The Stuff of Matter, 1983) begins by sending a fictitious modern physicist, Adrian Haller, to England, where he meets Sir Isaac Newton, who has been returned to Earth. Newton is curious about developments in physics since his day, and the two men spend several chapters discussing Newton's concepts of space, time, and light. When the conversation arrives at the subject of Albert Einstein's contributions to science, Newton persuades Haller to take him for a visit to Bern, Switzerland, where they meet the father of relativity. The three physicists then engage in a series of dialogues on how Einstein modified Newton's ideas of the universe, and on how modern science has both verified and extended Einstein's own theories. While there is an unavoidable kernel of mathematics in any discussion of physical concepts, the derivation of Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2, should be within the grasp of anyone who passed high school algebra. The key ideas are presented clearly, and the discussion touches on such subjects as the source of the sun's energy, the future of nuclear and fusion power, antimatter, and the decay of the proton. Fritzsch's handling of the dialogues and of the flimsy narrative framework does not suggest that he should take up fiction as a career. But the ideas come across clearly, even entertainingly, in spite of what appears to be a rather pedestrian translation. Occasionally stiff, but always readable; a good introduction to modern physics for any reader willing to invest a little thought in the subject. (45 halftones, 41 line drawings, 1 table)

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 1994

ISBN: 0-226-26557-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1994

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A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.


Tyson (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017, etc.) receives a great deal of mail, and this slim volume collects his responses and other scraps of writing.

The prolific science commentator and bestselling author, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, delivers few surprises and much admirable commentary. Readers may suspect that most of these letters date from the author’s earlier years when, a newly minted celebrity, he still thrilled that many of his audience were pouring out their hearts. Consequently, unlike more hardened colleagues, he sought to address their concerns. As years passed, suspecting that many had no interest in tapping his expertise or entering into an intelligent give and take, he undoubtedly made greater use of the waste basket. Tyson eschews pure fan letters, but many of these selections are full of compliments as a prelude to asking advice, pointing out mistakes, proclaiming opposing beliefs, or denouncing him. Readers will also encounter some earnest op-ed pieces and his eyewitness account of 9/11. “I consider myself emotionally strong,” he writes. “What I bore witness to, however, was especially upsetting, with indelible images of horror that will not soon leave my mind.” To crackpots, he gently repeats facts that almost everyone except crackpots accept. Those who have seen ghosts, dead relatives, and Bigfoot learn that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. Tyson points out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so confirmation that a light in the sky represents an alien spacecraft requires more than a photograph. Again and again he defends “science,” and his criteria—observation, repeatable experiments, honest discourse, peer review—are not controversial but will remain easy for zealots to dismiss. Among the instances of “hate mail” and “science deniers,” the author also discusses philosophy, parenting, and schooling.

A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00331-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.


Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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