What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein's Ideas, and Why They Matter

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It is commonly assumed that if the Sun suddenly turned into a black hole, it would suck Earth and the rest of the planets into oblivion. Yet, as prominent author and astrophysicist Jeffrey Bennett points out, black holes don't suck. With that simple idea in mind, Bennett begins an entertaining introduction to Einstein's theories of relativity, describing the amazing phenomena readers would actually experience if they took a trip to a black hole.

The theory of relativity also ...

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What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein's Ideas, and Why They Matter

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It is commonly assumed that if the Sun suddenly turned into a black hole, it would suck Earth and the rest of the planets into oblivion. Yet, as prominent author and astrophysicist Jeffrey Bennett points out, black holes don't suck. With that simple idea in mind, Bennett begins an entertaining introduction to Einstein's theories of relativity, describing the amazing phenomena readers would actually experience if they took a trip to a black hole.

The theory of relativity also reveals the speed of light as the cosmic speed limit, the mind-bending ideas of time dilation and curvature of spacetime, and what may be the most famous equation in history: E = mc2. Indeed, the theory of relativity shapes much of our modern understanding of the universe. It is not "just a theory"--every major prediction of relativity has been tested to exquisite precision, and its practical applications include the Global Positioning System (GPS). Amply illustrated and written in clear, accessible prose, Bennett's book proves anyone can grasp the basics of Einstein's ideas. His intuitive, nonmathematical approach gives a wide audience its first real taste of how relativity works and why it is so important to science and the way we view ourselves as human beings.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“Black holes don’t suck,” says astrophysicist Bennett (Life in the Universe); in fact, their exotic nature is the perfect way to explore relativity. The special theory of relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in his 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” says in part that nothing can outrace light, but it’s exactly in that highly accelerated realm where you need to be to observe the extreme weirdness of relativity at work: time dilation, mass increasing, and the shortening of the length of high-velocity objects. Bennett shows how particle accelerators can provide that environment on Earth, making special relativity “one of the most well-tested theories in all of science”—but still incomplete, as far as Einstein was concerned. He sought “an underlying simplicity in the universe”—wherein gravity and acceleration are the same—and he found that in the curved spacetime of general relativity where orbiting objects move “like marbles in a salad bowl,” following the curvature of spacetime along the straightest possible path. From black holes and gravity waves, to wormholes and warp drive, Bennett’s fun book shows readers what relativity means, and what it reveals about our universe. (Mar.)
Seth Shostak

I have read lots of introductions to relativity, but none is as clear and compelling as this one. For anyone who is keen to grasp the fundamentally simple yet non-intuitive ideas of both special and general relativity, Jeffrey Bennett's book is the way to go. Impressively understandable and interesting.

Booklist (starred review)

For in its relatively few pages, Bennett explains relativity to ordinary readers... An impressively accessible distillation of epoch-making science.

Alberto Nicolis

What Is Relativity? is a well-written and uniquely readable book that beautifully serves as an introduction to special and general relativity. Jeffrey Bennett carefully avoids bombastic statements and 'spectacularization' of the subject, sticking with well-established facts and presenting them in a clear and compelling manner.


... [P]erhaps the best homage that anyone can pay to [Einstein] for such a groundbreaking contribution to physics in particular and science in general.


Bennett... has written an entertaining, brilliant introduction to Einstein's ideas... that is impressively understandable.

David J. Helfand

Since it first appeared more than a decade ago, I have used Cosmic Perspectives by Jeffrey Bennett and his colleagues in no small part because of the excellence of its chapters on relativity. It is wonderful to now have a stand-alone volume in which his lucid, explanatory text and figures are coupled with a thoughtful commentary on why relativity is important in constructing our scientific and personal views of space and time.

Kirkus Reviews
Understanding the universe requires understanding relativity, and this slim volume does an admirable job without resorting to the gimmicks or magic show common in the Einstein-for-laymen genre. "Much of the difficulty that most people have with relativity," writes astrophysicist Bennett (Math for Life: Crucial Ideas You Didn't Learn in School, 2012, etc.), "comes about only because it seems to run counter to ideas of space and time that have become deeply ingrained in our minds." What's relative in relativity, he writes, is motion. Its foundation rests on two absolutes: 1) The laws of physics are the same for everyone and, 2) the speed of light is the same for everyone. Readers will share Bennett's amazement at the weird consequences of the latter. The faster an object moves, the more its length contracts, its mass increases, and time slows. If it reaches the speed of light, which is impossible, time would stop. These are facts, and experiments verify them. Modern technology, such as GPS measurements, must take relativity into account. Bennett begins with special relativity, which explains constant motion. It's so simple that the required math does not go beyond high school algebra. Far more complex, general relativity explains accelerated motion, which is (another Einstein discovery) identical to gravity. Laymen describe gravity as an attraction between objects. Scientists since Isaac Newton agreed, but all hated the idea of an invisible force acting across empty space. Einstein solved this problem by revealing that gravity is the natural consequence of curved space. The greater the mass of a body, the more it warps nearby space into a fourth dimension: time. We can't see this dimension, so it appears that heavenly bodies are moving in odd directions when they're simply following the straightest path through spacetime. A sober, comprehensible account of what every intelligent layman should know about space and time.
Library Journal
The theory of relativity is one of those areas of science that seems daunting to non-physicists. Although the experts agree that the theory is accurate and eloquent, most literature explaining it is too complex for the lay reader to grasp fully. Bennett (Beyond UFOs), an astrophysicist who has coauthored many science textbooks, tries a different approach. First, he keeps the math out of it. The only equation in the book is E=mc2. Instead he relies heavily on thought experiments. Einstein himself used thought experiments to understand how to make sense of the shortcoming of Newtonian physics. Bennett takes the reader step by step from the special theory of relativity through the broader general theory of relativity. At each step he starts with what is known to us more or less through common sense and then moves slowly into new material. For example, he uses an intuitive concept like the earth being round to help explain how space-time can be curved, a concept that may not be intuitive. A generous dose of graphs and charts also helps illuminate his discussion. VERDICT Bennett does a masterly job of teaching a difficult topic without oversimplifying it. The results are recommended for readers at the high school level and above. A general understanding of Newtonian physics is beneficial.—William Baer, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib., Atlanta
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231167260
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 3/4/2014
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 146,664
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Bennett, winner of the 2013 American Institute of Physics Science Communication Award, holds a BA. in biophysics from the University of California, San Diego, and an MS and Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the lead author of best-selling textbooks in astronomy, astrobiology, mathematics, and statistics and has written numerous award-winning books for the general public and children.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

PrefaceIntroduction/Foreword: Einstein's LifePart 1: Getting Started1. Voyage to a Black HolePart 2: Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity2. Racing Light3. Redefining Space and Time4. A New Common SensePart 3: Einstein's General Theory of Relativity5. Newton's Absurdity6. Redefining GravityPart 4: Implications of Relativity7. Black Holes8. The Expanding UniverseEpilogue: Your Indelible Mark on the UniverseAcknowledgmentsIndex

Columbia University Press

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