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To be continuumed

September 30, 2007|Sara Lippincott

"It is true that there are innumerable popular accounts of the theory of relativity, but they generally cease to be intelligible just at the point where they begin to say something important." So said Bertrand Russell some 80 years ago, at a time when Einstein's collapsing of space and time into a single entity called spacetime was baffling large numbers of laymen. By now, most of us have accepted the fact that nothing can go faster than the speed of light and that if you whiz off into outer space fast enough and far enough and return a year later, almost all your friends will have died.

Russell might have been describing Sander Bais' "Very Special Relativity: An Illustrated Guide" (Harvard University Press: 120 pp., $20.95), a valiant attempt to visually depict the counterintuitive truths in Einstein's 1905 theory. Bais' vocabulary is friendly (to a point), and his spacetime grids, with their red, yellow and blue arrows, are certainly tantalizing. Staring at these grids long enough may well provide a flash of insight.

But those whose brains have long since decided to orient themselves verbally are advised to supplement this contemplation with Russell's own classic, "The ABC of Relativity," which came out in 1925, has been in print ever since (Routledge: 6th edition, 176 pp., $24.95 paper) and is how many of us finally grasped an approximation of the special theory. Nonetheless, with regard to Bais and his grids, if you can navigate such (deceptively) simple declarative sentences as "It is comforting to see that w = w if v = 0, and maybe less comforting to see that w approaches 0 as v gets close to c," then by all means, have at it!

-- Sara Lippincott

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