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The Perfect Theory

Book Review of: The Perfect Theory

A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity

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Review of The Perfect Theory, by Pedro G. Ferreira (Hardcover, 2014)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


This book is a perfect companion for a trip by air or rail. What a great read, and so informative too. It's rare that someone of Ferreira's technical caliber (he's a professor of astrophysics at the prestigious University of Oxford) can also write well. Note that, at the time of this review, he has over 360 published items (e.g., articles, books) and he is cited over 1300 times in other works. Nowhere does he use the title "Doctor," and I couldn't find any reference thereof. But in trying to find it, I was duly impressed with his credentials otherwise. Maybe that's why he's a professor at a major university even if (and that's not certain) he doesn't have a PhD (he might, I just can't verify that).

His writing is excellent, both in style and in technical merit (that is, his grammatical competence is high). Because of this, the book is quite accessible to the lay reader with an interest in something as mind-boggling as the Theory of General Relativity. Rather than trudging through dense text and trying to figure out what the author is saying, readers of this book can enjoy a nicely narrated explanation of what has gone on with the Theory of General Relativity from its inception to where it is today.

In this review, I won't explain anything about this very famous theory. I assume the reader of this review has not been on a deserted island since 1905 and thus has been amply exposed to it through at least some of the pop culture, thousands of articles, common mentions, and even movies that have explained, amplified, or even misrepresented it since that time. If you were stranded on a deserted island all this time, please accept my apologies; I did not mean to slight you.

This book isn't a tutorial on the Theory of General Relativity. Whatever you know of it from the popular culture or the reading of relevant books for the layperson is sufficient background for reading this book. It's really about the human drama that this theory evoked. And that is quite a story. As Ferreira tells us in the Prologue and then shows us through his writing, the Theory of General Relativity has taken on a life of its own. It occupied, or perhaps consumed, many of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. And it is a career topic for many brilliant minds in this century.

In telling this story, Ferreira delves into how science and culture have responded to the Theory of General Relativity. But his focus is mostly on the scientists, with their cliques, battles of ideas, and personal feuds. The intrigues and backstabbing have much in common with a season of the 80's television show Dallas. People who challenged the orthodoxy or the "powers that be" sometimes found their lives destroyed (even though they were right).

What many people don't know is the Theory of General Relativity actually fell by the wayside in the larger physics community, and stayed in the ditch for many years. Then suddenly, it made a big comeback. It's now central to emerging science. As Ferreira so deftly shows us, the Theory of General Relativity has value in taking us further in both physics and cosmology.

When the topic of a book is the Theory of General Relativity, perhaps the most relevant question a reviewer can answer is, "What about the math?" Being a quant myself (MBA, with an engineering undergrad), I happen to like math. Use math to explain something to me, and you help me understand. Except when it comes to the strange, very advance, mind-numbing math used by physicists and their ilk. Count me out. Ferreira does the reader the favor of not trying to prove he's an egghead. There's no math to mystify the reader. Just a great story, well-told.

Just as an example of the threads that Ferreira pursues in this book, consider black holes. These are mentioned in several chapters, and of course you know that means he talks about Stephen Hawking. The drama around this one celestial object makes for a story in itself. It was that story that made Hawking a pop icon. "Hawking radiation" solved a major puzzle regarding black holes.

This book consists of 14 chapters across 235 pages. In addition, it has an informative Prologue, extensive notes, and an impressive bibliography.

Technical note on this review:

I reviewed a paperback Advance Reading Copy for Amazon Vine. Normally, these advance copies are rife with copyediting errors. That was not at all the case with this one. Over the past few years, I've noticed a distinct difference between authors from the UK and those from the USA, in terms of understanding and implementing Standard Written English (SWE). Sad to say, my countrymen do quite poorly in this regard, nearly every time. Ferreira is a UK author, and his writing reflects the much higher standards there.

A disclaimer at the front said there may be corrections. As I write this review, I cannot recall a single error of either a technical or style nature. Well done, Mr. Ferreira.


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