An update on universal truth

March 14, 2003

We are approaching the centenary of Albert Einstein's first paper on relativity ("On the electrodynamics of moving bodies", 1905) and so it is interesting to see how far the theoretical development of special and general relativity, and its confirmation by experimental observation, has progressed. Wolfgang Rindler's book covers the subject fully: the special theory (including electromagnetism), the motivation for the general theory and the mathematical description of curved spacetime, and a range of solutions of the Einstein equations. The applications of general relativity in the solar system, in pulsars in binary-star systems, in black holes, and in understanding the history and fate of the entire universe, are all fully explored. This book will find its place as recommended reading for many advanced undergraduate courses in relativity and cosmology, and is an excellent foundation for work in this field at graduate level and beyond.

The book is a revision, and considerable extension, of Rindler's earlier title, Essential Relativity , an established undergraduate text. It continues the approach of that text, emphasising the importance of conceptual understanding, without abandoning the rigour of a formal development of theory. The author builds on long experience of his subject in overcoming misunderstandings by formulating them as paradoxes and then giving incisive resolutions. Indeed, he has made many contributions to the development of general relativity in publications that explore interesting facets of the theory.

Of course, it is difficult to combine a comprehensive and rigorous treatment with the objective of giving an overview appropriate to an undergraduate text. For this reason, I would recommend anyone with no previous exposure to general relativity to look for a gentler introduction and to reserve this book for filling in the details and building a greater understanding. At the graduate level, however, it will be an excellent basis for work in general relativity and cosmology.

The book is well presented, with many diagrams to support the text. Errors are few: I noticed the misuse of the term meson as applied to muons and the use of the symbol H 4 where He 4 is intended. I was also mildly disappointed by the author's adherence to the concept of "relativistic mass". In my own course, I like to explain that classical momentum as "mass x velocity" is replaced in special relativity by "energy x velocity" (divided by c 2 to keep the units right.) Even more nit-picking: the index does not contain "isotropic coordinates", although the subject does appear in the book. But these do not spoil a first-class presentation of the intellectual glory of the first century of relativity.

Vincent Smith is reader in physics, University of Bristol.

Relativity: Special, General and Cosmological

Author - Wolfgang Rindler
ISBN - 0 19 850835 2 and 850836 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £49.50 and £24.95
Pages - 432

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