Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

November 29, 2002

I must have bought Gravitation by Charles Misner, Kip Thorne and John Wheeler shortly after it first appeared in 1970, and have been reading it - with diminishing understanding - ever since. It is a huge book of countless pages, its exterior as black as space, its interior almost as inscrutable, with an apple appropriately on the front, and runs along three tracks: one sufficiently elementary to be within hope of comprehension (at least to my then young mind), a second that raises the height of the bar to near impossibility, and a third for archangels.

My hope was to achieve sufficient understanding of cosmology to understand this important subject and illuminator of the human condition and, more pragmatically, to discover whether the techniques it employed could be deployed fruitfully in my own area, theoretical chemistry. I admit to failure in both, but the experience of reading this well of intellectual delight has remained with me, which is why I continue to sip its waters.

What I found so stimulating was the visualisation of the mathematical ideas that the book develops. Other books on general relativity are adroit and impressive in their adherence to purely symbolic expositions of the subject, with superscripts and subscripts arrayed on symbols like washing hung out to dry or fallen to the ground. Their pages look like music and, to the eye attuned to their language, are music. But there is another way of presenting Einstein's glorious theory, which replaces those index-encumbered symbols with elegant visualisations, with arrows piercing eggboxes. That kind of exposition appeals greatly to my sense of comprehension and engenders an insight into the structure of spacetime that is harder, for me at least, to elicit from vanilla algebra.

My copy of the text is not to hand as I write, but I can visualise it accurately. The design was very 1960s, with vast pages, all kinds of typefaces, and softly curved boxes, like coffins, to bury ideas of extreme impossibility. But the design was important: it gave the appearance of comprehensibility, with sections for intellectual dwarves and giants neatly set off, and its all-important visualisations elegantly and crisply rendered.

Did it do me any good? Only in a subliminal sense, I suspect. I never employed any of its techniques, I never found anything to apply them to that had not already been considered by others, and I still have not got to the end. (Well, I have, but only by leaving out most of the middle and not a little of the beginning.) But it was a wonderful intellectual work-out book, a Jane Fonda for brains and, deep down inside, I think it has had a profound and remarkable effect on all that I have thought over the past 30 years.

P. W. Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford.

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