Article - Autumn 2020

The Gravity of the Situation

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Popular physics books make science cheap, easy, and entertaining. The problem is, they often mislead.

By Jethro K. Lieberman | September 1, 2020
Detail of Ptolemaic chart showing signs of the zodiac and the solar system, 1660/61, by Johannes van Loon (National Library of Australia/Wikimedia Commons)
Detail of Ptolemaic chart showing signs of the zodiac and the solar system, 1660/61, by Johannes van Loon (National Library of Australia/Wikimedia Commons)

The theory of general relativity burst into public awareness when observations made off the west coast of Africa during a 1919 solar eclipse confirmed one of Albert Einstein’s most astonishing assertions: that large masses, like the sun, warp space and thus bend the path of light. Legend has it that Arthur Stanley Eddington, the British astronomer who corroborated the theory when he measured the angle of starlight deflection, was asked whether it was true that only three people in the world understood relativity. After a moment, Eddington supposedly replied: “Who’s the third?” Announcing relativity’s vindication, The New York Times had to explain who Einstein was (“a Swiss citizen,” it laconically offered) and, in the lead paragraph of its account, bluntly acknowledged that “it is not possible to put Einstein’s theory into really intelligible words.”

A century later, everything seems to have changed. If you believe the jacket copy, for the price of a book you now can understand relativity, quantum physics, cosmology, or pick your subtopic: black holes, subatomic particles, symmetry, electromagnetism, string theory, gravitational waves, the Higgs boson, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and on and on. Duck into any bookstore or search any online bookseller and you’ll find an ever-expanding section of popular offerings standing ready to initiate inquisitive readers into the latest scientific mysteries, and all without the need to understand math or have any feeling for experiment. (A growing number of websites offer the same.) It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s entertaining.

It’s bogus.

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