I want to like this book more than I do.

As a general matter, this is exactly the sort of science book we need more of. As you can probably guess from the title, Why Does E=mc^{2}? sets out to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity, and does an excellent job of it. It presents a clear and concise explanation of the theory for a non-scientific audience, using no math beyond the Pythagorean Theorem.

I picked this up partly as research of a sort– if there is ever a How to Teach Physics to Your Dog 2: Canine Boogaloo, the most obvious topic for it would be relativity, which I mention a few times, but don’t discuss in any detail. I was thinking about how that would work, and picked this up to see how they went about explaining things. I don’t think I’ve encountered a better explanation of the physics, which they explain entirely with a geometric picture of spacetime, that makes a great deal more sense than most of the mathematical approaches I’ve encountered in my professional education.

And yet…

While explaining relativity with no math more than the Pythagorean theorem is impressive, something about the way they do it ended up annoying me. On the few occasions when they do use math, the parts with the equations are preceded by a paragraph or so reassuring the reader that while math is about to occur, they don’t really need to worry about all the details, and can just skip ahead if they find the math too scary. Then they present some equations, followed by a paragraph or so congratulating the reader for being a brave soldier and making it through the scary math. It starts to seem a little patronizing after a while.

And then, after all the folderol about how the Pythagorean theorem isn’t really all that scary, they go and dump the Standard Model Lagrangian on the reader. They don’t do anything with it, other than describing the various terms in a very vague and qualitative way, but it seems like a bit much given the rest of the text.

There are a few other mis-steps, most notably a running joke about Thales of Miletus that goes on too long, and starts to get a little creepy. The end result was to sort of undermine what is otherwise a really excellent explanation.

Now, it should be noted that I am very much not the target audience for this book. And it’s entirely possible that I am subconsciously using these elements as a source of annoyance to justify continuing to think about the possibility of a HtTPtYD2:CB (as it would be hard for Emmy and me to do a better job on pure physics grounds). I don’t think I can reliably assess how this book would work for its intended audience of people who have no science background to speak of. It might be that the sections I found annoying are genuinely soothing to them, and make the explanations work better for them.

And, as I said, the explanations, stripped of the annoying bits, are outstanding. So I definitely recommend it to people who would like a better understanding of how relativity, particularly special relativity, works in modern physics. Just, you know, when you get to the bits where they tell you how the next bit has some math, and you can skip it if you like? Skip those bits.