Resources to better understand Einstein's Theory of Relativity
June 17, 2014 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm seeking recommendations for documentaries or books that offer more than a layman's explanation of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, but don't require advanced studies in astrophysics to comprehend.

Many of the documentaries I've seen that are readily available on television, Hulu, and Netflix present only very broad principles related to Einstein's Theory of Relativity (and other advanced topics in physics, astronomy, and chemistry). I'm looking for something that can help me dive deeper into the theory, its derivation, and the mathematical proofs of its equations, but isn't at the level of a university text in astrophysics.

I have an undergraduate degrees in mathematics and can generally follow the mathematical elements of Einstein's 1905 paper Does the Inertia of a Body depend upon its Energy-Content?. But, I would like to find some materials that lie somewhere between scientific papers like this and documentaries like Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos.

Other areas of interest also include quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and string theory.
posted by bkpiano to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Larry Gonnick's Cartoon Guide to Physics has a short section on relativity. Maybe that will do?
posted by plinth at 1:26 PM on June 17, 2014

At the more technical end of your range, I've always found the Feynman Lectures to be really clear and well written. They're available for free on-line from CalTech. Relativity is Chapters 15 through 17 of the first volume, though you'll get more out of it if you start with the chapters on classical mechanics first.

The Feynman Lectures were a first-year course when taught originally, but I've always found that the undergrads who get the most out of them are third and fourth years.
posted by bonehead at 1:41 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are bound to have people recommend Stephen Hawking in here, but I would divert you from that and straight to Michio Kaku's Hyperspace. He covers all the basic physics you will need, with exciting, clear and easy to grasp explanations of things like Relativity along the way. Then goes on a crazy voyage into alternate dimensions, quantum theory etc. It's a great book, and prepares the way for more advanced (and up to date) research on M and string theory.
posted by 0bvious at 1:43 PM on June 17, 2014

As a physics undergrad, I used a short book by John Wheeler and Edwin Taylor as one of my textbooks on special relativity. It wasn't written like a typical physics textbook, and was generally very readable. I wasn't able to find that book online, but here is something by Wheeler & Taylor that looks like it might be worth checking out. Indeed, I apparently used an earlier edition of this book (I recall it had a plain red cover), and in a few moments' Googling it seems that the consensus is that the earlier edition was superior. Note also that the book is listed as $96 new on Amazon, which is nuts. Maybe you can find a used copy of this or the older edition somewhere online.
posted by lex mercatoria at 1:47 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Classical Theory of Fields by Landau and Lifshitz introduces special and general relativity pretty rigorously. Much of it is probably too advanced, but Chapters 1 and 2 give a readable (and, importantly, precise) presentation of the special theory of relativity that I think is accessible to someone with an undergrad math major.

Not on your list, but Richard Feynman's QED lectures given in Auckland in 1979 (1,2, 3, 4; or here) are my favorite public physics lectures of all time (they were transcribed into a book). Watch a couple of minutes here where he discusses whether you will understand his lecture or not.
posted by pjenks at 2:12 PM on June 17, 2014

Physics professor here. The first thing to clarify is that "Einstein's relativity" is generally divided into two parts: Special Relativity and General Relativity. For special relativity, you really only need high-school algebra to get all of the derivations and equations down (maybe a bit of calculus if you're getting really fancy). Thomas Moore's A Traveler's Guide to Spacetime is a favorite of mine. It's designed to supplement an introductory high school or college physics course, and discusses special relativity quite thoroughly (not shying away from the proofs or equations.) I think it's probably the kind of thing you're looking for. It's out of print, but there are plenty of used copies on Amazon

General relativity is harder. James Hartle's Gravity: An Introduction to Einstein's General Relativity is probably the best textbook if you want to get a more technical grasp of the subject but don't necessary want to get into the mathematical weeds — and the mathematical weeds required to understand GR the way most physicists do are very deep indeed. But it's still a college-level textbook, and you would need a good grasp of single-variable calculus to get the most out of it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:22 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Lawrence Krauss on Life, the Universe and Nothing may help your grasp of the relationship of mass-energy in a provocative and entertaining lecture.
posted by hortense at 4:20 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'll take the bait and recommend Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. I've read it twice, once when I was fifteen, and once around 25, and both times I found it accessible and interesting. It may actually be a bit too accessible if you've been reading Einstein's original paper, but that means you may just breeze through the text instead of having to do some heavy mental lifting like I did. Either way, I think you would enjoy it.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 3:38 AM on June 18, 2014

N. David Mermin has both a text ("Space and time in special relativity", I think) and a more recent popular book (I don't recall its title). The text is a short little pink book that I have always loved since I was an undergrad myself. I dont know much about the popular book, but I like his explanatory style so that bodes well.
posted by nat at 2:31 AM on June 19, 2014

Einstein's own popularization is quite good.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:49 AM on June 21, 2014

Spacetime Physics was written for you. Sorry about the price.
posted by dfan at 4:13 PM on June 21, 2014

The General Theory of Relativity: A Mathematical Exposition by Anadijiban Das and Andrew DeBenedictis is quite good.
posted by godugu at 11:29 AM on June 26, 2014

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