Let’s start with the good stuff. Keith Ashworth has assembled a detailed alternative to special and general relativity (and something of a variant on quantum theory as well). This is to be applauded – no scientist should be unhappy when someone challenges one of the big theories of the time. What’s more, although for a number of reasons detailed below this appears to be a self-published book, it is very professionally done with a good jacket and presentation.
When all things are taken into account, this has to be one of the strangest popular science books ever written. It is not so much a history of science book, as a personal vendetta. You would think that Einstein had personally done something extremely unpleasant to Keith Ashworth from the vehemence with which he attacks the man and his theories. Compare this with many modern biographies of Newton, which certainly don’t pull the punches in making it clear what an unpleasant person he was, nor do they fail to show where his science was plain wrong, but you don’t get a feeling of distaste about the person covered. With this book it appears to be personal – Ashworth really doesn’t like Einstein and it shows.
Apart from taking on the man, Ashworth’s main point is to disprove special and general relativity. This is not a task for the faint hearted, so I wondered what Ashworth’s credentials were – there are no biographical details in the book (the flap that would normally provide them only gives a credit for the illustrations) so it is difficult for the reader to judge where he is coming from. On enquiring, Ashworth has secondary school physics. In itself this isn’t a problem for a popular science writer. Bill Bryson, for example wouldn’t claim to know anything about science, yet his A Short History of Nearly Everything is excellent. However, there are worrying flaws that emerge early on in What Einstein.
One is Ashworth’s history of science. In his introduction, complaining about the adulation that Einstein has received, he comments that Einstein is still revered as a genius ‘equal in stature to the more circumspect great men of science typified by Galileo and Newton.’ While there’s no doubt these two were the great amonst greats, to call either of them circumspect shows a lack of knowledge of history of science. Galileo was one of the most blatant self-publicists in science, while Newton’s vitriolic attacks on other scientists were hardly the mark of a circumspect man. The unease soon also stretches to Ashworth’s solidity in physics. He repeatedly refers to relativity in early chapters as if the relativity in ‘special relativity’ referred to the relativity of space and time, rather than the same context as Galilean relativity. After slating Aristotle (fairly) he speaks of centrifugal force, a misunderstanding that perpetuates Aristotle’s ideas of motion, as if it had the same validity as centripetal force, and he repeatedly seems to miss the basis on Maxwell’s derivation of the electromagnetic nature of light that require it to move at constant speed.
It would be tedious to mention every suspect comment but take this one, trying to show that the symmetrical nature of relativity is false: ‘… when he first became obsessed with relative motion [Einstein] would often facetiously enquire about a train’s departure time by asking some bewildering question such as “What time does the station leave the train?” Although he regarded such banter as the key to understanding relativity, it never troubled him that the passengers on the platform, unlike those on the train, are not subject to any perceptible additional force due to the station’s acceleration relative to the train.’ Given that the people are on the Earth, which has rather more mass than the train, it’s hardly surprising that the force (proportional as it is to mass) they feel is imperceptible. It doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
The book starts with a couple of chapters of biography on Einstein, which (if you accept the animosity) matches the generally told story, before launching into its first theoretical chapter on the nature of relativity. There’s a lot of theory. The book has 389 pages before you get to the index and these are tight packed with relatively small text. Points are made at great length, often with nowhere near enough context and rather too much working for a popular science book – if it weren’t for the constant attacks on Einstein, and the emotive adjectives and adverbs, it feels in places more like an elementary textbook than a popular science title. Unfortunately on a fairly regular basis there is a statement that suggests the author doesn’t really understand the subject, and is basing his arguments on a false premise. So, for example, in his description of time dilation he says ‘Astonishingly, when Einstein had claimed that the faster one moves relative to the speed of light, the slower time passes… he had negligently failed to realise than one cannot move relative to speed.’ This totally misses the point. The relative velocity is relative to another observer, not ‘relative to the speed of light.’ Similarly he argues against time dilation as if the time dilation occurs in the frame of reference of the person for whom the dilation is observed, rather than the frame of reference of the ‘fixed’ observer. This certainly renders special relativity nonsensical – but it’s not what Einstein said.
I feel a strange dichotomy about this book. In one sense it was a real page turner. As Ashworth reveals his distaste for time dilation and the other implications of the constant speed of light, I am mentally saying ‘how is he going to get round this? How will he attempt to disprove all the many experiments that have verified relativity, from time shifts in atomic clocks to the mesons that only manage to get through our atmosphere because time dilation vastly extends their lifespan from our viewpoint?’ The answer is by either ignoring the questions, coming up with strange reasons that the results matched Einstein’s predictions, or saying, for instance that the GPS satellite network didn’t have to correct for relativity effects – which it did. Similarly, the author seems to totally misunderstand quantum theory, appearing to think that the uncertainty is about measurement, not inherent in the nature of quantum particles. Which presumably means he thinks other outstanding geniuses like Richard Feynman also got it wrong. Sadly, this book doesn’t manage any elucidation of either Einstein’s character or the realities of relativity, because the author’s ideas don’t carry any weight.
Although a glossy, well produced book, there are one or two giveaways that suggest it’s self-published. The website of the ‘publishing company’ is named after the book and only seems to have published one title. The lack of author details adds to the suspicion, as do one or two other technical peculiarities in the book’s prelims. Just being published by an established publisher doesn’t make a book’s content worthwhile. Just take a look in the astrology section of any bookshop. But this adds to the concern that this book really isn’t very helpful to anyone trying to understand science. As mentioned above, you don’t need to be a great scientist to write popular science. But if you aren’t, it helps to be a good writer, and to be explaining other people’s science, not attempting to devise your own.
Review by Martin O'Brien