Science Book a Day Interviews Jeffrey Bennett


Special thanks to Jeffrey Bennett for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter

Jeffrey Bennett holds a B.A. in Biophysics from the University of California at San Diego and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He specializes in mathematics and science education, spending most of his time as a writer, along with speaking to audiences ranging from elementary school children to college faculty, and offering teacher in-service workshops.  He is also the creator and author of the children’s series “Science Adventures with Max the Dog,” which includes Max Goes to the Moon, Max Goes to Mars, and Max Goes to Jupiter, and of The Wizard Who Saved the World. These five children’s titles were selected by the Story Time From Space program as the first set of books to be launched to the International Space Station; launched on Jan. 9, 2014, they are being read by astronauts for children around the world. – Adapted from Jeffrey’s Homepage

Jeffrey’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for What is Relativity?

I’ve been teaching and writing about relativity for nonscience major college students for more than 30 years, and they’ve always told me that they love learning about it, both because it is so “mind blowing” and because they feel empowered when they realize that they can actually understand a topic that has a reputation for being so difficult. So I’ve long wanted to offer the same opportunity for learning about relativity to general readers who don’t happen to be enrolled in a college science class. The fact that next year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of general relativity provided the impetus for me to finally complete the project.

#2 – What is the most common misunderstanding that most people have about relativity?

I’ll have to give you two: The first is the common misconception that the theory says “everything is relative.” It doesn’t; in fact, the heart of the theory lies in two absolutes, namely that everyone experiences the same laws of nature and everyone always measures the same speed for light, regardless of your motion or the motion of the light source. The second common misconception is that relativity is too difficult for the average person to understand. If you are willing to put in just a little effort (such as taking the time to read the book carefully), you’ll find you can understand it no matter how much background you have in physics.

#3 – Your book examines relativity without focusing too much on the mathematics involved. How did you communicate your ideas without too much math?

The concepts of relativity can be understood with little or no mathematics; instead, just as Einstein did, we use a series of “thought experiments” to elucidate the key ideas. Worth noting: Einstein himself regarded the mathematics as a tool used to put relativity on a solid foundation, but not as the essence of the theory.

#4 – Who were you writing this book for? Teachers? The public? Physics enthusiasts?

All the above. I really do believe that everyone should know at least something about relativity, so in that sense it is aimed at the general public. But I’ve found that the subject is particularly inspiring to middle and high school students, since it gives them a sense of the remarkable things we have learned through science; I therefore tried to make sure that it is written at a level that a reasonably bright 8th grader could understand. Of course, the inspiring nature of the subject means the book is also targeted at teachers, who can use it to get their students excited about science. At the same time, I’ve also heard from college physics majors that the book is helpful in giving them conceptual understanding about a subject that their courses generally treat on a much more technical level.

#5 – Are you working on a new project/book that you can tell us about?

Thanks for asking! I have several new projects that I’m exited about. The most exciting is that my five books for children were launched to the International Space Station on January 9 this year, and will continue orbiting Earth for at least several more months as astronauts make videos of themselves reading the books in multiple languages and conduct science demos related to the science content of the books. The videos and associated curriculum materials will all be posted freely on the web through the “Story Time From Space Program” — please “like” the program on Facebook, where you’ll find updated information about it. I’m also just about finished with work on a book called On Teaching Science, which deals with principles and strategies that should be of use to any teacher, administrator, policy maker, or parent involved with science education; it is scheduled to publish on Sept. 1 from Big Kid Science. I’m also making extremely slow progress on a new, all-digital “textbook” for middle school science, which I plan to publish myself. And the bulk of my time goes to work on my college textbooks, with new editions of Life in the Universe and The Cosmic Perspective scheduled for the end of 2015.

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