Bennett talk Wednesday at SAS: general relativity made easy

Dr. Jeffrey Bennett says you don’t have to have the brain of an Einstein to understand general relativity.

“If you want to deal with all the mathematics of it then it is pretty complex,” Bennett says, “but if you want to just understand it on a conceptual level, it’s not that difficult to get a general grasp of it.”

Bennett, the author of of What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter (Columbia University Press, 2014), will talk about the book, and relativity, at next week’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. The meeting, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. There’s still time to pick up the book, by clicking the link above or the cover to the left, before the talk.

Seattle Astronomy spoke earlier this week with Bennett, an adjunct research associate with the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado. He says his Relativity Tour is a bit of an accident of timing. He’d been thinking about writing a book about relativity for several years. When the book came out last year it was just in time for the centennial of Einstein’s breakthrough, and Bennett decided to do his part for the International Year of Light and help the general public understand general relativity and how it makes so many everyday things possible.

Einstein was right

While Einstein proposed general relativity one hundred years ago, Bennett notes that many people still think of it as new physics, and others still strive to prove Einstein was wrong, but Bennett says that’s not going to happen.

“You can’t do that because it has checked out so much; you can’t make the evidence where it does check out go away,” Bennett explains. “In the same way, Einstein didn’t show Newton to be wrong. What you’re really looking for is to see if we can find a place where Einstein’s theory is not yet complete, and we need something else to take us to that next level.”

A good example of such a place is trying to find agreement between general relativity and quantum physics.

“That’s the known hole in our current understanding,” Bennett says. “Even though both work extremely well in the regimes in which they’ve been tested, they don’t quite meet up, and therefore there must be something else that we have not yet figured out that brings them together.”

Relativity for all audiences

Dr. Jeffrey Bennett

Dr. Jeffrey Bennett

Bennett, a recipient of the American Institute of Physics Science Communication Award in 2013, speaks to a wide variety of audiences, from adults down to elementary school kids, and has written children’s books as well as college texts.

“The commonality across all of the work that I do is that it’s all aimed at people who are not really very familiar with science and math, and in some cases, with the older audiences, maybe thinking they’re sort of afraid of these topics,” he says. “I’m always dealing on that introductory level—what science is and why you should care about it. When you’re dealing with it at that level, it’s not really that different to deal with children or with grownups, because either way you’re dealing with the same lack of knowledge and lack of understanding.”

Bennett recommends the talk he will do Wednesday for people from middle school on up, though he says younger kids often understand it as well.

“Come with an open mind,” he urges. “Even if you think this is something that you can’t understand, I think you’ll find you actually can, so I hope people will come in that spirit.”

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