Wednesday, 17 June 2015

In praise of 'general relativity'

This year marks the centenary of Albert Einstein's groundbreaking general theory of relativity. As the C. P. Snow quote on the back of John Gribbin's excellent book on the topic, Einstein's Masterwork points out, 'If Einstein had not created the general theory (in 1915) no one else would have done so... perhaps not for generations.'

Generally speaking I am in total agreement with Dr Gribbin on all matters scientific (it is dangerous to do otherwise, as he is surely the head of the UK science writing equivalent of Cosa Nostra), but there is one point on which I have to part company.

John gets decidedly vexed when someone refers to 'special relativity' or 'general relativity.' He points out that the correct terms are 'the special theory of relativity' and 'the general theory of relativity', and that the contraction is an abomination, because it is the theory that is special or general, not the relativity.

Now scientists are notoriously picky about definitions to avoid error. But I honestly don't think there is a problem here. No one looks at the word and ponders over exactly what is general or special. And it is a very useful contraction to be able to say 'general relativity' when referring to 'the general theory of relativity', just as we make use of many other contractions to avoid being over-wordy.

The reason this occurred to me is that I had written 'Einstein’s gravitational theory, general relativity' in a book due out later this year. As I was checking the proofs, I thought 'John wouldn't like that.' But it would have read much more clumsily as 'Einstein's gravitational theory, the general theory of relativity.'

I am, technically, without doubt in the wrong. But good communication sometimes benefits from slight bending of precision to gain better effect. So long live special relativity and general relativity.

Now, where are the keys to my fallout shelter?

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