Five Books on Relativity and Cosmology

By Sean Carroll | July 20, 2011 8:07 am

A website called The Browser has been doing a fun collection of interviews, where they ask experts in different fields to recommend five books, either starting points for non-experts or books that they were influenced by themselves. Read Randall Grahm on wine, Jim Shepard on short stories, Deborah Blum on science and society, or Qiu Xiaolong on classical Chinese poetry.

They asked me about relativity and cosmology, and I decided it would be more helpful to pick recent books that would bring people up to date rather than go for the classics I was reading back in the 70’s. Some of these books aren’t light reading, but it’s a matter of dedication rather than preparation; I think an interested and intelligent person who didn’t know anything about relativity or cosmology could read these and come away with some deep insights.

Image of The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality Image of The Inflationary Universe Image of Einstein's Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe Image of Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (Commonwealth Fund Book Program) Image of The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics

For more thoughts, check out the full interview.

Update: for obvious reasons, it wouldn’t be considered quite kosher to recommend one’s own books in an interview like this. This has led to the misimpression that I think my books are less than the very best. Not so!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Top Posts, Words
  • Navneeth

    For someone who is currently reading The Trouble with Physics, you did a good job of making me consider Greene’s second pop-sci book. Guth is one which I read during my last year in (high-)school about a decade ago, and Thorne’s book is something I’ve been wanting to read since that time but never got around to doing it.

  • Jonas

    Thanks, I had not heard about Evalyn Gates book, I will have to check it out.
    Are there any runners up to the five that you would like to mention?

  • rob

    Great to see Black Holes & Time Warps still getting shine after all these years. It’s a fantastic book and still quite timely with gravitational wave astronomy finally becoming a reality. It’s the first book I recommend to people who want a popular treatment of GR and black holes.

    I’m a little disappointed not to see The Road to Reality listed. Despite his occasional brushes with, uhh, extravagant ideas, Penrose still seems to me like the best expositor of fundamental physics around today, and The Road to Reality is the best example of that talent. On the other hand, given the size and meatiness of the book, it’s a little hard to really consider it a popular-level account. I guess those people who are really ready for it are likely to find it on their own.

  • Sean

    Jonas– There are many other great books (not even including my own!). I was disappointed not to be able to include some of my slightly older favorites: Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way, and Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes. More recently, Richard Panek’s The Four Percent Universe is great.

  • tacitus

    I’ll second Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way as a wonderful retelling of the history of cosmology. His updated The Whole Shebang (which I guess is a little dated now) is also highly recommended for anyone with a passing interest in cosmology.

  • Roger

    Susskind’s book is a long argument about something that is not really even a scientific question. He claims to have won the argument by persuading some of his buddies, but not by any proof or experiment.

  • Sili

    I’m working my way through Gravity and it’s kinda fun to read something so thorough from a time before the third quark/lepton family and of course Dark Energy.

    Would you recommend your own book if I want another perspective on the basics and an update, or are these five good enough?

  • Sean

    I would recommend my own book before anything else. But then, I wrote it, right?

  • Mars

    I learnt general relativity from Hartle’s “Gravity: An Introduction to Einstein’s General Relativity” and your book. I think for beginning graduate level general relativity your book is the best. For more advanced topics Wald’s book is great as well.

  • Thomas

    1. Why is Spacetime and Geometry so expensive? 2. What is your view on the VSL hypothesis?

  • Missy

    Unfortunately the only one I have of those is your book From Eternity to Here that you signed for me at the Griffith Observatory 😛

  • Sili

    I didn’t mean to imply that your book is inferior. But my qualities as a student are.

    Thanks, Mars. That’s what the reviews on Amazon said as well.

  • Chris J.

    I’m actually in the process of reading Spacetime and Geometry (Just made it to chapter 3 a few days ago!) and I absolutely love it. I have been learning GR in my spare time for about 9 months and just managed to pick up a copy recently after trying (And failing) to go through Wald.

    I especially like the part on manifolds and differential forms. I took a semester long course in differential geometry and didn’t really understand any of it intuitively until I read yours and Schutz’ A First Course In General Relativity.

    My only complaint is that there are no hints/solutions to the exercises. This is very frustrating when you’re trying to learn this on your own without having anything to check it against.

  • Sili

    Thanks, Chris J,

    That sounds good. I too had a short course using forms, but I never had much of an intution for them. Misner, Thorner and Wheeler certainly made them a bit more comprehensible to me. I still tend to think of them as something that eats vectors, though.

  • Shantanu

    Sean, you missed some other classics

    Its about discovery of Kerr solution and this is the onlly book which discusses how this tour de force solution was discovered.

  • Chris J.

    @ Sili

    MTW’s section on forms and tensors is excellent as well. Reading it was actually the first time that I could picture what a differential form was and how it acted on a vector. Forms are “planes” and however many times the vector “pierces” the plane is the real number you get out. Although, I’m pretty sure MTW uses bongs of a bell as an analogy.

    By the way, a good science fiction book dealing with GR is Greg Egan’s Incandescence. It’s about a group of aliens who figure out the geometry of their orbit around a black hole, from inside their planet by doing experiments with weights. It’s actually more exciting than it sounds!

  • Andy Fleming

    The only book I have read here Sean is your From Eternity to Here, and I thought it was very interesting and understandable for this particular lay person! I did try to read Penrose’s Road to Reality and I’m afraid I didn’t get very far having a humanities degree. I’m sure that someone with an academic training in another science discipline, especially maths would find Penrose much more understandable.

    I found Adams and Laughlin’s ‘Five Ages of the Universe’ was an exellent introduction to cosmology for a lay person as is Ferris’s ‘The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe’ and ‘The Whole Shebang’.

  • Tintin

    I would recommend Jean-Pierre Luminet’s “L’univers chiffoné,” recently, and ably translated into English as “The Wraparound Universe” (2008). Luminet is a leading expert in Cosmology and in the new field of Cosmic Topology…and a published poet.

  • Tom Kaiser

    Even though it’s now more than 40 years old, “Gravitation” by Misner, Thorne and Wheeler deserves to be on the list, I think.

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  • Cragg

    As a non-scientist, or perhaps I should say a “wish I would-a been”, I am fortunate to have read all seven above, and can only say that they are and will forever be classics in bringing the workings of nature to a general population of people who enjoy thinking. In their individual manner, they all tell us how we humans have thought about, think now about, and imagine new ways at getting to a deeper truth.

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  • Balance Scales

    The Black Hole War is the best of the bunch…loved it.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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