July 30, 2009


Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw. Da Capo. $24.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Demystified: An Essential Guide for Understanding and Living with OCD. By Cheryl Carmin, Ph.D. Da Capo. $15.95.

     There is a reason the equation E=mc2 is the best-known physics formulation in the world – for many people, the only known one. It is simple, easy to remember and elegant, even for people to whom its actual meaning is obscure. People who understand what the equation means – the energy that binds an object equals the object’s mass times the square of the speed of light – are likely to be even more impressed with its elegance and simplicity. But go just the tiniest bit beyond the equation itself, to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and things quickly get murky for almost all non-physicists. To the rescue come particle physicist Brian Cox and University of Manchester theoretical-physics professor Jeff Forshaw, who despite their formidable accomplishments and obviously outstanding intellects are willing – and able – to unravel some Einsteinian thinking for the benefit of mere mortals. Why Does E=mc2? is a joy to read in part because of its juxtaposition of breeziness with complexity. On one page, Cox and Forshaw write, “Einstein was still working at the patent office in 1906, where his reward for changing our view of the universe forever was to be promoted to technical expert, second class.” On another, they analyze the time-stretching effect of a real-world train ride: “If the train is moving at 300 kilometers per hour, then you can check that v2 / c2 is a very tiny number: 0.000000000000077. To get the ‘time stretching’ factor γ we need 1 /[square root of] 0.000000000000077 = 1.000000000000039. As expected, it is a tiny effect: Traveling for 100 years on the train would only extend your lifetime by a matter of 0.000000000000039 years according to your friend on the platform, which is slightly above one-tenth of a millisecond.” After four chapters of their complex but lively presentation, they arrive at the question posed in the title of their book: “All of this talk of objects in spacetime may sound rather abstract but there is a point to it.” Using a billiard-ball example, they explain what Einstein’s equation really means, and in particular the importance of its “energy” component: “Ask someone on the street to explain what energy is and you’ll get either a sensible answer or a pile of steaming New Age nonsense.” And then they move to a chapter called, “And Why Should We Care? Of Atoms, Mousetraps, and the Power of the Stars,” in which they discuss real-world and out-of-this-world applications of Einstein’s formulation, eventually getting into some detail regarding the remarkable experiments planned using Europe’s highly ambitious Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Cox in fact heads a project at the LHC; he and Forshaw clearly know whereof they speak – although at this point they must speak speculatively, since the LHC encountered problems at startup last year and is not expected to be operational until sometime this fall. Nevertheless, the excitement associated with this project – and the excitement felt by physicists as they delve into the secrets of the universe by any means – are everywhere apparent in Why Does E=mc2? Reading it is an intellectually exhilarating experience.

     Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Demystified is a more ordinary book about a more everyday matter – and is more likely to have real-world applicability to many people’s day-to-day lives. Cheryl Carmin directs both the Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has considerable first-hand experience both in treating OCD and in researching its causes. She tends to write using clinical language that may be off-putting, or at least distancing, for some readers: “OCD involves experiencing repetitive thoughts that range from annoying to extremely distressing and responding to those thoughts with similarly repetitive behaviors or thoughts – also called rituals. This approach does have the advantage of sounding objective in the discussion of a condition that is experienced subjectively and, partly for that reason, can be difficult to diagnose and treat. The difficulty has to do with OCD existing on a spectrum of order and disorder: “While most of us want clean clothes and a home where things are arranged so that we can find them easily, people with OCD take their symmetry and ordering compulsions to the extreme, becoming distressed whenever they are prevented from achieving their notion of what constitutes ideal symmetry or order.” Despite her penchant for long sentences, Carmin is capable at times of refreshing directness, as when she opens a section on trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder) with the simple statement, “Our hair adorns us.” And she does include some case histories, which are easier going than many of her analyses. The most useful parts of the book are ones that can actually be used diagnostically or in treatment – by people with OCD themselves or by ones with OCD family members. There is, for example, an “exposure hierarchy” form that is filled out to indicate anxiety-generating triggers that result in ritual behavior. Carmin also discusses varieties of OCD (comparing the pediatric form with the adult type, for instance), talks about the pluses and minuses of medication, and offers a list of resources to which families can turn for further help. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Demystified gets a (+++) rating: although highly useful for people dealing with OCD (their own or someone else’s), it can be somewhat difficult to wade through, and Carmin’s attempt to be comprehensive means that readers will have to seek out sections relevant to their particular circumstances. The good news is that readers who do find the elements that are applicable to their own situations can count on finding ideas and advice that are both intelligent and useful.

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