I teach physics at a community college and have developed a new course titled "Relativity for Poets," which I will be teaching for the first time in spring 2015. As implied by the title, it's a nonmathematical gen ed class (without a lab) for non-science majors, about relativity. I'm covering both SR and GR, and I also have to provide a lot of background knowledge that in theory my students would have learned if they went to a decent junior high school, but that in reality many of them won't know. For example, I expect to have to tell them that light is a wave and that white light is a mixture of all the rainbow colors. This is not a problem-solving course, and students will not be assigned any work outside of class that involves calculating anything. The course has a math prerequisite that is plane geometry plus a very basic algebra course (similar to what students in California are required to take in 9th grade). In reality many students will not be able to do basic math such as metric conversions or fractions.

The core of any presentation of relativity is going to be a careful, thorough presentation of kinematics in SR, and for this I'm planning to use Takeuchi (see list of books below) whose treatment of kinematics I really like.

What I'm still looking around for are two or three additional, inexpensive books covering:

  • dynamics in SR
  • general relativity
  • cosmology
  • general science background

For dynamics in SR, I'm not satisfied with Takeuchi's treatment, which seems to me to be poorly motivated. For GR, I'm considering Geroch, but it's a bit dry, makes no contact with experiment, and presents a particular form of the metric in what seems to me to be an overly mysterious way. I like Hewitt's presentation of GR, cosmology, and general science background, but I can't ask them to buy such an expensive book when it's only going to be one small part of the course.

When I teach courses for science majors, I've been assigning chapters from Gardner as supplementary (required) reading, and my students have always volunteered that it was fun to read. However, it's extremely out of date and inaccurate on cosmology and tests of relativity, and it uses relativistic mass, which is a disease that I'd rather not pass on to future generations.

I like Will and Weinberg, but they're both quite out of date, and both contain a lot of material that I wouldn't actually cover. I requested a review copy of Steane, and although I like some things about it, I felt that it was disorganized and that the text was too full of calculations, from which most readers at this level would not be able to abstract out the relevant points.

To get the course set up so it would transfer to the four-year schools in our state (California), I had to show that there was something at least somewhat similar being offered in the UC or Cal State system. This was tough, since such courses are thin on the ground (I was in fact very surprised that it got articulated by both systems), but UC Riverside has Physics 7: Space-Time, Relativity, and Cosmology. UCR uses Drakos, which I haven't been able to find out about; it may be out of print, or it may be an instructor's unpublished notes.

Can anyone suggest books for this type of course that would cover some of the areas where I have gaps? I'm hoping to keep the total cost of all the books under \$100, preferably more like \$60-80. I would consider upping the price tag if there was a book that was extremely compelling and perfectly matched to my needs.

books referred to above

  • Drakos, From Antiquity to Einstein
  • Gardner, Relativity Simply Explained
  • Geroch, General Relativity from A to B
  • Hewitt, Conceptual Physics
  • Steane, The Wonderful World of Relativity
  • Takeuchi, An Illustrated Guide to Relativity
  • Weinberg, The First Three Minutes
  • Will, Was Einstein Right?
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ amazon.com/Geometry-Relativity-Fourth-Dimension-Mathematics/dp/…, good one, swiftean humour and philosophy added as well $\endgroup$
    – Nikos M.
    Oct 26, 2014 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ plus some of feynman lectures on relativity $\endgroup$
    – Nikos M.
    Oct 26, 2014 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ @NikosM.: Rucker looks interesting. I'll check it out. But the Feynman Lectures are IMO completely at the wrong level for this course. These are community college students majoring in business, music, etc. $\endgroup$
    – user4552
    Oct 26, 2014 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ yeah, the flatlanders (and the sequel) is brilliant imo $\endgroup$
    – Nikos M.
    Oct 26, 2014 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not familiar with the american system, what kind of things would you expect out of a 9th grade? For instance, do you expect them to be familiar with trigonometry, polynomials and matrices? And what about euclidean geometry, both in synthetic and coordinate (cartesian) approach? I guess even basic calculus is off right? Before giving a through answer I would say it seems like you could build a course based on basic geometry, like showing how the twins paradox is just Pythagoras theorem (actually triangular inequality) with the wrong sign and such things. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2014 at 0:14

3 Answers 3


I created this site early in 2014:


The site was built specifically for people who aren't keen on math.


I have used: "Relativity: A very short introduction"; Russell Stannard, OUP, to teach relativity to (interested) members of the general public, with some success.


It really is very short - only 128 pages, but covers the main ideas of both Special and General Relativity. I find the explanations very clear. Of course it lacks ALL mathematical rigour - there is a bit of geometry, obviously Pythagoras, lots of thought experiments; very little on cosmology.

I went through this in 2hrs per chapter - about 8 evening classes in total. Maybe a bit flimsy for what you need, but its fun and really not intimidating.

Oh, and the other major advantage is it's cheap! A mere 8 pounds in the UK.

Here is the table of contents.

1: Special relativity

The Principle of Relativity and the speed of light

Time dilation

The Twin Paradox

Length contraction

Loss of simultaneity

Space-time diagrams

Four-dimensional spacetime

The ultimate speed


2: General Relativity

The Equivalence Principle

The effects on time of acceleration and gravity

The bending of light

Curved space

Black holes

Gravitational Waves

The Universe

Further reading


  • $\begingroup$ I illegally obtained a copy of Stannard, and it seems to suit my purposes well enough that I think I'll use it as one of my required texts. It has two things that are lacking in Takeuchi: contact with experiment, and coverage of GR and cosmology. The treatment of special-relativistic kinematics is outdated IMO, but that's OK because I like Takeuchi for that purpose. I'm not satisfied with either book's treatment of dynamics in SR, but I guess I can fill that in. $\endgroup$
    – user4552
    Oct 27, 2014 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Ben Crowell I recall having to fill in a bit on the mass-energy equivalence. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Oct 27, 2014 at 23:55

i would like to provide another answer (despite my comments on top or complementary to them)

i would propose to use a historical account of the evolution of the concepts and ideas/methods in physics from Newtonian mechanics to Relativistic mechanics, including the specific problems that arised (this provides two things: 1. a perspective on the methods and concepts, plus 2. hands-on real world examples that were the triggers of these developments).

The various alternatives developed (why they failed) and why special relativity succeeded in this respect.

Then develop the time dilation/length contraction concepts (and how they would relate to experiments like the Michelson-Morley and the aether). Inertial frames of reference, light paths, light cones, past and future. Causality in special relativity.

Then the follow-up on General Relativity, the three crucial tests of GR (maybe doing some of the calculations as well or approximations thereof or even a summary of the calculations).

The relation of GR to cosmology (mention some of the paradoxes, like twin paradoxes and how they are resolved by non-inertial frames).

Its conceptual (and mathematical) framework and where it stands on (or disagrees with) current physics (maybe mention the problem of time in quantum gravity?)

This elucidates both the physics and the mathematical framework (or equivalent ones).

Recommended books:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Evolution_of_Physics (Einstein, Infeld) (not one equation by the creator himself and his collaborator)





Some references: