The Perfect Theory
The State of the Universe

The Perfect Theory

How did one elegant theory incite a scientific revolution? Physicists have been exploring, debating, and questioning the general theory of relativity ever since Albert Einstein first presented it in 1915. Their work has uncovered a number of the universe’s more surprising secrets, and many believe further wonders remain hidden within the theory’s tangle of equations, waiting to be exposed.

In this sweeping narrative of science and culture, astrophysicist Pedro Ferreira brings general relativity to life through the story of the brilliant physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers who have taken up its challenge. For these scientists, the theory has been both a treasure trove and an enigma, fueling a century of intellectual struggle and triumph.. Einstein’s theory, which explains the relationships among gravity, space, and time, is possibly the most perfect intellectual achievement of modern physics, yet studying it has always been a controversial endeavor. Relativists were the target of persecution in Hitler’s Germany, hounded in Stalin’s Russia, and disdained in 1950s America. Even today, PhD students are warned that specializing in general relativity will make them unemployable.

Despite these pitfalls, general relativity has flourished, delivering key insights into our understanding of the origin of time and the evolution of all the stars and galaxies in the cosmos. Its adherents have revealed what lies at the farthest reaches of the universe, shed light on the smallest scales of existence, and explained how the fabric of reality emerges. Dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and string theory are all progeny of Einstein’s theory. We are in the midst of a momentous transformation in modern physics. As scientists look farther and more clearly into space than ever before, The Perfect Theory reveals the greater relevance of general relativity, showing us where it started, where it has led, and where it can still take us.

Published in the UK (Little Brown), US (Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt), Brazil (Companhia das Letras) Germany (C.H.Beck), Holland (Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep), Spain (Anagrama), Italy (Rizzoli), Greece (P. Travlos), Portugal (Presença), Poland (Proszynski Media), China (Hunan Science & Technology Press), Japan (NHK), Korea (Kachi Publishing), Taiwan (Commonwealth) Finland (Terra Cognita) and Russia.

Read an excerpt at Salon or listen to podcasts at the Guardian.

Comments and Reviews

“You couldn't ask for a better guide to the outer reaches of the universe and the inner workings of the minds of those who've navigated it” — Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford and author of The Music of the Primes

“Einstein's beautiful theory is almost a century old, and its ramifications have stimulated a crescendo of discovery ever since. It is now, more than ever, one of the liveliest frontiers of science. Pedro G. Ferreira describes, accessibly and non-technically, how the key breakthroughs have been made, and the personalities who made them. Even readers with zero scientific background will enjoy this finely written survey of one of the greatest of recent scientific endeavours, and get a real feel for the social and human aspects of science” — Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

"This is a fascinating introduction to our present understanding of space, time, and gravity, and to the confusion about how to go about finding a still better theory. Ferreira tells the story without equations or graphs, just well-chosen words about the science and how it grew. I particularly recommend the sketches of scientists in all their curious variety of character traits” — James E. Peebles, Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Emeritus. Professor of Physics, Emeritus

"Although Einstein’s general theory of relativity was undoubtedly the greatest of his many fundamental contributions to physics, it was comparatively little studied by physicists during his lifetime. However, after his death in 1955, the subject blossomed, particularly in the 1960s, leading to an excellent understanding of black holes, gravitational lensing, gravitational waves, and their profound implications for current cosmology and astrophysics. Surprisingly little has been written about the history of this post-Einstein period until now, so Pedro Ferreira’s The Perfect Theory it is especially welcome. It provides us with an enthralling account of the ideas and personalities of those who were involved.” — Sir Roger Penrose, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College

"Einstein's general relativity is a theory of unrivaled elegance and simplicity. But the history of general relativity is messy, unpredictable, and occasionally dramatic. Pedro G. Ferreira is an expert guide to the twists and turns scientists have gone through in a quest to understand space and time “— Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist and author of The Particle at the End of the Universe

“The Perfect Theory is a rollicking good read. We watch as Einstein's brilliant successors struggle and squabble about everything from black holes to quantum gravity. With crisp explanations and narrative flair, Ferreira offers us a fun, fresh take on a magnificent part of modern science” — Steven Strogatz, Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of x

"Pedro G. Ferreira portrays a community ensnared by a single great idea. His telling is incredibly thorough while still beautiful, deeply considered and affecting. With vivid detail, he brings to life the awesome story of one of humanity's greatest achievements” — Janna Levin, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College, Columbia University and author of How the Universe Got Its Spots

"With palpable delight, Ferreira details false starts, chance discoveries, and the vindication of long-ridiculed ideas that emerged from the work that predicted singularities, M-theory, and dark energy . . . Ferreira's clear explanations offer a wonderful look into a world of those who tackle the hard math that is "the key to understanding the history of the universe, the origin of time, and the evolution of . . . the cosmos." — Publishers Weekly

"No book better prepares armchair physicists for the intellectual excitement ahead!” — Booklist

"One of the best popular accounts of how Einstein and his followers have been trying to explain the universe for decades” — Kirkus Reviews

"Pedro G. Ferreira offers an accessible history of Einstein's theory of relativity in The Perfect Theory.” — Irish Times, Highlights of 2014 - Arminta Wallace

"Ferreira lucidly sketches several attempts to generalize Einstein’s theory, including string theory, which both describes gravity and offers an explanation of why it exists. Although enormously promising and mathematically rich, string theory is unpopular among some physicists in part because of the extreme difficulty of putting it to test, at least in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, good old general relativity — once regarded as too recondite to be worth studying — is now the framework for planning and interpreting many astronomical experiments, as Ferreira describes in a moving coda.”- Graham Farmelo, Nature

"The Perfect Theory is a good title for the book, with GR remaining our best example of a beautiful, powerful fundamental physical theory, based on the deepest mathematical ideas, with almost no free parameters. Ferreira does a great job of leading readers through the story so far of this amazing theory.”- Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong (Blog).

Ferreira has a writer’s sense for when he’s getting a bit too technical ... and always leavens the science with intriguing glimpses at the underlying psychological and sociological forces driving scientific progress."-Jesse Singal, Boston Globe.

“... it's been a heck of a century for relativity, and "The Perfect Theory" is a perfect guide for this most beloved branch of modern physics.”- Sam Kean, Wall Street Journal.

In The Perfect Theory, Ferreira masterfully portrays the science and scientists behind general relativity's star-crossed history and argues that even now we are only just beginning to realize its vitality as a tool for understanding the cosmos.” - Lee Billings, Scientific American

"Prof Ferreira is an outstanding storyteller, and the tales here reveal more about how science really works than any number of textbooks.”

The State of the Universe

It is science's last and greatest challenge: fathoming the depths of the night sky. The objective: to crack the cosmic code, to unravel the blueprint for nature's grandest conception, a machine constructed on an unimaginably vast scale - the Universe itself.

Vast - and also complex? Today's model of an expanding Universe - the big bang cosmology - is actually built on principles derived from a few simple mathematical equations. Gravity-warped space-time, quantum mechanics, the physics of the subatomic - these crucial insights, stemming from Einstein's revolutionary theories of relativity, have led to a simple and elegant framework within which the whole of the Universe, over billions of years, has been described. But recent evidence has begun to make wrinkles in the neat fabric of the big bang cosmology. There is now overwhelming evidence that there is far more stuff in the Universe than we can see. What, and where, is this 'dark matter'? And it now appears that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating: something out there - some exotic 'dark energy' - is acting against gravity to push space and time apart.

While offering a critical view of how all the pieces in our current model fit together, Pedro Ferreira argues that Einstein's Universe may be just another stepping stone towards a new, more profound and effective cosmology in the future.

Comments and Reviews

An intellectually exciting and eminently readable tour of cosmology. - Joseph Silk, Savilian Professor of Astronomy, University of Oxford.

Pedro Ferreira’s well-organised and commanding [The State of the Universe] tackles a dense and complex subject with commendable clarity but without sacrificing any scientific rigour. If you want to encounter and start to comprehend the known - and suspected - wonders of the Universe, then this enriching book should be your first port of call. - Jim Crace, novelist.

Deeply interesting - THE GUARDIAN

Pedro Ferreira gives an expert tour of the universe we know and, even more fascinating, of the universe we don’t: a cosmos of unknown dark energy and dark matter, even dark dimensions. Beneath taut, economical prose, is warmth and charm. The result is a lovely and engaging book. - Janna Levin, Professor of Physics at Columbia University and Barnard College.

Authoritative, accurate, clear and up to date -THE INDEPENDENT

This book, beautifully and imaginatively written, was a revelation and inspiration. I never got beyond O level maths but I think I understood there is currently an intellectual battle going on between the idea of dark matter, slowing the Universe down, and dark energy pushing everything further apart. Meanwhile, in between, are elliptic nebulae, strings of misalignment, and lightpaths, through paving flags of space that’s never empty. I found it completely riveting. - Ruth Padel, poet and writer

Ferreira does a good job of balancing the likely with the improbable.- FINANCIAL TIMES

Clearly written, bang up to date, endlessly fascinating. Excellent. - Alex James, journalist, bassist in Blur.

A short, clear and logical introduction which assumes no background knowledge and uses simple analogies to explain unfamiliar ideas. - OXFORD TODAY

It is a clear, no-frills introduction to cosmology, just as Ferreira intended. - SKY AND TELESCOPE.