E=mc~2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equationby David Bodanis
Bodanis begins by devoting chapters to each of the equation's letters and symbols, introducing the science and scientists forming the backdrop to Einstein's discoveryfrom Ole Roemer's revelation that the
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Already climbing the bestseller lists-and garnering rave reviewsthis "little masterpiece" sheds brilliant light on the equation that changed the world.
Bodanis begins by devoting chapters to each of the equation's letters and symbols, introducing the science and scientists forming the backdrop to Einstein's discoveryfrom Ole Roemer's revelation that the speed of light could be measured to Michael Faraday's pioneering work on energy fields. Having demystified the equation, Bodanis explains its science and brings it to life historically, making clear the astonishing array of discoveries and consequences it made possible. It would prove to be a beacon throughout the twentieth century, important to Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the structure of the atom, Enrico Fermi, who probed the nucleus, and Lise Meitner, who finally understood how atoms could be split wide open. And it has come to inform our daily lives, governing everything from the atomic bomb to a television's cathode-ray tube to the carbon dating of prehistoric paintings.
In his introduction, author David Bodanis relates the story of the genesis of this book. He was reading an interview with Cameron Diaz where the interviewer asked if there was anything else the actress wanted to know, and she said, "What does E=mc2 really mean?" Dubbed in the subtitle "The World's Most Famous Equation," E=mc2 falls into the larger category of things people feel they should comprehend. As Bodanis points out, it seems like Albert Einstein's little formula should be understandable -- after all, it only consists of five symbols! The first part of the book takes each of those five symbols in turn and explains its history. E stands for energy; = for equals; m for mass; c for the speed of light; and the superscript 2 for squared. There was a time before any of these symbols existed; even the = sign had a sputtering start. It is only in the past couple of hundred years that humanity has come to understand that energy is something to be measured and that it has the ability to change. These properties were discovered and refined by people like Michael Faraday, who in the 19th century made the connection between electricity and magnetism. Likewise, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier -- whom Bodanis characterizes as "an accountant with a soul that could soar" -- was instrumental in observing the conservation of mass. These discoveries laid the foundation for Einstein's astonishing insight that energy and mass can actually convert into each other. The speed of light (186,000 miles per second) multiplied by itself is a pretty hefty number, so it doesn't take very much mass to convert into a vast amount of energy. Bodanis continues with a concise chronology of how that knowledge was turned into history's most infamous weapon, the atomic bomb, recounting such exploits as the World War II raid to disable Germany's heavy-water plant. That same equation has been with us always, though. Long before the Manhattan Project, E=mc2 made the stars shine -- including our own star, the sun.
E=mc2 accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. By the end, readers know what the equation is and what it does, without having to swim through a lot of other theories and equations.
--Laura Wood, Science & Nature Editor
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Read an Excerpt
Part 1, Birth
13 April 1901
Professor Wilhelm Ostwald
University of Leipzig
Esteemed Herr Professor!
Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interest of his son.
I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that . . . he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means. . . .
I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to . . . write him, if possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and working.
If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant's position for now or the next autumn, my gratitude would know no bounds. . . .
I am also taking the liberty of mentioning that my son does not know anything about my unusual step.
I remain, highly esteemed Herr Professor,
No answer from Professor Ostwald was ever received.
The world of 1905 seems distant to us now, but there were many similarities to life today. European newspapers complained that there were too many American tourists, while Americans were complaining that there were too many immigrants. The older generation everywhere complained that the young were disrespectful, while politicians in Europe and America worried about the disturbing turbulence in Russia. There were newfangled "aerobics" classes; there was a trend-setting vegetarian society, and calls for sexual freedom (which were rebuffed by traditionalists standing for family values), and much else.
The year 1905 was also when Einstein wrote a series of papers that changed our view of the universe forever. On the surface, he seemed to have been leading a pleasant, quiet life until then. He had often been interested in physics puzzles as a child, and was now a recent university graduate, easygoing enough to have many friends. He had married a bright fellow student, Mileva, and was earning enough money from a civil service job in the patent office to spend his evenings and Sundays in pub visits, or long walks-above all, he had a great deal of time to think.
Although his father's letter hadn't succeeded, a friend of Einstein's from the university, Marcel Grossman, had pulled the right strings to get Einstein the patent job in 1902. Grossman's help was necessary not so much because Einstein's final university grades were unusually low-through cramming with the ever-useful Grossman's notes, Einstein had just managed to reach a 4.91 average out of a possible 6, which was almost average-but because one professor, furious at Einstein for telling jokes and cutting classes, had spitefully written unacceptable references. Teachers over the years had been irritated by his lack of obedience, most notably Einstein's high school Greek grammar teacher, Joseph Degenhart, the one who has achieved immortality in the history books through insisting that "nothing would ever become of you." Later, when told it would be best if he left the school, Degenhart had explained, "Your presence in the class destroys the respect of the students."
Outwardly Einstein appeared confident, and would joke with his friends about the way everyone in authority seemed to enjoy putting him down. The year before, in 1904, he had applied for a promotion from patent clerk third class to patent clerk second class. His supervisor, Dr. Haller, had rejected him, writing in an assessment that although Einstein had "displayed some quite good achievements," he would still have to wait "until he has become fully familiar with mechanical engineering."
In reality, though, the lack of success was becoming serious. Einstein and his wife had given away their first child, a daughter born before they were married, and were now trying to raise the second on a patent clerk's salary. Einstein was twenty-six. He couldn't even afford the money for part-time help to let his wife go back to her studies. Was he really as wise as his adoring younger sister, Maja, had told him?
He managed to get a few physics articles published, but they weren't especially impressive. He was always aiming for grand linkages-his very first paper, published back in 1901, had tried to show that the forces controlling the way liquid rises up in a drinking straw were similar, fundamentally, to Newton's laws of gravitation. But he could not quite manage to get these great linkages to work, and he got almost no response from other physicists. He wrote to his sister, wondering if he'd ever make it.
Even the hours he had to keep at the patent office worked against him. By the time he got off for the day, the one science library in Bern was usually closed. How would he have a chance if he couldn't even stay up to date with the latest findings? When he did have a few free moments during the day, he would scribble on sheets he kept in one drawer of his desk-which he jokingly called his department of theoretical physics. But Haller kept a strict eye on him, and the drawer stayed closed most of the time. Einstein was slipping behind, measurably, compared to the friends he'd made at the university. He talked with his wife about quitting Bern and trying to find a job teaching high school. But even that wasn't any guarantee: he had tried it before, only four years earlier, but never managed to get a permanent post.
And then, on what Einstein later remembered as a beautiful day in the spring of 1905, he met his best friend, Michele Besso ("I like him a great deal," Einstein wrote, "because of his sharp mind and his simplicity"), for one of their long strolls on the outskirts of the city. Often they just gossiped about life at the patent office, and music, but today Einstein was uneasy. In the past few months a great deal of what he'd been thinking about had started coming together, but there was still something Einstein felt he was very near to understanding but couldn't quite see. That night Einstein still couldn't quite grasp it, but the next day he suddenly woke up, feeling "the greatest excitement."
It took just five or six weeks to write up a first draft of the article, filling thirty-some pages. It was the start of his theory of relativity. He sent the article to Annalen der Physik to be published, but a few weeks later, he realized that he had left something out. A three-page supplement was soon delivered to the same physics journal. He admitted to another friend that he was a little unsure how accurate the supplement was: "The idea is amusing and enticing, but whether the Lord is laughing at it and has played a trick on me-that I cannot know." But in the text itself he began, confidently: "The results of an electrodynamic investigation recently published by me in this journal lead to a very interesting conclusion, which will be derived here." And then, four paragraphs from the end of this supplement, he wrote it out.
E=mc2 had arrived in the world.
—Reprinted from E=mc2, A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis by permission of Berkley, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2000, David Bodanis. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
What People are Saying About This
"E=mc2, focusing on the 1905 theory of special relativity, is just what its subtitle says it is: a biography of the world's most famous equation, and it succeeds beautifully. For the first time, I really feel that I understand the meaning and implications of that equation, as Bodanis takes us through each symbol separately, including the = sign...there is a great 'aha!' awaiting the lay reader." —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"'The equation that changed everything' is familiar to even the most physics-challenged, but it remains a fuzzy abstraction to most. Science writer Bodanis makes it a lot more clear." —Discover
"Excellent...With wit and style, he explains every factor in the world's most famous and least understood equation....Every page is rich with surprising anecdotes about everything from Einstein's youth to the behind-the-scenes workings of the Roosevelt administration. Here's a prediction: E=mc2 is one of those odd, original, and handsomely written books that will prove more popular than even its publisher suspects." —Nashville Scene
"You'll learn more in these 300 pages about folks like Faraday, Lavoisier, Davy and Rutherford than you will in many a science course...a clearly written, astonishingly understandable book that celebrates human achievement and provides some idea of the underlying scientific orderliness and logic that guides the stars and rules the universe." —Parade
"Bodanis truly has a gift for bringing his subject matter to life." —Library Journal [starred review]
"Entertaining...With anecdotes and illustrations, Bodanis effectively opens up E=mc2 to the widest audience." —Booklist
"Accessible...he seeks, and deserves, many readers who know no physics. They'll learn a handful-more important, they'll enjoy it, and pick up a load of biographical and cultural curios along the way." —Publishers Weekly
Meet the Author
David Bodanis studied mathematics at the University of Chicago and in 1988 became a Senior Associate Member of St. Anthony's College in Oxford, England. From 1991-97, he lectured at the University of Oxford, designing the university's main survey of social science methods. Author of several books, he is an ideas consultant to corporations and organizations worldwide. A native of Chicago, he lives in London with his family.
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This book is a user-friendly jaunt into the world of extreme mathematics. Easy to read, genuinely entertaining, and it makes you smarter. I love it!
E=mc(squared) gives a brief intellectual discourse on the foundation of political power in the first half of the 20th century and beyond and demonstrates the critical importance of why the proliferation of Nuclear weapons must be contained in the 21st century. Thwarting any such attempts by rogue adversaries to detonate such weapons, whether it is a nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological attack on American soil, must be at the forefront of any presidential policy. This literature offers readers a foundation on which to build their opinions
This book requires no knowledge of physics nor does it even involve complex formulations to explain 'the world's most famous equation.' Instead, this book is a narrative that spans centuries, with a cast of many and a riveting and interesting plot. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a great story.
Everyone is familiar with the equation 'e=mc2' though few seem to actually understand it other than a generalized sense that it explains atomic bombs. There are several 'relativity for dummies' type books on the market but this isn't really one of them. Rather, it is an attempt to explain not just the equation and the theory it represents but how Einstein got to the point of thinking it up in the first place. Therein lies the book's real innovation and charm - in explaining how we understood concepts like 'mass' and 'energy' before Einstein showed us that they are the same thing. Absolutely first rate popular science writing.
In the last 20 years or so, I have nurtured a deep love and respect for physics, quantum physics, quantum mechanics - you name it - for I saw it in the same way I saw spirituality. I saw that physicists do the same thing spiritualists do ¿ they imagine what the universe is all about, what makes it tick and what our specific place in it must be. They look for a unified theory to understand and explain everything, because to just accept things for what they appear to be, in it's most linear and logical form, is to limit our true potential and possibilities. If you approach spirituality and mysticism through the eyes and mind of science you'll find you'll meet yourself at the same place therefore. The latest book I picked up that feeds my physics heart is E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation. Author David Bodanis kept me awake into the wee hours of the morning and then nestled with me before the morning light, when my questioning mind woke me. He's a superb storyteller and unfolds Einstein's special theory of relativity with immense humanity and knowledge. Some of my other all time favourites? About 10 years before Gary Zukav wrote The Seat of the Soul, he wrote the ambitious The Dancing Wu Li Masters, making physics (or quantum mechanics) accessible to anyone. I remember reading it in the summer of 1980, along side Shirley Maclaine's first eye-opener Out on a Limb. The 'coincidence' that connected mysticism and science to me back then was quite apparent. Others? Fritjok Capra's classic The Tao of Physics is still a 'bible'. Equally thought provoking is Ken Wilbur, especially in The Marriage of Sense and Soul. I can't get enough of Michio Kaku, and have devoured his three titles: Beyond Einstein, Hyperspace, and Visions. Brilliant. And even more specific titles like Synchronicity by Peat help to converge with Jung's theories and how it connects so perfectly with quantum theory.