E = mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

E = mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

4.2 6
by David Bodanis

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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 discovery - from 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…  See more details below


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 discovery - from 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.

Editorial Reviews

Our Review
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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ISIS Large Print Books
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Isis Hardcover Series
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Large Print Edition
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6.28(w) x 9.66(h) x 1.11(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Bern Patent Office, 1905


    13 April 1901

    Professor Wilhelm Ostwald

    University of Leipzig

    Leipzig, Germany

    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, your devoted

    Hermann Einstein

No answer from Professor Ostwald was ever received.

The world of 1905seems 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.

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E = mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read through the earlier reviews and I simply have to disagree with the 1 Star rating that someone had given this book. It would be my presumption that the person who assigned such a low score probably has a little more insight on the workings of E=mc2, and physics in general, than the common layperson and probably began reading with more than just a little skeptism in the first place. That said, I have nothing but words of praise for the book, and bountiful words of thanks to the author. There aren't too many books out there that tackle such an ambitious subject while maintaining perspective for whom the book was intended. I am convinced that Bodanis, like Einstein, does indeed understand the equation, but, unlike Einstein, he was able to effectively communicate just what it means to physics-outsiders without the readers walking away confused. It is my belief that Bodanis didn't write the book to attain approval from his peers, but rather wrote it in an effort to make the equation (including several interesting topics that go hand in hand with it )intelligible to people who don't spend their days in the study of science and physics. Bodanis seems to appreciate the fact that most people CAN grasp what the equation means if it is explained in such a way as to not talk over our heads. Never once did Mr. Bodanis cause me to confuse mass with weight, and since I was probably reading more intently and with less skeptism, I did not confuse the glossing over of relativity with a lack of knowledge on Bodanis' part. He clearly stated that relativity was too large of a topic to consider covering in a book about the equation, and gave a web address where interested readers could go to learn more about it. I did indeed go to the website and found not only explanations, but helpful drawings as well. While I truly appreciated this book for the little bits of history that I found to be quite fascinating, the most gratifying part was that it led to all kinds of extra thinking. Although my thoughts might not have been exactly like everyone else's, I think most people would agree that it causes one to ponder all the maybes and might have beens that preceded and proceeded the unveiling of the unimaginable power of E=mc2. Thank you, Mr. Bodanis, from one of the people for whom you intended this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Prepare to be amazed by events before and after Einstein published his energy-mass formula. This is no primer. Rather E=mc2 flies high and wide about people, places, and things that you hear about but really don't know much about. I was particularly impressed by descriptions of what went on in the sky over Hiroshima, an important narrative about the atomic bomb's inner workings. Beyond the main text, which is excellent beginning to end, appendices and notes are also quite informative.
Guest More than 1 year ago
To say this book is about e=mc2, is like dismissing 'War and Peace' as a book about Russia. Yes, this is a book about the world's most famous formula, but it is told largely through lives of those crazy guys (and gals) who came up with these bizarre ideas centuries before Einstein: who invented the = sign anyway? And why does it mean one thing to a physicist and something else to the rest of us? Why did the nazis get it wrong and the Americans get it right? It is a fascinating adventure story, written with a light touch that never insults the reader. The author manages to keep his target in focus: this is the significance of e=mc2 for the rest of us. Back in college, we had science courses for nonscience majors. One such course was nicknamed 'Physics for Poets.' This book could easily form the core of that course, and keep even the most A-D-D college sophomore intrigued and humbled by it all. Read it and enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lots of historical interesting anecdotes about great scientists like Lavoisier. It offers applications of the equation in everyday life, which is great. The part about the history of the nuclear bomb is entertaining. The book offers an interesting approach quite different from the classical biography of Einstein which renders it most interesting. What I did not like is the refering notes. They are not called in the text, only refered by the page number. They provide great informations (almost a third of the book!) and are in an impractical setup. Normal footnote system would have been much better. An enjoyable reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the opening, the author tells the story of a man who shared a voyage with Einstein and asked the scientist to explain relativity. After several days the man concluded that Einstein understood the topic completely. I am not convinced that Bodanis understands the topic at all. In introducing his cast of characters (Energy, '=', mass, 'c', and '^2') he plays fast and loose with fundamental concepts of math and physics. He tells stories concerning mass and energy conservation, but never really defines what mass and energy are (and in fact commits the cardinal sin of confusing mass and weight). The rest concerns itself with the effects of E=mc^2, i.e. bomb-making and radioactivity, which are interesting enough from a historical persepctive. The more fantastic implications of relativity (time & length dilation, etc.) are given a glossing-over. In fact, the author notes that many books on relativity are poorly understood because they deal so much with those topics, which I suppose is why he chooses to ignore them. The problem is that the mathematics of those effects are the source of the title equation, not the other way around. Einstein did not 'choose' c^2 to be the proportionality constant, as Bodanis implies. Nature did and Einstein was simply the first to do the math and discover the relation for the rest of us. If you read this without any real knowledge of physics, you might enjoy it, but you still won't know anything about physics. If you have taken some physics, you'll probably be frustrated at all the errors and omissions. In either case, you're probably better off reading Feynman.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is very engaging and well written. It reads like a novel where you want to keep turning pages to know what happens next as the various elements of the famous formula are discovered. It brings alive many scientists and the societal influences of their time. Do read the footnote section and book references for more background information. There's great stuff in there. There's no heavy math. The Relativity concepts always involve some thinking but it's not beyond the realm of most non-technical readers.