E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

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

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by David Bodanis

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Generations have grown up knowing that the equation E=mc2 changed the shape of our world, but never understanding what it actually means, why it was so significant, and how it informs our daily lives today--governing, as it does, everything from the atomic bomb to a television's cathode ray tube to the carbon dating of prehistoric paintings. In this book, David


Generations have grown up knowing that the equation E=mc2 changed the shape of our world, but never understanding what it actually means, why it was so significant, and how it informs our daily lives today--governing, as it does, everything from the atomic bomb to a television's cathode ray tube to the carbon dating of prehistoric paintings. In this book, David Bodanis writes the "biography" of one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history--that the realms of energy and matter are inescapably linked--and, through his skill as a writer and teacher, he turns a seemingly impenetrable theory into a dramatic human achievement and an uncommonly good story.

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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Most people know this celebrated equation has something to do with Einstein's theory of relativity, but most nonscientists don't know what it means. This very approachable yet somewhat limited work of popular science explains, and adorns with anecdote and biography, the equation and its place in history. Oxford lecturer Bodanis (The Secret Family) shows what happened to Einstein on the way to the discovery, what other scientists did to bring it about and how the equation created the atom bomb. Part Two tackles separately the components of the equation (E, =, m, c and "squared"), which means that it covers 18th- and 19th-century physics. "`E' Is for Energy" opens with Michael Faraday, whose unusual religious beliefs helped him discover that electricity and magnetism were the same force. "`m' Is for Mass" brings in French chemist Lavoisier, who established the law of conservation of matter. Bodanis then turns to Einstein's life and work. The middle third of the book covers the exploration of the atom and the making of the atom bomb; the cast of characters here includes Marie Curie, Lise Meitner and Enrico Fermi. A concluding section considers how E=mc2 powers the sun, and how our sun and all others will eventually run out of gas. Capsule biographies here include one of the engaging English astronomer Cecilia Payne, who wouldn't let institutional sexism stop her from finding the hydrogen in the sun. Bodanis's writing is accessible to the point of chattiness: 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. 20 photos and drawings not seen by PW. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As in his earlier books (The Secret Family; The Secret House), science writer and Oxford lecturer Bodanis truly has a gift for bringing his subject matter to life. Here he profiles the most famous equation in science history: E=mc. Each letter and symbol of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity is explained separately, with historical information about the development of each component. Bodanis provides interesting biographical tidbits about the scientists who influenced Einstein's discovery (Ole Roemer, Michael Faraday) and put his theory to use (Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, and Lise Meitner). Then he discusses the relationship between these elements (the = in this equation) and the birth of the Nuclear Age. Bodanis includes annotated notes and suggested readings, which in themselves make good reading. Surely one of the best books of the year, this is highly recommended for all libraries.--James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
The equation did not emerge fully grown from Einstein's head one day in 1905, says mathematician-turned-social scientist Bodanis. He takes it apart, explaining each element, and in the process introduces key figures who previously discovered the realms of energy and mass and how they operated. Among them are Voltaire's lover Emilie du Ch<^a>telet, and Michael Faraday. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A readable history and explanation of the only physics equation that has taken on a life of its own in popular culture.

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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.

Meet the Author

David Bodanis is the author of Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity, and the bestselling The Secret House. A native of Chicago, he lives in London.
David Bodanis designed and gave the "Intellectual Tool-kit" course lectures for many years at Oxford University in England. He is the author of several books, including The Secret Family and the best-seller The Secret House. A native of Chicago, he lives in London, England.

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