E=mc~2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

E=mc~2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

by David Bodanis


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Already climbing the bestseller lists-and garnering rave reviews—this "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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425181645
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 192,411
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Part 1, Birth

Excerpted from "E=mc2"
by .
Copyright © 2001 David Bodanis.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Birth
1. Bern Patent Office, 1905
Part 2: Ancestors of E=mc²
2. E is for Energy
3. =
4. m Is for mass
5. c Is for celeritas
6. ²
Part 3: The Early Years
7. Einstein and the Equation
8. Into the Atom
9. Quiet in the Midday Snow
Part 4: Adulthood
10. Germany's Turn
11. Norway
12. America's Turn
13. 8:16 AM - Over Japan
Part 5: Til the End of Time
14. The Fires of the Sun
15. Creating the Earth
16. A Brahmin Lifts His Eyes Unto the Sky
Epilogue: What Else Einstein Did
Appendix: Follow-Up of Other Key Participants
Guide to Further Reading

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This is not a physics book. It is a history of where the equation [E=mc2] came from and how it has changed the world. After a short chapter on the equation's birth, Bodanis presents its five symbolic ancestors in sequence, each with its own chapter and each with rich human stories of achievement and failure, encouragement and duplicity, love and rivalry, politics and revenge. Readers meet not only famous scientists at their best and worst but also such famous and infamous characters as Voltaire and Marat...Bodanis includes detailed, lively and fascinating back matter...His acknowledgements end, 'I loved writing this book.' It shows." —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"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


Exclusive Author Essay
The idea for this book dates back to when I was a schoolchild in Chicago. On a field trip, one of my classmates asked our teacher what Einstein had invented. None of the teachers knew, and that was puzzling: We all had heard that Einstein was one of the greatest minds in history. Yet what was it he had invented?

Years passed, and I studied math and physics at the University of Chicago and ultimately ended up teaching at Oxford. Yet I realized that many of my friends now were in the same position my school friends and I had been in those years before: They knew Einstein and relativity and E=mc2 were important...but they didn't know why. I realized I could write a book that would help resolve that, if I simply explained E=mc2 in terms of the people who had played a central role in that equation. Their hopes and ambitions and passions would be a "vehicle" through which I could give readers a powerful, clear explanation of Einstein's science.

To understand what the "m" is doing in the equation, I look at the life of Antoine Lavoisier, the wealthy Parisian whose life ended on the guillotine during the French Revolution; to explain the "e" in the equation, I look at Michael Faraday, a boy from the slums of London at the beginning of the 1800s who rose up to a top position at the Royal Institution (even though the mentor who brought him there ultimately turned against young Faraday at his very moment of triumph).

But the equation also applies in ordinary life, and I show E=mc2 operating in ordinary medical equipment, and even in the red-glowing exit signs in our movie theaters. Its sway stretches out into space, and in one of my favorite chapters I recount the story of Cecilia Payne, the young British woman who first understood that the sun was made out of hydrogen and that this "mass" is "pumped" through the equation to come out as the glowing "energy" that lights up our planet, and our solar system...and glows out through the galaxy, serving as a beacon to Einstein's great insight and all the individuals who were part of his great work.

--David Bodanis

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E=mc~2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
careburpee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Quick Version: This book is a well laid out explanation of each part of the equation, its history, and its role in our universe.Long Version:The genesis of David Bodanis¿ book was an interview he read in which actress Cameron Diaz expressed the desire-serious or in jest-to know what E=mc² really meant. Bodanis realized that the truth is that very few people have even a rudimentary knowledge of the usefulness of the world¿s most famous equation; this book is his attempt to rectify that.The format chosen is an interesting one. Those who are true novices to physics-or lack interest in pursuing the equation beyond the basics-can read the front half of the book and walk away far more knowledgeable than they were when they picked it up. After a brief introduction to the time and place in which Einstein generated the paper which introduce the theory to the scientific world, Bodanis goes on to break down the equation and discuss each of its parts separately. What do they mean, and how do they interact with each other? The reader is then led on a quick trip through history with regards to how the scientific community used the theory-the race to be the first to build ¿The Bomb¿ during World War II. Finally, the author discusses the theory in our universe. Those not interested in a brain drain of a read would still likely read the Epilogue, which discusses what else Einstein did, and the interesting appendix, which gives closure regarding the other key participants.Of particular interest with regards to the structure of the book are the notes. If you would like to know more details (and are not afraid of either the odd equation or in depth descriptions), Bodanis suggests that you read the notes, where he has taken things a bit further. It is here that I have a bone to pick. The format that was chosen was that of endnotes, as opposed to footnotes. When endnotes are used, there is absolutely no indication within the text that there is a back of the book furtherance of the topic-two members of our book club did not even realize they were there and thus missed the opportunity to add to their reading experience. For those readers that do choose to read the endnotes concurrent with the front half of the book, you are left constantly flipping between the text and the notes to see if you have reached the next note (they are listed by page number). This is extremely disruptive to the flow of a book which requires some level of concentration to read and annoyed me to no end. Footnotes within the text would have been grand. As a side note, a member of our group tried to read the e-reader version. Footnotes would have enabled her to flip from text to notes with ease. As it was, she quickly gave up on trying to maneuver between the two.The final section, a guide to further reading, is one of the finest source guides I have ever seen. Books are divided into categories and are each given a paragraph of explanation designed to help the reader ascertain if they are a good fit for their reading list.Bodanis tops off his two leveled read with one final feat-he has a website to which he directs the serious student for further, more in depth, study. Whether you are interested in a basic explanation of a complicated theory, have a fascination with physics and would like to know more, or would like to go beyond your high school physics knowledge, this book is likely to fit your need.
paulrach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An easy to understand guide to Einstein's famous equation. Starting with Einstein, and his discovery, the book goes onto explain the history of the terms of the equation, looking how the ideas and terms have developed over the centuries.Bodanis then examines the development of the atomic bomb and how E=mc2 is at the heart of the process. An excellent well written book. Certainly worth a read.
willyt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've read this book several years ago, so I will not provide a detailed review of this particular book. This is first book by David Bodanis that I read. I have immensely enjoyed all of the David Bodanis books that I have read. I am a working scientist, and I believe that Mr. Bodanis does an excellent job of writing popular science. In this particular book I thought his approach on showing the antecedents of aspects of this equation was excellent, and I learned quite a bit. His books always provide me with ideas or concepts that I will study in more detail.
eduscapes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love biographies, but I wasn't sure what to think about the biography of a formula. As I read the book, I began to understand why they gave the book this title. Many people contributed to this formula over many years. One of the best parts was the large amount of content focusing on dispelling misunderstandings and giving credit to some of the lesser known contributors.
JoMommaLawyer More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.