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Walker & Company
E=Mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation / Edition 2

E=Mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation / Edition 2

by David Bodanis, Simon Singh
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To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein's miracle year of discoveries, a new edition of the bestselling "biography" of his famous equation

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802714633
Publisher: Walker & Company
Publication date: 10/01/2005
Edition description: Second Edition, Revised Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.66(h) x 1.29(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Part 1, Birth

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 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.

—From E=mc2, A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis. (c) 2000 , David Bodanis used by permission.

Table of Contents

Part 1Birth
1Bern Patent Office, 19053
Part 2Ancestors of E=mc[superscript 2]
2E Is for Energy11
4m Is for mass27
5c Is for celeritas37
6[characters not reproducible]55
Part 3The Early Years
7Einstein and the Equation73
8Into the Atom93
9Quiet in the Midday Snow100
Part 4Adulthood
10Germany's Turn117
12America's Turn143
138:16 A.M.--Over Japan163
Part 5Till the End of Time
14The Fires of the Sun173
15Creating the Earth184
16A Brahmin Lifts His Eyes Unto the Sky195
Epilogue: What Else Einstein Did204
AppendixFollow-Up of Other Key Participants221
Guide to Further Reading301


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=Mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
lit-in-the-last-frontier 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.
jcubedJJ More than 1 year ago
Good Book, neat subject.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anyone, particularly anyone without a background in physics, who has ever sat under a star lit sky and wondered how it all works, will find this book enlightening, informative, entertaining, and just a doggone good read. It is, without a doubt, the best simplified explanation of e=mc2 I have ever read. This book offers not only a lay-accessible explanation of the theory, but an outstanding review of real world applications. Great for the lay scientist and history enthusiast alike.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although this book is some years old, I recently picked off a used shelf and was glad to find that I had wasted only $6. It is really not much of an effort to explain the physics, the developers or the times which have surrounded Einstein's work. Much of the explantion use examples or situations which demonstrate that the author is baised against many of the 'conservative' elements of cultures, applictions of physics (eg the bomb, atomic power, etc). The chapters on the WW2 effort are very clearly slanted and tell a very biased version of the atomic bombs development etc. Stick to Rhodes or Clark for the war effort or Enstein and to real scientific efforts to explain relativity to the lay audienbce
Guest More than 1 year ago
First, I really enjoyed this book. It was different from other typical science book. This book explains what the E=mc2 means with some biography backgrounds. This book was not about pure science or math. It was about history which enabled Einstein to develop this equation. This book focuses on the ¡°historical background¡± not on the scientist. This book has five chapters: Birth, Ancestors of E=mc2, the early years, Adulthood, and Till the End of Timer. In chapter two, there are some famous scientists who show how the letters come out and what those mean. They even show how ¡°=¡± and ¡°^2¡± came out. I think that you should read this book if you have chance to read because it will expand and let you know about the law of Relativity. As I am reading this book, I was surprised because even I who do not like to read enjoyed this book a lot. I guarantee that you will enjoy this book and you will learn about Einstein and the greatest equation, E=mc2. Lastly, if you want some mathematical book, I would not recommend you to read this book. This is about the history, so you can look for other books that have some pure mathematic equation and sciences topics. After reading this book, you will feel you are the intelligent.
siafl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an exciting book to read. Very gripping through the middle, especially the part where America raced Germany for being first to make an atomic bomb. I find the idea of the book very smart. On one hand it's an account of Albert Einstein, on the other it's the impact of one of his most important realizations on the rest of mankind.The part about what each of E, =, m, c, 2 means is a bit excessive I think, and the stuff that comes after Hiroshima drags on a bit, but I had a great time reading it nonetheless. It took only two days to finish.
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E=mc¿ states that energy equals matter going at the speed of light squared.
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BassmanDC More than 1 year ago
I was skeptical, but after the first few paragraphs, i was pulled in. Mr Bodanis has written a highly entertaining and informative look at the most famous equation in the world. I initially thought it would be dry reading, but it was far from it. He delves into the past for insight, and brings characters from history to life.
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