E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis

E=mc<sup>2</sup>: A Biography of the World�s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 337 pages (including 117 pages of notes, guide to further reading, etc), 2000

Rating: 8/10

Reason for Reading: I was curious about what that magical equation actually means.

Synopsis: Bodanis breaks down the famous E=mc2 equation in a very accessible way. Each component of the equation gets its own chapter explaining its history and the scientists who discovered it, and then moves on to how the equation has been used in the past hundred years from the atom bomb to powering emergency exit signs to the eventual demise of the sun and the universe as we know it.

Why you should read this book: This is a very interesting and highly understandable of an equation that – mistakenly, as Bodanis points out – was once said to be something only a dozen people on earth could understand. Bodanis presents a fascinating view of science – the amount of pettiness, shunning, and out and out backstabbing that occurs in the seemingly tame world of physics is mind-boggling. The appendix and notes section of the book make for interesting reading, with the appendix full of short biographies of scientists mentioned in the book, and the notes covering a wide variety of serious and humourous stories.

Why you should avoid this book: Like most science-related books, at least some previous background knowledge makes for an easier read.

Opening paragraph:

A while ago I was reading an interview with the actress Cameron Diaz in a movie magazine. At the end the interviewer asked her if there was anything she wanted to know, and she said she’d like to know what E=mc2 really means. They both laughed, then Diaz mumbled that she’d meant it, and then the interview ended.

Fabulous quotes:

This new realization about light changed everything; for the speed of light becomes the fundamental speed limit in our universe: nothing can go faster.
It’s easy to understand this. If you were traveling at 669,999,999 mph, couldn’t you pump in more fuel, and go the few mph faster – to 670,000,000, and then to 670,000,001 – to take you past the speed of light? But the answer is that you can’t and it’s not a quirk about the present state of earthly technology.
A good way to recognize this is to remember that light isn’t just a number, it is a physical process.

He helped her a little bit with the details of leaving, but it’s unclear how much Meitner understood in the shock. From her diary: ‘Hahn says I should not come to the Institute anymore. He has, in essence, thrown me out.’ By the time she’d settled in Stockholm, in August 1938, Meitner didn’t mention to anyone else what Hahn had done. Instead, almost by reflex, she just remained involved from a distance with the work she had been leading. With Strassmann and Hahn’s help, she’d been guiding the streams of slowed neutrons into uranium, the heaviest of all naturally occurring elements. Since neutrons slipped into and then stuck within the nuclei they hit, everyone expected that the result would be some new substance, even heavier in weight than the uranium they started with. But try as she and the researchers in Berlin might, they couldn’t clearly identify whatever new substances they were creating.

Also recommended: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; Talk Talk Talk by Jay Ingram.

Also by this author: Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity; The Secret House: The Extraordinary Science of an Ordinary Day; The Secret Family.

Author’s website: davidbodanis.com

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007


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