Skip to main content

E=mc2: A biography of the world’s most famous equation – David Bodanis *****

David Bodanis is a storyteller, and he fulfils this role with flair in E=mc2. The premise of the book is simple – Einstein himself has been biographed (biographised?) to death, but no one has picked out this most famous of equations, dusted it down and told us what it means, where it comes from and what it has delivered. Allegedly, Bodanis was inspired to write the book after hearing see an interview with actress Cameron Diaz in which she commented that she’d really like to know what that famous collection of letters was all about.
Although the book had been around for a while already when this review was written (September 2005), it seemed a very apt moment to cover it, as the equation is, as I write, exactly 100 years old. So when better to have a biography?
Bodanis starts off by telling us about the individual elements of the equation. What the different letters mean, where the equal sign comes from and so on. This is entertaining, though he seems to tire of the approach on the final straight, brushing aside the origins of the 2 for “squared” with the comment that it went through about as many permutations as “=”, without bothering to tells us what, where and when. But after this, the book settles down to a more people-driven history approach, first over the derivation of square laws, then taking us through Einstein’s formative period, then moving on to the first realization of the potential power of nuclear fission, to its wartime deployment and the role of E=mc2 in the heart of the sun.
What this book does exquisitely is find the details of history, the personal, individual quirky details, the make things so much more interesting. There’s been much written about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, but much less, for instance, about the raid on a Norwegian heavy water factory that was instrumental in slowing down the development of a German nuclear weapon during the Second World War. Similarly, Bodanis delights in finding historical characters, often women, who have been significant in science but rarely get the exposure of their more famous counterparts – for instance Lise Meitner and Cecilia Payne.
There is one concern here. Bodanis is so focussed on making the story easy to digest and flow effortlessly, that he can be a little cavalier with the facts, or over-simplify the science. When describing the evolution of the “squared” part of the equation, he is at his worst. He makes confusing statements, in one paragraph saying “If a five pound ball is going at 10 mph, it has 50 units of energy. Then in the next paragraph “If a five pound ball is going at 10 mph, it has 5 times 102, or 500 units of energy. While he goes on to describe the experimental proof of the latter, he slips from saying the energy “is mv2″ to a more accurate “is proportional to mv2″, without explaining this shift. He the effectively says that it’s c2 in E=mc2 because it’s similar in some hand-waving way, without explaining why.
The occasionally sketchy approach to the science is certainly a weakness, but it is more than adequately countered by the excellent historical storytelling, giving a freshness to what would otherwise be an over-told story. Well worth looking out. Happy birthday E=mc2
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…