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Science Books Media Book Reviews

E=MC 89

Michael JasonSmith (not his evil cousin Jason MichaelSmith, or the nefarious Smith MichaelJason) contributed this review of a book which treads the line between simple and complex by concentrating on that strangely simple little equation of Einstein's -- how it came to be uncovered, its history, and its ramifications.

E=mc² : A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation
author David Bodanis
pages 324
publisher MacMillan
rating 8
reviewer Michael JasonSmith
ISBN 0802713521
summary A good discussion about the origins and impact of Einstein's famous famous equation, and a fun geek read for the lazy summer holidays.

Most people know of the equation E=mc, but how many know what it means? Sure, you know that energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light. Good for you. You may also know that it allows you to calculate the destructive capacity of the glass of Coke sitting next to you. But what many do not know is how Einstein came about the equation, how other scientists set the foundations for E=mc, and what the seemingly simple equation means in the big picture. This book sets out to rectify this in a way that does not get too bogged down with atomic weights and pictures of squashed up trains.

When I was given this book for Christmas (hi, Mum) I was a bit sceptical. I already knew what E=mc meant, and I'm not a big fan of biographies. But I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It cracks along explaining the origins of E=mc, such as how Faraday came up with the modern concept of energy, and the implications of the equation, such as the use of a German battleship to make the Galileo space probe. David Bodanis uses the conflict between young and old scientists as the main method of explaining science, so the stories are interesting even if you are aware of the formula behind them. The bigger picture is not forgotten and we are constantly reminded of modern European history, as the French Revolution and two world wars played a big part in influencing the development of science.

Those who are looking for a biography of Einstein will be disappointed as he does not play a big part in the book, despite the fact that he discovered the relationship between mass and energy. Instead the book lives up to its subtitle as a biography of the equation, from the early days of Antiube-Laurent Lavoiser in the 1700s to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in the 20th Century.

I have two niggles related to this book. Firstly is the use of Imperial measurements. I don't know how heavy 5,000 pounds is, so have to stop reading, find a conversion table (or log into the net), convert the 5,000 pounds to Kilograms, find where I was up to and continue reading for a couple of lines until I get up to the next measurement. Frustrating. For some reason temperature measurements are given in Metric and Imperial, but they are the only ones. Most of the books from the UK that I have read recently have provided measurements in Metric as well as Imperial, but for some reason Bodanis and his editor of did not see fit to follow the trend.

The other problem was the notes were at the end of the book instead of at the bottom of the relevant page or the end of each chapter. If the notes were just bibliographic references I would not have minded so much, but often they were very interesting stories that I would have liked to have read in context, such as why a slow moving neutron is needed to start a chain reaction. Because the notes were at the end of the book I often forgot that they were there.

  1. Bern Patient Office, 1905
  2. E is for Energy
  3. =
  4. m is for mass
  5. c is for celeritas
  6. Einstein and the Equation
  7. Into the Atom
  8. Quiet in the Midday Snow
  9. Germany's Turn
  10. Norway
  11. America's Turn
  12. 8:16am -- Over Japan
  13. The Fires of the Sun
  14. Creating the Earth
  15. A Brahmin Lifts His Eyes Unto the Sky

You can purchase this book at Fatbrain.

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