Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Einstein's famous Equation (or why the universe has more energy than I do)

E = mc2 / David Bodanis
Toronto : Anchor Canada, c2001.
352 p.

Talking about 2009's Science Book Challenge made me realize I hadn't yet reviewed my 3rd choice for the 08 challenge! This is the third book I read as part of the challenge, and it is one I have had on my shelves for many years. I received it as a Christmas present in 2002, I think, and have been intending to read it ever since. I do not move at the speed of light! I wish I had picked it up sooner because it was very entertaining, at long last.

Anyhow, Bodanis takes a look at the most famous equation of them all in this book, and each unit of the equation has a section of its own. He talks about the history of the concept represented, whether energy, mass, the speed of light, or even the = sign and the idea of 'squared'. He explains the science which built up to the equation, and the people involved in all its varied parts. For example, when he is talking about "C", he explains how the concept of the speed of light was developed, and what exactly it means. I felt like I clearly understood for the first time the reason why the speed of light is an absolute measurement.

He is a clear writer who also has a feel for the telling anecdote. From my last physics read, you will know that I adore gossip about the figures involved in all these discoveries. Bodanis includes here the story of Voltaire and his mistress and intellectual superior, the brilliant Emelie du Chatelet; the tale of a group of Norwegian saboteurs who skiied into a Nazi stronghold to prevent atomic technology from reaching Germany (this reads like a thriller!); and more tales of my old Copenhagen acquaintances.

The science is explained well, with not too many equations etc. to confuse the non-scientist. I really appreciated how this book shows the interplay between individual discoveries and minds from all countries and centuries. It illuminates the fact that a great discovery, like Einstein's, does not appear out of nowhere, despite Einstein's god-like status. Everything builds on what came before, and the whole line of minuscule steps leads to our present state.

I must admit I didn't find this as exciting and enthralling as I might have otherwise, only because I've just finished Faust in Copenhagen, one of my favourites of the year. Still, this is a captivating read, and covers a lot of historical and scientific ground. I'd recommend it for the general science reader!


  1. Those are the best books, in my opinion -- good, meaty books that take a concept, whether familiar or esoteric and turn it over and hold it up to the light.

  2. I'm sure I have this book at home. I must get it to the top of the pile, as it sounds like a great read. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. I absolutely loved this book. It was a "keeper" and still sits on my shelves. I am so glad you reviewed this one!


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