Review of E=mc2 A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation

So, why is a guy with law degree, whose main interests lie in the theological ideas of a bunch of long dead mediterranean church guys, and who nearly failed freshman calculus reading a book about the most popularly enigmatic mathematical equation ever?   Good question.  I blame PBS.

I recently finished E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis.  It seems odd to talk about a biography of a mathematical equation.  Biography, after all, means a writing about a life.  Nevertheless, it didn’t take long to realize that this sequence of 3 letters, 1 number and an = sign quickly took on a life of its own and produced many offspring, from the good son to the black sheep.  Bodanis takes the very satisfying approach of discussing the contributions of scientists who predate Einstein to the ultimate formulation of the equation.  His story takes us from the England of Michael Faraday to Antoine Lavoisier’s tumultuous France to Lise Meitner’s unraveling Germany and shows that all great accomplishments stand on the shoulders of those who have come before.  He introduces us to Ole Roemer and Jean-Dominique Cassini (whose name wasn’t really Jean-Dominique), Sir Humphry Davy and Otto Hahn, two genuine schmucks.  Chances are, unless you are a scientist or real science enthusiast, you’ve never heard of most of these people (Faraday was the only one I could identify).  We learn not only their science but also about how their lives shaped their ultimate contributions to the world.  By the time Bodanis reaches Einstein and E=mc2, you have a basic enough understanding  of the physics actually to follow what the equation is about.

More impressively, however, is that Bodanis then takes the theory that he spent several chapters explaining, bit by bit, and shows its application, both good and bad.  From the atom bomb to the smoke detector in your home, he shows how this very short expression that erupted from the mind of a European patent office clerk revolutionized the way we think about virtually everything scientific. 

Most of all, this is a story, not a science book.  It is a very engaging story with just enough science to pull it all together.  It is a story, not just about ideas, but also about people, their lives and their struggles.  If you are a physicist who can derive E=mc2 longhand in under 30 seconds or an over-zealous science geek whose greatest joy in life is mocking those who can’t name at least 20 sub-atomic particles, you probably won’t like this book.  If, however, you are interested in all things historical or if you’ve ever looked at a star lit sky and wondered how it all works, this book is for you.  It’s readable, it’s informative, and, believe it or not, downright enjoyable.  Give it a chance.  You’ll be surprised.

Oh, and by the way, my nine year old is reading it and loves it.

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