Cover image for E=mc² : a biography of the world's most famous equation
E=mc² : a biography of the world's most famous equation
Bodanis, David.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Walker, 2000.
Physical Description:
ix, 337 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
1170 Lexile.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QC73.8.C6 B63 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
QC73.8.C6 B63 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QC73.8.C6 B63 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QC73.8.C6 B63 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QC73.8.C6 B63 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Generations have grown up knowing that the equation E=mc2 changed the shape of our world, but never understanding what it actually means, why it was so significant, and how it informs our daily lives today--governing, as it does, everything from the atomic bomb to a television's cathode ray tube to the carbon dating of prehistoric paintings. In this book, David Bodanis writes the "biography" of one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history--that the realms of energy and matter are inescapably linked--and, through his skill as a writer and teacher, he turns a seemingly impenetrable theory into a dramatic human achievement and an uncommonly good story.

Author Notes

David Bodanis taught for many years a survey of intellectual history at the University of Oxford.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Most people know this celebrated equation has something to do with Einstein's theory of relativity, but most nonscientists don't know what it means. This very approachable yet somewhat limited work of popular science explains, and adorns with anecdote and biography, the equation and its place in history. Oxford lecturer Bodanis (The Secret Family) shows what happened to Einstein on the way to the discovery, what other scientists did to bring it about and how the equation created the atom bomb. Part Two tackles separately the components of the equation (E, =, m, c and "squared"), which means that it covers 18th- and 19th-century physics. "`E' Is for Energy" opens with Michael Faraday, whose unusual religious beliefs helped him discover that electricity and magnetism were the same force. "`m' Is for Mass" brings in French chemist Lavoisier, who established the law of conservation of matter. Bodanis then turns to Einstein's life and work. The middle third of the book covers the exploration of the atom and the making of the atom bomb; the cast of characters here includes Marie Curie, Lise Meitner and Enrico Fermi. A concluding section considers how E=mc2 powers the sun, and how our sun and all others will eventually run out of gas. Capsule biographies here include one of the engaging English astronomer Cecilia Payne, who wouldn't let institutional sexism stop her from finding the hydrogen in the sun. Bodanis's writing is accessible to the point of chattiness: he seeks, and deserves, many readers who know no physics. They'll learn a handfulÄmore important, they'll enjoy it, and pick up a load of biographical and cultural curios along the way. 20 photos and drawings not seen by PW. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Bodanis, a writer, has prepared a captivating intellectual history of E=mc2. Pivotal insights leading to the maturation of the concepts of energy, mass, and the speed of light are rendered with delightful biographical sketches of Michael Faraday, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Ole R/omer, James Maxwell, and Emilie du Chatelet. The narrative explains Einstein's reasons for linking energy, mass, and the speed of light; why the speed of light is squared; and what the equals sign really means. Applications of E=mc2 are explored, including the development of the atomic bomb and the uncovering of the fuel mechanism for stars. More delightful biographical sketches are given for Lise Meitner, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and Erwin Freundlich. A brief look at general relativity completes the book. The general reader is the intended audience, and if the notes section is read along with the main text, the reader will gain a decent nontechnical understanding of the equation. Well-placed diagrams in the main text would have added much clarity. A guide to further reading and a Web site provide additional resources. Two books that cover similar ground are Harald Fritzsch's An Equation That Changed the World (CH, Mar'95) and especially Einstein's Mirror, by Tony Hey and Patrick Walters (CH, Apr'98). General readers; lower-division undergraduates. M. Mounts; Dartmouth College

Booklist Review

It's a well-known equation, yet who but physicists really understand E = 2? Bodanis rescues the masses from ignorance in an entertaining story about Einstein's formulation of the equation in 1905 and its association ever after with relativity and nuclear energy. Parallel with the science, Bodanis populates his tale with dramatic lives: Lavoisier mounts the scaffold; Faraday hauls himself up by his bootstraps; Einstein ponders light in his patent office; Lise Meitner gets no credit for discovering atomic fission; and Heisenberg works on a German atom bomb. Alhough Bodanis' elisions of their biographies adequately fill his popularization goal, they inevitably simplify historical complexities, as of Heisenberg's attitude toward Nazidom. On the brighter side, the science the author retells is wholly satisfying, from explaining the origin of each symbol in E = 2 to describing Faraday's unification of electricity and magnetism to Einstein's similar feat with matter, energy, and the weird war pages of time and space at light speeds. With anecdotes and illustrations, Bodanis effectively opens up E = 2 to the widest audience. --Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

As in his earlier books (The Secret Family; The Secret House), science writer and Oxford lecturer Bodanis truly has a gift for bringing his subject matter to life. Here he profiles the most famous equation in science history: E=mc. Each letter and symbol of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity is explained separately, with historical information about the development of each component. Bodanis provides interesting biographical tidbits about the scientists who influenced Einstein's discovery (Ole Roemer, Michael Faraday) and put his theory to use (Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, and Lise Meitner). Then he discusses the relationship between these elements (the = in this equation) and the birth of the Nuclear Age. Bodanis includes annotated notes and suggested readings, which in themselves make good reading. Surely one of the best books of the year, this is highly recommended for all libraries.DJames Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Part 1, Birth 13 April 1901 Professor Wilhelm Ostwald University of Leipzig Leipzig, Germany Esteemed Herr Professor! Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interest of his son. I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that . . . he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means. . . . I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to . . . write him, if possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and working. If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant's position for now or the next autumn, my gratitude would know no bounds. . . . I am also taking the liberty of mentioning that my son does not know anything about my unusual step. I remain, highly esteemed Herr Professor, your devoted Hermann Einstein No answer from Professor Ostwald was ever received. The world of 1905 seems distant to us now, but there were many similarities to life today. European newspapers complained that there were too many American tourists, while Americans were complaining that there were too many immigrants. The older generation everywhere complained that the young were disrespectful, while politicians in Europe and America worried about the disturbing turbulence in Russia. There were newfangled "aerobics" classes; there was a trend-setting vegetarian society, and calls for sexual freedom (which were rebuffed by traditionalists standing for family values), and much else. The year 1905 was also when Einstein wrote a series of papers that changed our view of the universe forever. On the surface, he seemed to have been leading a pleasant, quiet life until then. He had often been interested in physics puzzles as a child, and was now a recent university graduate, easygoing enough to have many friends. He had married a bright fellow student, Mileva, and was earning enough money from a civil service job in the patent office to spend his evenings and Sundays in pub visits, or long walks-above all, he had a great deal of time to think. Although his father's letter hadn't succeeded, a friend of Einstein's from the university, Marcel Grossman, had pulled the right strings to get Einstein the patent job in 1902. Grossman's help was necessary not so much because Einstein's final university grades were unusually low-through cramming with the ever-useful Grossman's notes, Einstein had just managed to reach a 4.91 average out of a possible 6, which was almost average-but because one professor, furious at Einstein for telling jokes and cutting classes, had spitefully written unacceptable references. Teachers over the years had been irritated by his lack of obedience, most notably Einstein's high school Greek grammar teacher, Joseph Degenhart, the one who has achieved immortality in the history books through insisting that "nothing would ever become of you." Later, when told it would be best if he left the school, Degenhart had explained, "Your presence in the class destroys the respect of the students." Outwardly Einstein appeared confident, and would joke with his friends about the way everyone in authority seemed to enjoy putting him down. The year before, in 1904, he had applied for a promotion from patent clerk third class to patent clerk second class. His supervisor, Dr. Haller, had rejected him, writing in an assessment that although Einstein had "displayed some quite good achievements," he would still have to wait "until he has become fully familiar with mechanical engineering." In reality, though, the lack of success was becoming serious. Einstein and his wife had given away their first child, a daughter born before they were married, and were now trying to raise the second on a patent clerk's salary. Einstein was twenty-six. He couldn't even afford the money for part-time help to let his wife go back to her studies. Was he really as wise as his adoring younger sister, Maja, had told him? He managed to get a few physics articles published, but they weren't especially impressive. He was always aiming for grand linkages-his very first paper, published back in 1901, had tried to show that the forces controlling the way liquid rises up in a drinking straw were similar, fundamentally, to Newton's laws of gravitation. But he could not quite manage to get these great linkages to work, and he got almost no response from other physicists. He wrote to his sister, wondering if he'd ever make it. Even the hours he had to keep at the patent office worked against him. By the time he got off for the day, the one science library in Bern was usually closed. How would he have a chance if he couldn't even stay up to date with the latest findings? When he did have a few free moments during the day, he would scribble on sheets he kept in one drawer of his desk-which he jokingly called his department of theoretical physics. But Haller kept a strict eye on him, and the drawer stayed closed most of the time. Einstein was slipping behind, measurably, compared to the friends he'd made at the university. He talked with his wife about quitting Bern and trying to find a job teaching high school. But even that wasn't any guarantee: he had tried it before, only four years earlier, but never managed to get a permanent post. And then, on what Einstein later remembered as a beautiful day in the spring of 1905, he met his best friend, Michele Besso ("I like him a great deal," Einstein wrote, "because of his sharp mind and his simplicity"), for one of their long strolls on the outskirts of the city. Often they just gossiped about life at the patent office, and music, but today Einstein was uneasy. In the past few months a great deal of what he'd been thinking about had started coming together, but there was still something Einstein felt he was very near to understanding but couldn't quite see. That night Einstein still couldn't quite grasp it, but the next day he suddenly woke up, feeling "the greatest excitement." It took just five or six weeks to write up a first draft of the article, filling thirty-some pages. It was the start of his theory of relativity. He sent the article to Annalen der Physik to be published, but a few weeks later, he realized that he had left something out. A three-page supplement was soon delivered to the same physics journal. He admitted to another friend that he was a little unsure how accurate the supplement was: "The idea is amusing and enticing, but whether the Lord is laughing at it and has played a trick on me-that I cannot know." But in the text itself he began, confidently: "The results of an electrodynamic investigation recently published by me in this journal lead to a very interesting conclusion, which will be derived here." And then, four paragraphs from the end of this supplement, he wrote it out. E=mc2 had arrived in the world. --Reprinted from E=mc2, A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis by permission of Berkley, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000, David Bodanis. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.     Excerpted from E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Simon Singh
Forewordp. vii
Prefacep. xi
Part 1 Birth
1 Bern Patent Office, 1905p. 3
Part 2 Ancestors of E=mc[superscript 2]
2 E Is for Energyp. 11
3 =p. 23
4 m Is for massp. 27
5 c Is for celeritasp. 37
6 [characters not reproducible]p. 55
Part 3 The Early Years
7 Einstein and the Equationp. 73
8 Into the Atomp. 93
9 Quiet in the Midday Snowp. 100
Part 4 Adulthood
10 Germany's Turnp. 117
11 Norwayp. 134
12 America's Turnp. 143
13 8:16 A.M.-Over Japanp. 163
Part 5 Till the End of Time
14 The Fires of the Sunp. 173
15 Creating the Earthp. 184