80 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2002
Bodanis' book is a quick and easy read, introducing readers to E=mc^2, the personalities involved in its creation and use, and its consequences on Earth and in stars. Bodanis tells vivid stories that make the science and history come alive. Some of these stories are substantially true, and many are misleading.
By oversimplifying the science, Bodanis makes it more accessible but introduces inaccuracies. His descriptions of fission and particle creation and annihilation are good examples of E=mc^2, but one of his favorite examples is problematic. Bodanis twice repeats the popular misconception that an object gains mass as its speed approaches the speed of light (p.52, 81), and exaggerates this fiction with descriptions of the object "swelling" as it accelerates. While an inconspicuous note in the appendix (p.250) acknowledges that this explanation is not really true, many readers will not find the note, and if they do, they'll find the cartoon image easier to remember. Bodanis' pattern of oversimplification disappoints in a book that aims to educate the public.
Another of the book's apparent strengths becomes a weakness. Its emphasis on simple, vivid portraits of key characters too often comes at the expense of deeper understanding of both the history and the science. Bodanis makes a habit of vilifying Authority and lionizing youthful independence and undersung women scientists. Lise Meiter's story is particularly compelling (and consistent with other histories), but Bodanis' more one-dimensional characterizations lose credibility. For example, his Heisenberg is simply an evil scientist while Einstein is a good and humble genius. History, however, tells more complex stories than Bodanis does. See Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" (and its references) for a richer and more nuanced investigation of Heisenberg's motivations (he suggests that he sabotaged with purposeful scientific misdirection the Nazi effort to build the Bomb). And see Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" for an excellent account of the people and the science involved. While Bodanis' retelling of history might make for exciting TV, it demands critical reading.
Bodanis paints an heroic image of Einstein that many readers will recognize by now as oversimplified. For example, Einstein's protrayal as devoted father is belied by his letters to his first wife, Mileva Maric (see Renn and Schulmann's compendium and Byatt's "Possession"). Is this the same Einstein who gave his physicist wife written instructions for keeping house so disorder and children wouldn't interfere with his work? Given Bodanis' interest in uncovering credit for women scientists, it is surprising that he does not mention the possibility that Maric contributed significantly to the development of the special theory of relativity (despite the emotional trauma of losing their first child as an unwed student; see the series of articles in fall 1994 Physics Today, the journal of the American Physical Society). This is, however, consistent with Bodanis' uncritical and common deification of Einstein, which unfortunately appears to require minimization of the contributions of scientists such as Poincare (who proposed that the speed of light was constant and called his idea "relativity" well before Einstein did, grudgingly acknowledged on p.104). In a book that purports to tell the true story clearly, how can Bodanis neglect to even mention the contributions of Michelson and Morley, Lorentz and Fitzgerald, and Einstein's intellectual debts to them? The black-and-white images of science and scientists in this book will either disappoint or mislead readers who seek deeper understanding.
If you really want to know, let this book jump start your curiosity, don't believe everything you read, and use more careful sources (such as Jeremy Bernstein) to investigate your questions.
56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
Bodanis rightly points out that the special theory of relativity is unjustly considered to be impossible to understand. With that as his starting point, in this "biography of the world's most famous equation" Bodanis takes us through the background of each element of the equation (E,=,m,c and ^2) and leads us through their union by Einstein in 1905. Then he takes us through some of the implications this equation has had for the twentieth century, including the development of the atomic bomb and the discovery of black holes.
All in all, Bodanis does a fine job with his book. His presentation is easy enough to follow so that nearly anyone should be able to get the basics here. Additionally, the story, as he tells it, is motivated historically which is something that I really like. We meet a number of the important figures in scientific history (including the important women, two of whom get a lot of time in this volume--Emile du Chatelet and Lise Meitner) and learn about their contributions to the development of the theory.
The main weakness of this volume is that it is also too simplistic. It serves as a great introduction for the scientifically challenged but there is very little depth here. (To someone who has read Richard Rhodes' brilliant "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" this lack of depth in certain areas will stand out.) Also, Bodanis' judgement of certain figures--Heisenberg and Hahn, in particular--is rather harsh. I may even agree with his assessment but people's lives, especially in times of war, are more complicated that can be summed up in a few negative lines.
Still, Bodanis has done a fine job here. I would encourage anyone with an interest in science to take a look at this book, especially those who think that something like relativity theory is beyond their basic understanding. This book will show them that they can learn this stuff. And when you're ready to handle more, Bodanis has given us extensive notes and a bibliography from which to move on to something higher.
76 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2000
i have been a long time fan of bodanis's entertaining way of exposing (i.e. the human body or the garden) the mundane in novel ways; this time around, he exposes the abstract in a marvelously mundane way. i finally understand the basics of e=mc2. i thank him so much. this book is a gem of a biography of the equation that we know but don't know. physics and the scientists behind the formulation come to life in exciting, vivid, anecdotal ways. i simply didn't want this book to end. now, can we ever really say that about other books on physics and science? i haven't taken a calculus class in 25 years, but i was able to follow the reasoning and narrative flow with great ease. the hard stuff is thoughtfully stuck in the back in an appendix that is almost one half the length of the main section. bodanis has cracked this subject matter with perfect skill. and yes, i felt energized reading this book. hence, einstein's equation lives in yet another dimension!
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2005
I first heard of this book from the TV show of the same name. The show, presented on PBS by Nova on October 11, 2005 was one of the highlights of the year so far. Asuming that the book would be better than the show I immediately went out and bought it. I was not disappointed. The show was great. The book is great. The show brings out the essense of the book in an extremely easy way. The book backs up the show with greater detail. The show will undoubtedly be repeated watch for it, go buy the book now.
Basically this book/show talks about each term in the famous equasion. What is energy, where/when did we start to think of it? And what's mass? And of course c, the speed limit of the universe. This book uses these terms as the starting point to explain how each of these terms were developed. And then Einstein put them together.
The way the book/show treats Lise Meitner is supurb. She was at the cutting edge of nuclear physics for 55 years. In 1992 the 109th element was named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honor (Einsteinium is number 99). One point not mentioned, at the time when she was developing the basic theory of radioactivity as depicted in the show, she was sixty years old, not the young actress playing her part. Einstein called her 'The German Madame Curie.'
In one scene in the show Einstein is talking to his first wife Mileva Maric. He is explaining the equasion. His wife asks if he would like her to check his mathematics. Mileva Maric was no dummy. Largely forgotten until the recent publication of the love letters Einstein wrote to her, she provided enough input into Einstein's theories that she probably should have been listed as a co-developer, but in those days women just couldn't do those things. Further, the show didn't quite bring out that the famous equasion had a very rigorous mathematical background based on the then newly developed tensor calculus.
Enough writing: Get the book, when it comes out buy the DVD of the show, buy the DVD of the PBS show 'Einstein's Wife.' They cannot be recommended too highly.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2005
A lot of my favorite books address a subject that I am aware of but unfamiliar with. When one of these books is done well, it ends up being a great reading experience where the pages keep turning and you come to understand an important topic of which you previously had no real comprehension.
E=mc2 is just such a book. Bodanis approaches the topic with the layperson in mind and tells a really interesting story about the history of each character (including the equal sign) in the equation and finishes with a truely gripping, instant by instant description of the first milliseconds of the first atomic bomb detonating over Hiroshima.
You finish the book with new understanding and with a new respect for the power held in this simple equation. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in understanding the meaning behind the equation they've heard a thousand times.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2000
I loved this book. It is a first rate physics primer that reads like a great mystery. David Bodanis ( author of The Secret House and The Secret Family, which I also recommend )has a way of ending chapters with intriguing statements or questions that make it difficult to stop reading. His treatment of the Allied Forces' attempts to sabbotage the heavy water facility at Vermork, Norway during WWII is a lot like a short Ken Follett novel. Since finishing the book, I find myself looking for ways to bring up E=mc2 topics in conversations ( "...speaking of smoke detectors, did you know that they derive the power to generate their smoke-sensitive beams from the radioactive decay of americium?" or "...just imagine, the glare from the explosion over Hiroshima would have been viewable from Jupiter" ). This is popular science writing at its best.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2005
The author of E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, David Bodanis, has a writing style that is both engaging and informative. Not only does Bodanis manage to thoroughly explain the equation E=mc2 in a straightforward matter, but he also explains the history, and the results, of the equation itself. All the terms of the equation, energy, the equal sign, celeritas, and even squared, are described. The development of the equation and its various results are explained as well: the discovery of the atom, the details of the Bomb Race of World War Two, and the theory of black holes and stars. Bodanis felt the need to write this story because, "Everyone knows that E=mc2 is really important, but they usually don't know what it means...There are plenty of books that try to explain it, but who can honestly say they understand them?" This book is worth a read if you're interested in learning what E=mc2 really means, and don't want to become bored. Bodanis has taken a different approach to the equation; he doesn't write about the theory of relativity or Einstein, but writes about the equation itself.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2000
This is the first book I have ever read that explains the equation E=MC2 without giving a mathematical explanation, meaning literally anyone can understand it completely. The book is interesting and provides a superb understanding of what the true significance of that powerful equation is and the supreme precience, intelligence and independence of Einstein when he thought of it in 1905.
My only critical comments about the book are on page 161 where he said of President Truman's advisor Jimmy Byrnes: "It was Byrnes who ensured that the clause protecting the emperor (Hirohito of Japan) which might mollify Japanese opponents of a settlement-was taken out." There is a book by Herbert P. Bix, HIROHITO AND THE MAKING OF MODERN JAPAN and Mr. Bodanis' reference to Jimmy Byrnes is never mentioned. That book is probably one of the best researched books ever written. Said another way, Mr. Bodanis states the two nuclear bombs droped on Japan during the final days of the Second World War should never have been droped and it was Byrnes' fault for refusing to mollify the Japanese that they were dropped. Read HIROHITO AND THE MAKING OF MODERN JAPAN it was far more complicated than Mr. Bodanis' canned liberal view.
Having said that, however, I literally could not put this book down. I wanted to find out as much as I could in about the equation and its development. The book is very easy and quick to read even though one might think a book about an equation could be otherwise.
If you want to really understand what our universe is about and how all matter comes into being, read this book. Even those of you that have zero-point-zero understanding of science and math (me), this book has the uncanny ability to describe everything with extreme clarity. I wish Mr. Bodanis would write a similar book about Quantum Mechanics!!
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2000
A lucid, interesting, and concise explanation of Einstein's famous equation.
The biography of an idea: a wonderful approach to a fascinating and important topic. The idea is Einstein's famous equation: E = mc2. The equation expresses a fundamental principle of the universe (as presently constituted). The principle existed long before Einstein discovered it -- or had the idea. This book is an intellectual history of how the idea was born with emphasis on the people involved and how events in their lives contributed to the culmination of the concept and its application to our twentieth century world and future of the universe.
A remarkably fast read for a book about a scientific subject, which attests to the author's skill in reducing a technical subject to an easily understood narrative of historical and cultural events as they impacted on the discovery that energy is matter and matter is energy. This is not The Theory of Relativity For Dummies; the work is very rich in historical, political, and cultural perspective and is exceptionally resourceful in its endnotes and appendix. In spite of its usefulness as a text, it is not technical and can be understood without any background in astrophysics or math. While not for children, I would highly recommend it as a very worthwhile introductory book and motivating challenge for precocious ones with a fascination about space and astronomy.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2000
I read David Bodanis's _E=mc2_ yesterday on an airplane. I loved it completely. As a recently graduated history major, I appreciated Bodanis's approach to this complex and often confusing equation. We all know it's important, but What Does It Mean?\
From the very beginning Bodanis's writing style sucks you in. He starts by breaking down the equation into 5 chapters, each focusing on a different portion of the equation. For instance, one chapter is dedicated to 'E', or Energy. Another to the '=' symbol and another to the 'm' and so on... Giving the history behind each symbol and discussing people who played a vital role in the furthering of information in that field, Bodanis gives easy to understand and often entertaining look at history and science.
After the equation is explained (so that even most science-ignorant people can understand it) then there is more discussion on Einstein, how he came up with it and the immediate effects of his discovery (hint: nobody really paid any attention at first...). Finally, there is a good portion dedicated to the scientific discoveries that came about as a result of Einstein's famous equation.
At the end of the text is a nice follow-up for most of the historical figures mentioned in the book, detailing the rest of their life in a quick paragraph or two. There is also an extensive Bibliography and Notes section. The Notes section is especially nice because it's not just source information, but often time Bodanis's personnal comments on things.
All-in-all, this is a great book. It's definately one to give to the kids, your siblings, parents and friends. History is an exciting subject and I'm glad to see that somebody has infused a book with this amount of joy and excitement.