- Paperback: 337 pages
- Publisher: Berkley Publishing Group; 1st edition (October 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0425181642
- ISBN-13: 978-0425181645
- Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 219 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #106,550 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation 1st Edition
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E=mc2. Just about everyone has at least heard of Albert Einstein's formulation of 1905, which came into the world as something of an afterthought. But far fewer can explain his insightful linkage of energy to mass. David Bodanis offers an easily grasped gloss on the equation. Mass, he writes, "is simply the ultimate type of condensed or concentrated energy," whereas energy "is what billows out as an alternate form of mass under the right circumstances."
Just what those circumstances are occupies much of Bodanis's book, which pays homage to Einstein and, just as important, to predecessors such as Maxwell, Faraday, and Lavoisier, who are not as well known as Einstein today. Balancing writerly energy and scholarly weight, Bodanis offers a primer in modern physics and cosmology, explaining that the universe today is an expression of mass that will, in some vastly distant future, one day slide back to the energy side of the equation, replacing the "dominion of matter" with "a great stillness"--a vision that is at once lovely and profoundly frightening.
Without sliding into easy psychobiography, Bodanis explores other circumstances as well; namely, Einstein's background and character, which combined with a sterling intelligence to afford him an idiosyncratic view of the way things work--a view that would change the world. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
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 handfulAmore 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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
A very large number of books providing simplified discussions of the theory of relativity - the origin of the equation - appeared in the 1950's. The idea was to explain the theory to non-geniuses without the necessary physics or mathematics background. Virtually all of those books disappointed; after inspired and enthusiastic beginnings, authors could not get out of the first few chapters without either making atrocious mistakes or skipping needed explanations to get from one concept to the other. The authors of most of these books were not professionally familiar enough with the ideas to simplify them. You can only really simplify well that which you understand well. The book I'm reviewing here brings back memories of the 1950's.
I want to make a suggestion to those of you who have had a little calculus and enough liking of mathematics and physics to put some work (not a whole lot) into understanding the early Einstein results. Buy or borrow English (if that's your best language) translation's of Einstein's original papers. They are very much easier to read and comprehend then all of this simplified gibberish, at least the first few pages are. Doesn't it stand to reason that a world-class genius might be able to write a compelling, well organized presentation of ideas that they are intimately familiar with?
I now want to justify my bad opinion of the technical aspects of this book. Around the turn of the last century Michelson and Morley did an experiment that had a quite unexpected result. They measured the (relative) speed of light in various directions expecting to see differences caused by the earth's motion through space much as you might see a swimmer's speed vary depending on whether the were swimming with the current, against the current, or across the current. The result of their experiment was quite disconcerting: the speed of light was the same in all directions. A scientist named H. A. Lorentz develop a set of equations, now called the Lorentz transformation, that explained that the measurements as observed would result if objects shrunk in their direction of movement as a balloon would if you pushed it through the air (bad analogy but it will do).
Einstein had another explanation for the Michelson Morley result. That explanation assumed that the speed of light was a universal constant, i.e., that anyone who measured the speed of light (in a vacuum) would get the same result. This assumption combined with others and logic lead to the theory of special relativity. The Lorentz transformations made up the substance of special relativity mathematics but note well the equations were derived from quite different assumptions. One result derived from the theory was that the sped of light was the limiting velocity in the ordinary universe. Another result was the equation E=mc2.
So what does this have to do with the book I'm reviewing? Well the author suggests the initial key insight is that the sped of light is the maximum possible. It wasn't. The explanation of why it was is borderline silly. Another problem is that the author nowhere mentions the crucial Michelson Morley experiment that spurred many of the key scientific developments of the 20th century including the subject of this book.
Now let's do a little grade school arithmetic. Let's assume a body with mass m is traveling at speed v and define its "kinetic" energy as mv2 (this formula is off by a factor of 2 but it will do). So we have E=mv2 which means we multiply the mass by the velocity and multiply by the velocity again to get energy. We haven't said anything about the units of these terms but that turns out to be important. First, let m be measured in grams and velocity in centimeters per second. Call the energy computed this way KE(g,c,s). Now assume that m is measured in kilograms and v is measured in meters per second; call KE(k,m,s) the energy with this second set of units. Now it is easy to see that E(g,c,s)=10,000,000E(k,m,s). But please note that both E's represent the same amount of energy but in different units. Numbers are just numbers without units.
Our author now goes completely off the rails when describing E=mc2 (where c is the speed of light). He gives c in units of miles per hour, a very large number. Then it is noted that c2 (c squared or c times c) is really really huge and that makes it possible for us to see how that little mass, m, is equivalent to a whole lot of energy. The paragraph above should convince you this argument is rubbish. Gee you want to see an even bigger number? Try c in units centimeters per century. Another point to note is that squaring a number doesn't necessarily produce a larger number - a grade school result. Consider multiplying 0.5 by itself; the result is 0.25 and that is surely less than the original 0.5. In the theoretical physical world there is no very small or very large anything. Size is relative. A things can be bigger of smaller than something else. In order to interpret a number whether a measurement or a calculation, one must specify units.
This book is replete with simple errors like mentioned herein. If you want to read history, fine. If you want to learn a little science this is not the place. We are all used to hearing and repeating non-vetted information gathered from the Internet while assuming it's true. This book should be considered a fine source of such information. As I implied in beginning of this review, I don't know if the author is knowledgeable and got caught up in trying to dumb the subject down or whether he doesn't have a clue. There are constant references to his web site for more information. I wasted my time finishing this book and wasn't about to invest any more reading more of the same.
David Bodanis is a gifted writer and scientist.
Only flaw is some fuzzy history on a few political scenes, but few of these flaws. The narrative of the Mahattan project is the root of most of this. A full treatment would be far beyond the scope of this book. Rather than choose sides in old fights, it might have been better to avoid the temptation.
A minus: the book itself is only 200 pages, but it contains 100 additional pages of notes on the text.
Most recent customer reviews
Appendix and Notes are a must read.