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A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

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A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation. By David Bodanis. (Berkley Trade: 2001. Pg. 352.) ISBN: 0425181642

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - July 13, 2003

Assoicated with Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, E=mc2 is an equation that everyone has heard of, yet few people really know what it means. Understanding what this equation means is not as difficult as you might suppose. The trick to understanding it, as with many complex theories, is to simply break it down into its variant elements and study each on its own. Once you understand each of its parts, it is a simple matter to put them together in an understandable format. This is just the track that David Bodanis took in his informative book, E=mc2 A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation.

The first question that you're bound to ask yourself when you read the title of this book is, "How can anyone write a biography of an equation?" This book is definitely unique when it comes to the biography genre, yet it is a true biography. Bodanis follows the development of the equation and the various scientist that had a hand in its genesis. He then explores how the equation matured, and how it is currently being used.

In the course of exploring the history of this famous equation, Bodanis breaks the equation down into its five parts: E (energy), = (typographical symbol), m (mass), c (celeritas / the speed of light) , and 2 (squared). Looking at each part separately explains, in easy to understand language, what each part means. In doing so, he gives specific emphasis to the people who are created with the discovering or explaining each part. In the course of this discussion the reader is introduced to a host of influential and well know scientist ranging from Antoine - Laurent Lavoisier and Jean - Dominique Cassini to Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, as well as lesser known but no less influential scientist such as Ole Roemer, Willem 'sGravesande, and Madame Du Chatelet.

This introductory segment offers the reader with enough background information to begin to grasp the main concepts that contributed the equation E=mc2, which was postulated by Albert Einstein. This equation, which is predominantly associated with Einstein theory of relativity, was little used by its creator. In the course of detailing the history of this peerless equation, Bodanis fully outlines how the events in Einstein's life, both personal and academic, led him to develop his theory of relativity and craft this equation.

As Bodanis points out, once Einstein offered his equation to the world, he left it to others to make use of it as he went off to pursue other avenues of research. Therefore, the story of the 'equation' must divert from the life of its creator. Bodanis shows how the equation was put to use by others such as Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, Enrico Fermi, Lise Meitner, and Otto Hahn. Bodanis also highlights the role that the equation played in the development of nuclear weapons. He gives particular attention to the Nazi efforts, led by Werner Heisenberg, to develop an atomic weapon, and to the American efforts, led by Robert Oppenheimer, to do the same. He also illustrates how Nazi anti-Semitism contributed to their failure to 'be first'.

The final section of this intriguing book takes a look at how the equation is currently being used in just about everything from space flight to medical science. Best of all, the book concludes with an appendix that offers short bios of the various individuals mentioned in the text, which examines what happened to them after they left the pages of this book.

E=mc2 is a book written for the non-scientist. It does not suppose any scientific or mathematical knowledge on the part of the reader, merely a desire to understand what is perhaps the most famous equation currently in existence. The text is eminently readable and highly entertaining. Best of all, you will come away from this reading with a general understanding of the concepts involved in the equation, and what it means in practical terms, and how it has affected the course of history. Along the way you will also gain an understanding of how scientific advances are made, and the debt that modern science owes to the men and women who uncovered the building blocks of modern scientific theory.

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