Book: E = mc2

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E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

Author: David Bodanis
Publisher: Walker & Company

“This is not a physics book. It is a history of where the equation [E=mc2] came from and how it has changed the world. After a short chapter on the equation’s birth, Bodanis presents its five symbolic ancestors in sequence, each with its own chapter and each with rich human stories of achievement and failure, encouragement and duplicity, love and rivalry, politics and revenge. Readers meet not only famous scientists at their best and worst but also such famous and infamous characters as Voltaire and Marat…Bodanis includes detailed, lively and fascinating back matter…His acknowledgements end, ‘I loved writing this book.’ It shows.” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)

E=mc2, focusing on the 1905 theory of special relativity, is just what its subtitle says it is: a biography of the world’s most famous equation, and it succeeds beautifully. For the first time, I really feel that I understand the meaning and implications of that equation, as Bodanis takes us through each symbol separately, including the = sign…there is a great ‘aha!’ awaiting the lay reader.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

“’The equation that changed everything’ is familiar to even the most physics-challenged, but it remains a fuzzy abstraction to most. Science writer Bodanis makes it a lot more clear.” (Discover)

“Excellent…With wit and style, he explains every factor in the world’s most famous and least understood equation….Every page is rich with surprising anecdotes about everything from Einstein’s youth to the behind-the-scenes workings of the Roosevelt administration. Here’s a prediction: E=mc2 is one of those odd, original, and handsomely written books that will prove more popular than even its publisher suspects.” (Nashville Scene)

“You’ll learn more in these 300 pages about folks like Faraday, Lavoisier, Davy and Rutherford than you will in many a science course…a clearly written, astonishingly understandable book that celebrates human achievement and provides some idea of the underlying scientific orderliness and logic that guides the stars and rules the universe.” (Parade)


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

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