Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

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

by David Bodanis
(paperback edition by Berkeley, 352 pages, $14.00, 2001)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Young Einstein, beneath his wild hair,
Hatched a theory beyond all compare.
Its foremost equation
For every occasion
Is E equals m times c-square.

Albert Einstein's most famous equation wasn't an "Aha!" moment. It was not even in the 29-year-old patent clerk's first publication of the theory of relativity. E=mc2, an equation that would transform the world, appeared to little notice in a brief addendum published a short time later.

To a friend, Einstein admitted, "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." Looking back on the century since that equation was born, many people would rephrase Einstein's bemusement. Is the discovery of this five-symbol fruit of the Tree of Knowledge a divine gift or a devilish prank?

Mr. Bodanis' superbly researched "biography" of the equation leaves room for both interpretations. Physicists may quibble about the author's explanations of the famous theory and his neglect of Einstein's Nobel Prize-winning work on the photoelectric effect, but they will agree that he got the main idea right: "By the mid-1800s, scientists accepted the vision of energy and mass as being like two separate domed cities.... Each one was a wondrous, magically balanced world; each was guaranteed in some unfathomable way to keep its total quantity unchanged, even though the forms in which it appeared could vary tremendously." Then came the equation that showed that the two realms were one and the same -- and interchangeable.

But this is not a physics book. It is a history of where the equation came from and how it has changed the world. After a short chapter on the equation's birth, Mr. 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.

Then Mr. Bodanis presents Albert Einstein, the person as well as the scientist, and his equally human contemporaries who uncovered the secrets of the atomic nucleus and discovered how to unleash astonishing amounts of energy from minuscule amounts of its mass. The book is at its best in its presentation of the power of E=mc2 in science, engineering, politics, and warfare. It also presents a respectable look at the origin of the planets, the sun, and the cosmos.

Mr. Bodanis includes detailed, lively, and fascinating backmatter, consisting of an epilogue about some of Einstein's other work, an appendix delving further into the lives of other "Key Participants," notes on each chapter, and a guide to further reading.

His acknowledgments end, "I loved writing this book." It shows.

Of all his books, physicist and author Fred Bortz best loved writing To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science.