E=mc²

For a long time, I had been trying to break away from the monotony of business literature and venture into something entirely different. I am glad that I picked up David Bodanis’ “E=mc² – A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation”. The significance of the equation notwithstanding, there are not many authors who I believe have endeavored to lift the shroud from this equation. David Bodanis, I must say, has done a commendable job of deciphering the world’s most famous and the most tantalizing equation. I mentioned ‘tantalizing’ because this is by any yardstick the easiest equation to remember yet only a few can explain the scale of its ramifications.

What Bodanis has successfully achieved through this book are a couple of things. Firstly, he makes the equation and its implications far more fathomable for ordinary folks. Secondly, in addition to educating the readers about the equation, he also shines the spotlight on a host of historical figures and events that were pivotal to the formation and the subsequent recognition of E=mc2. He digs into the annals of history and comes out with short, biographical stories of notable scientists like Michael Faraday, Laurent Lavoisier, James Clerk Maxwell, Ernst Rutherford, Robert Oppenheimer and not to mention, Albert Einstein. By synthesizing the achievements of these and many other scientists, Bodanis manages to build a coherent block called ‘E=mc2‘.

Taking on Einstein’s most coveted work is no modest task. I presume that prior to committing himself to the book, Bodanis must have confronted the thought of running into several knotty problems. Much to the reader’s satisfaction, not only does Bodanis hit the high spots but he also manages to inhibit himself from dumbing down the technical subject matter. In the end, Bodanis manages to walk the tightrope quite exquisitely.

Author starts off the book by explaining each constituent of Einstein’s equation: ‘E’ for energy, = for equals, ‘m’ for mass, ‘c’ for celeritas (speed of light) and even the square that sits pretty atop ‘c’. Going forward, he turns the focus of readers from year 1905 to the WWII events such as one-upping between the US and Germany towards building of the world’s first atom bomb. By the end of WWII, Einstein’s equation had fully come of age.

Some of the other highly intriguing accounts depicted in the book include Ernest Rutherford and James Chadwick’s discovery of protons and neutrons respectively, Otto Hahn and Lisa Meitner’s work on radioactivity and nuclear fission, Werner Heisenberg’s role in Germany’s Atom bomb project,  Robert Oppenheimer’s contribution in the Manhattan project and Cecilia Payne’s discovery that the sun mainly consists of Hydrogen. The intelligible manner in which Bodanis connects all the dots pertinent to the equation is laudable.

 Bodanis’ example in context of mass-energy equivalence that an object gains mass when its speed approaches the speed of light has come in for most criticism from many perfectionists who call it a popular misconception. Author also appears to have a strong bias against Heisenberg whom he almost paints as an Evil genius. Evidence of Heisenberg’s real motives has been, however, quite conflicting. Some say he deliberately led the German establishment on. Author’s treatment of Otto Hahn also borders on the harsh.

Lastly, the author makes a conscious effort to simplify much of the scientific content of the book so that an average intellectual could also imbibe the basics to the best of his ability. However, there is only a thin line between simplification and oversimplification. And evidently, many a time, even the sincerest of efforts to simplify things can lead to inaccuracies and deviations. As a result, David Bodanis’ work may not amuse the purists, but for a layman it offers a comprehensible insight into the birth of the fabled equation.

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