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.

Bodanis successfully achieves a couple of goals through this book. 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 has turned the spotlight on a host of historical figures and events 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‘.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

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, he manages to walk the tightrope quite exquisitely.

In the initial chapters, Bodanis deciphers the equation E=mc2 and the events that led Einstein to it. The equation shows that mass and energy are interchangeable. However, if a unit of mass is fully converted to energy, there would be massive energy inside that unit of mass. No wonder the equation turned out to be central to the creation of atom bomb.

In the later chapters, he turns the focus of readers from the year 1905 to the WWII events such as oneupmanship between the US and Germany to build the world’s first atom bomb. By the end of WWII, Einstein’s equation had fully come of age.

Some of the other intriguing accounts depicted in the book include Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of protons, James Chadwick’s discovery of neutrons, Werner Heisenberg’s role in Germany’s Atom bomb 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 E=mc2 is laudable.

He, however, appears to have a strong bias against Heisenberg whom he almost paints as an Evil genius. Evidence of Heisenberg’s real motives to this day has been sketchy at the best. Some experts believe that he deliberately hoodwinked the German establishment, but there is little evidence to back up such claims.

The author has made 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. But, there is only a thin line between simplification and gross simplification. 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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