Magazine article The Spectator

More Pap Than Pop

Magazine article The Spectator

More Pap Than Pop

Article excerpt

Steve King

E=MC^sup 2^: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS EQUATION by David Bodanis Macmillan, L14.99, pp. 324

In 1905 Einstein published four papers that fundamentally changed the course of science and the way we understand the universe. He was 26 at the time, stuck in a dreary job at a Swiss patent office. One of those papers contained the equation E=mc^sup 2^ (in which E is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light). The equation simply states that energy and mass are interchangeable. All matter possesses latent energy; to work out how much, you multiply its mass by the speed of light squared. The speed of light is roughly 670 million miles an hour, so the resulting figure will of course be huge. Which means that even a very small amount of mass may be converted into a stupendous amount of energy. The terrible destructive power of the atomic bomb is only the most famous application of Einstein's insight. In fact, his tidy equation helps to explain all kinds of cosmic phenomena, from the nature of gravity, light and electromagnetism to the circumstances of the Big Bang and how the sun works.

David Bodanis tells the story of E=mc^sup 2^ in the manner of a conventional biography, with chapters on the equation's `ancestors, childhood, adolescence and adulthood'. The `ancestors' section gives the background to each term in the equation, outlining the state of scientific understanding of energy, mass and the speed of light before Einstein. As well as giants such as Newton and Galileo, Bodanis introduces us to some of Einstein's less well-known predecessors. Among them are the Danish astronomer Ole Christensen Roemer, whose experiments in 1676 to determine the speed of light, though meticulous and accurate, were dismissed out of hand by his jealous peers; and Henri Poincare, the unfortunate French mathematician whose research closely anticipated Einstein's special theory of relativity, but only appeared in print three weeks after Einstein's seminal 1905 papers. …

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