November 2000

Understanding relativity

By David Bodanis
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The subtitle of E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation is an immediate clue that this book is not physics as you studied it in high school or college. David Bodanis, a lecturer at Oxford University, takes what could have been a dull recitation of the facts surrounding Albert Einstein's famous theory of relativity and transforms it into a surprising and compelling book.

If you've always wondered, and never really understood, the meaning of Einstein's earth-shattering equation, this is the book for you. Separate chapters explain each component of the equation: E for energy, = for the equals sign, m for mass, c for celeritas (Latin for swift, as Einstein dubbed the speed of light), and 2 for the process of enlarging a number by squaring it. Once the foundation for Einstein's formula has been established, the book introduces other scientists as supporting characters. These include Marie Curie and her early experiments with radioactivity; Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the structure of the atom; Enrico Fermi, who delved into its nucleus; and Lise Meitner, who learned how it could be split open.

Bodanis' work has drama, suspense, good pacing and even a love story or two. From the placid obscurity of Einstein's early career to the war-time race to develop the atomic bomb, climaxing in Hiroshima's destruction, E=mc2 shows how this famous equation changed the world irrevocably. It's a highly readable book about a complex topic, and you won't need a science degree to understand and enjoy it.

Brett Peruzzi writes from his home in Massachusetts.


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