Book Review

E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis, Walker & Company, New York, 2000; 337 pages, ISBN 0802713521, hardcover, $25.00.

The year 1905 has often been termed Einstein's "miraculous year" when he published his paper on the Brownian movement within liquids, his relativity theory, and his equation E=mc2. Briefly, the equation means that energy and mass are two aspects of the same underlying thing (or rather, event). This history of the concepts and implications of Einstein's equation, focusing on the people involved, is written without mathematics for the general reader. To provide an understandable entry into Einstein's discovery, the author introduces his theme by taking up each term of the equation and weaving into it the scientific concepts and their developers. He then explains several ensuing consequences that had an enormous impact upon 20th- century life, such as the development of the atom bomb, our current understanding of reactions in stars, and how stars create the various chemical elements found on earth and throughout the cosmos.

Along the way Bodanis introduces us to many remarkable figures, some household names, others relatively obscure. For example, there is the insight of Hindu astrophysicist and Nobel-prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who at 19 was on board ship heading for Cambridge University in England. Gazing at the night sky, he suddenly realized that if energy and mass are two aspects of one thing, then when a star bursts its outer layers, the remaining core would be bound together by an increasing intensity of gravitational pull which would also draw toward it nearby substance -- in short, that it might become what we today call a black hole. It was many years, however, before his idea was endorsed by other physicists.

This look into the history of science stimulates the reader's own thoughts. It brought to my mind the idea that Einstein's equation entails the birth, life, and death of the universe, however many trillions of years it may take to fulfill. Also, that in all infinity there is no one absolute "birth" or "death," but instead an endless flow or succession of universes formed of endlessly evolving component parts, each of which manifests more and more of its own innate qualities. -- I. M. Oderberg

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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