Friday, May 20, 2011

E=mc² by David Bodanis ✰✰✰✰

Quick Version:  
This book is a well laid out explanation of each part of the equation, its history, and its role in our universe.
Long Version:

The genesis of David Bodanis’ book was an interview he read in which actress Cameron Diaz expressed the desire-serious or in jest-to know what E=mc² really meant.  Bodanis realized that the truth is that very few people have even a rudimentary knowledge of the usefulness of the world’s most famous equation; this book is his attempt to rectify that.
The format chosen is an interesting one.  Those who are true novices to physics-or lack interest in pursuing the equation beyond the basics-can read the front half of the book and walk away far more knowledgeable than they were when they picked it up.  After a brief introduction to the time and place in which Einstein generated the paper which introduce the theory to the scientific world, Bodanis goes on to break down the equation and discuss each of its parts separately.  What do they mean, and how do they interact with each other?  The reader is then led on a quick trip through history with regards to how the scientific community used the theory-the race to be the first to build “The Bomb” during World War II.  Finally, the author discusses the theory in our universe.  Those not interested in a brain drain of a read would still likely read the Epilogue, which discusses what else Einstein did, and the interesting appendix, which gives closure regarding the other key participants.
Of particular interest with regards to the structure of the book are the notes.  If you would like to know more details (and are not afraid of either the odd equation or in depth descriptions), Bodanis suggests that you read the notes, where he has taken things a bit further.  It is here that I have a bone to pick.  The format that was chosen was that of endnotes, as opposed to footnotes.  When endnotes are used, there is absolutely no indication within the text that there is a back of the book furtherance of the topic-two members of our book club did not even realize they were there and thus missed the opportunity to add to their reading experience.  For those readers that do choose to read the endnotes concurrent with the front half of the book, you are left constantly flipping between the text and the notes to see if you have reached the next note (they are listed by page number).  This is extremely disruptive to the flow of a book which requires some level of concentration to read and annoyed me to no end.  Footnotes within the text would have been grand.  As a side note, a member of our group tried to read the e-reader version.  Footnotes would have enabled her to flip from text to notes with ease.  As it was, she quickly gave up on trying to maneuver between the two.
The final section, a guide to further reading, is one of the finest source guides I have ever seen.  Books are divided into categories and are each given a paragraph of explanation designed to help the reader ascertain if they are a good fit for their reading list.

An interesting side story for me was the number of women who have been involved in physics throughout the last two and a half centuries.  I found the various sections detailing their stories to be one of the most engrossing aspects of the book.  Not only were they not at home tending children and embroidering, they were competing in one of the most intellectual of fields-and one dominated by men of ego.

Our book club found this to be a wonderful discussion book.  Our top topics were the role of women in the world of physics and how religious faith and physics intersect, both for the scientists, and for casual readers of the topic.  In addition, we spent a fair amount of time discussing various events on the road to weaponization of which we had not been previously aware.
Bodanis tops off his two leveled read with one final feat-he has a website to which he directs the serious student for further, more in depth, study.  Whether you are interested in a basic explanation of a complicated theory, have a fascination with physics and would like to know more, or would like to go beyond your high school physics knowledge, this book is likely to fit your need.
Star ranking: four stars

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