Everyone knows that E=mc2 is really important, but they usually don’t know what it means, and that’s frustrating, because the equation is so short that you’d think it would be understandable.
It is, on first glance, one of the most intriguing ideas of recent literature: really explaining something that we all have heard of and yet know nothing about. Albert Einstein and those five symbols have changed the world as we know it and yet most of us could not, if threatened with death, even begin to explain how and why.
Thus, this biography. A biography, Bodanis says, tells a story of something and by that story the something is explained. And so, with that in mind, this book delves into those five symbols, viewing the life of the equation as a story. First, dealing with the ancestors, Bodanis dedicates a chapter to each of the five symbols, explaining in detail what they mean and why they mean it.
And in each of these chapters, he weaves fascinating stories, not just scientific treatises. Voltaire, Michael Faraday, Ernest Rutherford, Robert Oppenheimer, Galileo, these are just a few of the men who have interacted with this equation in meaningful ways. Told with real wit and literary skill, this book is as often hilarious and charming as it is heady and intellectual. Perhaps, no, probably, even more often.
It’s in this approach to science that Bodanis achieves a masterful result; it’s less about the dry facts and more about the repercussions, the ramifications, the poetry of the universe and the lives of those people behind the symbols. By the time you’re finished, you feel as though you not only understand the equation (a fairly simple thought, really, as, Bodanis hints, all the truly great thoughts are), but also the people involved and the reasons why it means what it does.
It’s a book that doesn’t shimmer so much as reflect. In reading the section dedicated to gravity and the measurement of it over distance, I raced up a flight of stairs fully ten times in order to drop various objects and really, for the first time in years, really watch something fall and really think about it . . . the natural world shines with a rare luminosity while one is in the thrall of Bodanis’ book; the sky seems deeper and wider than ever before. One finds oneself picking up large rocks and throwing them, seeing the mass, seeing the energy, watching the dust fly when they strike ground.
It was, I believe, Annie Dillard who remarked on the similarity of purpose between prayer in the cathedral and the experiment in the laboratory. Both, she said with that elegant simplicity at which she excels, are simply humanity saying, “Hello?”
And there is that elegant beauty and passion here; Bodanis takes heavy concepts and makes them, not just accessible, but openly life affirming. This is a book where the numbers, the concepts, are windows to the magic behind a blade of grass and insight into the incredible power resting in our own bodies.
There’s a rare kind of sensibility here; it is the principle of this equation that began the world and it’s that same principle that will end the world. Fire or ice? Bodanis asks. At this point, it could go either way. And the ending of the book is one of rare stillness, rare beauty and embodies the pure literary and poetic perfection of scientific thought at its best.
It is, finally, a hymn to potential, a hymn to fullness and to power, to power and consistency and how those two things, at bottom, are one and the same. A magical book, exploding on the inward eye with the power of journalism, the wit of satire and the starburst light of poetry.
5 out of 5 stars.