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Friday, July 30, 2010
E=MC2 A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation
Energy is the first topic, the book goes over the story of Michael Faraday and how he discovered that energy is a universal phenomenon, how energy was discovered to be an immutable and unchangeable property, when you start a reaction you end up with the same amount of energy as you went in with. Often it's a different type, such as kinetic energy being changed to heat energy, or if you have a generator you can change kinetic energy to electric energy. Faraday was one of the first scientists who was able to show that energy is a universal property and explain that it can transform. The M for mass chapter discusses the story of Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry who proved that in a chemical reaction mass is conserves, specifically by weighing metal and then rusting it and weighing again, thus proving that the oxygen that was bonding with the metal was adding to it's mass. The C is of course the speed of light, James Clerk Maxwell who while studying the older work of Cassini an Roemer, one of science's oldest rivalries, discovered that light works differently from most energy sources in that it makes jumps, as if it is sometimes mater and sometimes energy. Mr. Bodanis even goes over the origin of the equal sign and why energy squared is such a powerful and universal physical property.
What I loved about this book wasn't only the greater understanding of the science, the author tells the stories of the scientists in a powerful narrative fashion that made me want to learn more about them. For example Michael Faraday was a young scientist struggling to get cred. in a world where class mattered more than smarts. Roemer battled the king's favorite astrologer Cassini about how light traveled across the universe, Roemer was right but Cassini has a space probe named after him and a Wikipedia page while Roemer has slipped into obscurity. For the section on squaring the effects of energy, the tragic tale of Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet was a heartbreaking tale of romance, science and love lost. Seriously I'm surprised that there isn't a major motion picture based on the tale already.
The book also went beyond Einstein and into the application of the theory, it has the most visceral description of what happens when a nuclear bomb explodes that I've ever seen. It's evil stuff and I hope that it's never leveled against human beings again. If the burning of skin right off the body and the radiation sickness isn't enough, there's a moment of vacuum that happens when the superheated air contracts that rips flesh off bones. It seriously called into question the decision to use the bombs in World War II and I can see why many of the scientists who understood exactly what these explosions did were ashamed in their roles in creating the weapons in later years.
So far I have to say this is one of the best reads this year. It was that good. Thanks so much for the loan Doug, I feel very enriched by the experience.