Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Heart of Matter

This marvellous book explains the world’s most famous equation, by writing its biography.

Author and scholar David Bodanis was apparently inspired to write this book when he read an interview with Cameron Diaz in which the actress expressed an earnest desire to understand what E=mc2 means.
Most of us can recognise Einstein, and perhaps even mumble something about ‘special theory of relativity’ if pressed.  Perhaps I should just speak for myself here: I could even get as far as knowing that E is energy and m had something to do with matter, and the speed of light was involved somehow, but could I claim to understand it?  Of course not.  At least, until I read this amazing book

It is a biography, not of Einstein, although we certainly learn much of the man, but the equation itself.  Bodanis takes us through the ‘life story’ of each element of the equation (yes, even the ‘equals sign’ gets a chapter) and then, once we’ve been thoroughly edified and entertained, gives us this wonderful gift:
“…mass is simply the ultimate type of condensed or concentrated energy.  Energy is the reverse, it’s what billows out as an alternate form of mass under the right circumstances.  As an analogy think of the way that a few wooden twigs going up in flames can produce a great volume of billowing smoke.  To someone who’d never seen fire, it would be startling that all that smoke was ‘waiting’ inside the wood. The equation shows that any kind of mass, in theory, can be manipulated to billow out in an analogous way. It also says this will happen far more powerfully than what you would get by simple chemical burning – there is much greater expansion. That enormous conversion factor of 448,900,000,000,000,000 (the speed of light squared, represented as ‘c2’) is how much any mass gets magnified if it’s ever fully sent across the “=” of the equation.”

This was a revelation to me.  At school we were handed huge science text books called Matter, energy and life, the implication being that these three ‘kingdoms’ might well interact, but were to be thought of as very much separate entities.  We won’t discuss the meaning of life here, but matter and energy are in fact a ‘holy duality’, two aspects of the same thing, and Einstein proved it.

But Bodanis’s book is not just about Einstein, as I’ve said.  New Zealand ‘Father of physics’ Ernest Ruthford (fondly described by Bodanis as a ‘booming-voiced rugby player’ and by Einstein as ‘a second Newton’) is crucial in the ongoing story of understanding matter/energy.  To harken back to school again, we are all taught that Lord Rutherford ‘split the atom’.  Not content with explaining Einstein’s equation, Bodanis also explores what that rather glib expression which we all learned by rote actually means. This man who went to school in Havelock actually surveyed, redefined and ultimately transformed the building block of the entire universe. Below is a graphic I produced to mark his birthday in August.  (Once again, zoom in if you’d like to read all the text).



  1. I can't remember if I've picked this book up already (I have too many books!), but this does make me want to read it!

  2. Thanks Jamas! I hope you enjoy it as much as I (and presumably Cameron Diaz) did. His follow-up: Passionate minds, is also very good.