Book: Why does E=mc2

This charming book by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw attempts to do exactly what it says on the cover – explain why E=mc2, probably the most famous equation in all of history. To be more precise, it does not attempt to explain the equation metaphysically (no debate on the role of a creator). Rather, it tries to explain why in the physical universe that exists as we currently understand it Energy equally mass times the speed of light squared.

Inevitably perhaps this book can be compared to Stephen Hawking’s brief (and ageing) tome, A Brief History of Time. Both are books that seek to explain the state of scientific understanding of our universe to the general public. Both seek to make very profound scientific knowledge and discoveries understandable to someone casually interested in what goes on in the world around them. It would be a mistake to compare them however, because they are really rather different books.

To begin with this book is far more focused on that central of all equations, Einstein’s special relativity. Stephen Hawking’s book is of a far more general nature. This allows the authors to go into some real depth in explaining some of the concepts around relativity and spacetime, a luxury Hawking did not really have.

A second difference, and a crucial one, is the tone of the entire work. Hawking’s book is a much more considered volume. While not dry, it nevertheless is reflects the seriousness of its subject. Engaging, nevertheless one feels a little like you are sitting in a lecture theatre. Actually, come to think of it E=mc2 feels a little like being a lecture theatre as well, just with a very different lecturer.

Brian Cox, one of the authors, is well known as the presenter of the Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe documentary series. Anyone who has seen these series knows just how excited he gets by his subject, and how earnestly he tries to convey why and how it excites him. On screen you get a real sense of the joy he finds in his subject. You get the same in his written word. Teh real desire of the writers to try to share their wonder and excitement at what they are describing.

Of course, a great part of what they are describing is mathematics. Stephen Hawking in his work quotes the old adage that for every equation in a book, you halve the readership. For that reason he limited himself to just one equation, the famous one. Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw  appear to have taken one look at this advice, decided that since they really enjoy the mathematical equations that govern our lives they will take on the challenge to try to explain them to the rest of us.

Mathematics suffers from being thought of as boring and hard. I think if I had Brian Cox as my maths teacher in school, I would not have found it so (to be fair to my maths teacher at school, I never found it hard – he was a very good teacher – just boring, and that is probably has more to do with the syllabus than the subject). In his TV series, and in his writing, Brian Cox keeps getting excited about and goes on about “beautiful equations” and “wonderful maths”. The words strain to reassure us that everything we thought about maths being hard is wrong, that we can get it. That it is within us all to understand what it is they are going on about. If I were to make a wager, I think the authors are baffled why the rest of us do not share their love of mathematics. I also would wager they might have one or two things to say about curriculums and teachers that take the joy out of a subject.

If the mathematics and equations are all too much however, it is easily possible just to skim them. I did for some, but even skimming I learned a great deal. The way they explain the maths it the very opposite of dry, all enthusiasm, encouragement, excitement, and very many examples to try to help us understand.

The same is true when they try to explain concepts such as relativity and spacetime. I won’t try to explain it all – just go and read it oneself.

Now, it is only fair to say that this book was written just over two years ago, and the experiments at Cern (just getting underway when it was published) will no doubt make this book dated in a few years time (much like Hawking’s opus is now quite dated). For all that I thoroughly recommend this book – it is both informative and entertaining.

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2 comments
  1. Don’t know how I missed this one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention–I will look for it…

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