Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Why Does E=mc²?

Why Does E=mc²? by Brian Cox
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Jan 06, 11

bookshelves: big-ideas-made-accessible, borrowed, science
Read from December 30, 2010 to January 06, 2011

I loved this book, and it wasn't just that cheeky Brian Cox going on all the time about being covered in tweed and chalkdust (somebody please hand me a fan).

'Why does E=mc2' is my fifth book from the Royal Society science book shortlist. If Marcus Chown is magical cellulite cream, this is physics bootcamp - no corners cut, no let's-take-it-easy-today-shall-we. Cox and Forshaw don't just want to explain this equation - they want you to understand it, to understand its power (predictive and descriptive) and understand how, despite being just a diminutive collection of letters and symbols, it underpins nearly a century of contemporary science, and captures some of the most fundamental characteristics of the universe.

I feel like the target market for this book - a person who gave up on maths in fourth form, and stumbled through sixth form physics before escaping the next year to classics class, my natural home. Cox and Forshaw are punctilious in their care for the mathematically challenged, to the point where even I wished they'd quit apologising for bringing the maths in to it - because for once, I was following it.

I'll need to read the book at least one more time to really get to grips with the subject. But I started to feel the magic tingle of understanding when I read sentences like 'temperature is essentially nothing more than a measure of the average speed of things', or when I looked up from the book and listened to the waves breaking and thought of them as energy, drawn from the moon's gravitational force, dispersing itself through friction and sound (yep - an unusual beach read, I'll concede, but perhaps that suggests the book's measured pace and gentle writing).

I felt my usual moment of cosmic connectedness when I read in here about the Super-Kamiokande experiment in Hida, Japan, where neutrinos are 'seen' passing through a cylinder filled with 50,000 tonnes of pure water at the bottom of a mine shaft. Knowing that every second every part of my body, everthing I can see - everything I can't see - is being lanced through by innumerable particles spat out from the sun fills me with a sense of wonder that is the nearest I come to a religious sensation.

In addition to their explication of the equation, Cox and Forshaw do a good job of describing the sense of wonder physicists themselves feel, not just at the deep movements of the world, but at the almost magical way that mathematics can be used to describe them. Writing about the master equation that lies at the heart of the Standard Model of Particle Physics and sums up - well, basically everything - they note:

It is certainly impressive that we can shoehorn so much physics into one equation. It speaks volumes for Wigner's "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics". Why should the natural world not be far more complex? Why do we have the right to condense so much physics into one equation like that. Why should we not need to catalog everything in huge databases and encyclopedias? Nobody really knows why nature allows itself to be summarized in this way, and it is certainly true that this apparent underlying elegance and simplicity is one of the reasons why many physicists do what they do. While reminding ourselves that nature may not continue to submit itself to this wonderful simplification, we can at least for the moment marvel at the underlying beauty we have discovered.


Highly recommended if you have the itch to scratch, but a word of warning - if you're not interested in understanding why the theory of special relativity is so important, then this is not the book for you. The authors are intentionally avoided adding to the (understandable) hero worship that surrounds Einstein, and this is not biography-as-science: this is a maths and physics primer, kindly and interestingly written.
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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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John Pewter Great commendation. I'm seriously considering a re-read now to give this more attention. Cheers.


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