Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Electric Universe by David Bodanis; E=MC2 by David Bodanis, a dual book review

David Bodanis is going on my list of must-read authors.

The Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity is an overview of all things electric, both the commercial elements like the electric light and basic, world-shaping ones, like the way atoms are held together.

E=MC2: A Biography is an overview of the famous equation, a biography that covers each part of the equation--When and how did people first think of energy? In what terms? Who defined it the way we now understand it?  What about mass?

Bodanis presents things clearly and in a fascinating, enjoyable way. He describes both the way things work and the people who made them work or who described them to us. He is pithy and, sometimes, merciless, as in The Electric Universe when he describes Shockley as "an inadvertent innovation machine. The bright people his reputation attracted quickly bonded with one another when they realized how awful he was, and kept their bonds when they were flung out to create their own firms nearby."

In short, he can talk about things in a way that makes me want to find out more about them.

Electric Universe pairs well with Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes and The Age of Wonder by Richard Harris. There is an overlap of subject between the three--electricity--but also a variation of approach. Jonnes is looking at the people involved in the early commercial development of electricity, mostly in America; Harris is examining the general attitude toward science in the same time period, but primarily in Britain, and Bodanis is writing about electricity over a longer time period and a broader range of applications.

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