Development of Einstein's EquationDate: 06/02/99 at 02:02:18 From: Aaron Brown Subject: Einstein's Equation Derived We've been doing a lot with quantum theory and nuclear interaction in my physics class this marking period. One of the equations we covered was Einstein's e = mc^2, but for all of our searching we couldn't find a source that showed how it was derived. What equations and principles did Einstein specifically use to come up with such an equation? Date: 06/02/99 at 10:04:42 From: Doctor Rick Subject: Re: Einstein's Equation Derived Hi, Aaron, thanks for the question! I will include below something I wrote to another, younger student who wanted to know where E = mc^2 came from. I couldn't go into the equations, but I discuss the principles involved. If you have some background in relativity, you may want to know more details than I give here; if so, go ahead and ask questions. ======== It's hard to really explain this formula until you've had several more math and science classes. But I'll try to explain a little about what it means and how Einstein (with the help of others) came up with it. In the equation 2 E = mc E stands for energy and m is mass (in relativity theory, it's called the rest mass). The letter c is the speed of light (from the Latin word for speed, celeritas), which is 300,000,000 meters per second. Einstein started out to find a theoretical explanation for some puzzling experiments. Prior to those experiments, people had figured that light had a constant speed relative to some medium in which it moved. But the earth must be moving relative to that medium. (Even if it's stationary at some time, then it must be moving 6 months later when the earth moves in the opposite direction relative to the sun.) Light should appear to move more slowly in the direction the earth is moving, the way the wind seems gentler if you are moving with it in a sailboat. But the experiments seemed to show that the speed of light was the same in all directions. Einstein found that he couldn't just patch up Isaac Newton's theory of motion. He came up with a whole new theory that gave the same results as Newton's theory when things are moving slowly, but very different results at high speeds (approaching the speed of light). Newton's laws included a law that momentum (which is mass times velocity, or speed) is conserved (always stays the same) unless an outside force changes it. You probably have heard of this as "An object at rest stays at rest..." Well, Einstein's laws mean that time and space are connected, and that means that momentum and energy are connected. So Einstein found that his laws made the entirely unexpected prediction that the total energy of a system (for instance, a group of atoms) is conserved just like momentum. Newton's laws had said that energy is conserved under certain conditions (such as an "elastic collision"), but Einstein's laws said that energy is conserved always - even if, for instance, atoms combine or split. There is a catch, though - for this energy law to work, it must include the rest masses of the atoms. This is where the famous equation comes in: even if an atom is standing still, it has energy equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. No one had thought of mass as a form of energy before. The equation meant that it was possible for mass to be converted into energy. Quickly people noticed that this was just what happened in nuclear reactions. If you take the mass of a uranium atom, and compare it with the masses of the atoms and other particles that come out of a nuclear fission reaction (when the uranium nucleus breaks apart), you find that a little bit of mass is missing. Einstein's law explains that the mass has become energy - the kinetic energy (energy of movement) of the new particles speeding away from the explosion. And because the speed of light is so high, a little mass becomes a LOT of energy. This energy becomes heat that can be used in nuclear reactors to make electricity. I hope this at least gives you an appreciation of the kind of work that went into developing this equation. It looks very simple in the end, but the math involved includes things like a different form of geometry (non-euclidean) in four dimensions. Other people before Einstein had developed the math without knowing that it described the real world; Einstein saw that this math could answer the questions he was asking, and he ended up changing the world. - Doctor Rick, The Math Forum http://mathforum.org/dr.math/ |
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