Wednesday: 12.October.2005

E=mc Einstein's Big Idea

E=mc .. this famous equation was the subject of last night's PBS special, titled Einstein's Big Idea. I enjoy pondering concepts that torque the brain. You've probably heard the classic question: if you drive your car at the speed-of-light and turn on the headlights, will they work?

Albert's surprisingly simple equation states that Energy (E) and mass (m, sometimes called "matter") are actually different manifestations of the same thing.

The letter c represents the speed-of-light (some 670 million miles-per-hour). Because it's found on the m side of the equation, it indicates that a little bit of matter can be converted into a *lot* of energy. Your 99-cent ballpoint pen contains the atomic NRG of a nuclear explosion.

continued

This is the principle behind how a reactor works, which produces energy (in the form of heat). When splitting the atom, we find that the resulting fission-fragments actually WEIGH LESS than the original atom (typically Uranium, altho bombs prefer Plutonium).

So what happened to the missing matter? You guessed it: >> converted into NRG .. similar to what happens when you go backpacking for two weeks in the Sierras (your mass gets converted into NRG).

And if you multiply the amount-of-mass-lost times the square of speed-of-light (c), you can accurately calculate the amount of NRG (heat) generated per fission (some 200 million electron-volts, if memory serves me correctly).

In the military (where I had some wonderfully brain-torque'ing courses, such as Reactor Engineering, and Nuclear Physics), we had an instructor named Dr. Wolf, who taught Math at the Navy's Nuclear Power school there in Orlando, Florida (now moved to Charleston).

The Doc was from Brooklyn, with a PhD in Mathematics. With a bushy salt-n-pepper beard, he oozed cool, cuz he was so not-military and entertaining .. in an East-Coast kinda way.

At the end of each class, he'd check his watch and say, "Okay, close you books. You don't need to know this." Then he'd spend the last few minutes sharing with us wild, cutting-edge stuff that made heads spin.

Those were the best parts of the class (*any* class). Guys would even skip break to hear what the Doc had to say. I remember feeling dizzy, like on a rollercoaster, while listening to some of the concepts he presented.

I remember how he explained that Western physics, when observed on a subatomic level, had much in common with Eastern Mysticism. There are many books available on the subject, the most popular of which is probably Fritjof Capra's THE TAO OF PHYSICS. Another is The Dancing Wu Li Masters (thx Scott).

Anyway, I wouldn't mind watching that PBS special again. You can hear Einstein himself explain his famous formula here. Hear top physicists explain E=mc here.

Len sent this very cool link to Einstein's Archives, which contains digitized copies of many of his manuscripts and papers, both scientific anfd non-scientific.

For more info on the subject, here is a Google search pre-configured for the query: E=mc einstein





Posted by Rad at October 12, 2005 11:17 AM

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