The Real E=mc^2

It’s the most famous equation in all of physics, written on thousands of chalkboard stock photos. Part of its charm is its simplicity: E for energy, m for mass, c for the speed of light, just a few simple symbols in a one-line equation. Despite its simplicity, E=mc^2 is deep and important enough that there are books dedicated to explaining it.

What does E=mc^2 mean?

Some will tell you it means mass can be converted to energy, enabling nuclear power and the atomic bomb. This is a useful picture for chemists, who like to think about balancing ingredients: this much mass on one side, this much energy on the other. It’s not the best picture for physicists, though. It makes it sound like energy is some form of “stuff” you can pour into your chemistry set flask, and energy really isn’t like that.

There’s another story you might have heard, in older books. In that story, E=mc^2 tells you that in relativity mass, like distance and time, is relative. The more energy you have, the more mass you have. Those books will tell you that this is why you can’t go faster than light: the faster you go, the greater your mass, and the harder it is to speed up.

Modern physicists don’t talk about it that way. In fact, we don’t even write E=mc^2 that way. We’re more likely to write:

E=\frac{mc^2}{\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}}

“v” here stands for the velocity, how fast the mass is moving. The faster the mass moves, the more energy it has. Take v to zero, and you get back the familiar E=mc^2.

The older books weren’t lying to you, but they were thinking about a different notion of mass: “relativistic mass” m_r instead of “rest mass” $m_0$, related like this:

m_r=\frac{m_0}{\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}}

which explains the difference in how we write E=mc^2.

Why the change? In part, it’s because of particle physics. In particle physics, we care about the rest mass of particles. Different particles have different rest mass: each electron has one rest mass, each top quark has another, regardless of how fast they’re going. They still get more energy, and harder to speed up, the faster they go, but we don’t describe it as a change in mass. Our equations match the old books, we just talk about them differently.

Of course, you can dig deeper, and things get stranger. You might hear that mass does change with energy, but in a very different way. You might hear that mass is energy, that they’re just two perspectives on the same thing. But those are stories for another day.

I titled this post “The Real E=mc^2”, but to clarify, none of these explanations are more “real” than the others. They’re words, useful in different situations and for different people. “The Real E=mc^2” isn’t the E=mc^2 of nuclear chemists, or old books, or modern physicists. It’s the theory itself, the mathematical rules and principles that all the rest are just trying to describe.

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