Einstein’s Big Idea: E=mc²

E=mc²: We’ve all heard of it. But what does it mean?

Ein­stein’s Big Idea, a film from the PBS Nova series, attempts to shed a lit­tle light on Albert Ein­stein’s equa­tion by break­ing it down into its com­po­nent parts and telling a sto­ry behind the devel­op­ment of each one. Nar­rat­ed by actor John Lith­gow, the film is based on David Bodanis’s 2000 best­seller E=mc²: A Biog­ra­phy of the World’s Most Famous Equa­tion. It pre­miered in 2005, the 100th anniver­sary of Ein­stein’s Annus Mirabilis–the “mirac­u­lous year” when the 26-year-old patent clerk pub­lished five papers with­in a six-month peri­od that would rev­o­lu­tion­ize 20th cen­tu­ry physics. Among those five were Ein­stein’s paper out­lin­ing what lat­er became known as the Spe­cial The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty, and a short fol­low-up paper deriv­ing his for­mu­la for the equiv­a­lence of mass and ener­gy, which he first stat­ed as m=E/c².

Does Ein­stein’s Big Idea actu­al­ly explain the equa­tion? Alas, no. Not even close. Appar­ent­ly, the film­mak­ers’ “big idea” was that they might be able to evoke empa­thy among young view­ers and stim­u­late inter­est in sci­ence by por­tray­ing Ein­stein as a rebel­lious young man with a healthy sex dri­ve. The movie fea­tures dra­mat­ic depic­tions of events, not only in Ein­stein’s ear­ly life, but in the lives of sev­er­al oth­er impor­tant fig­ures in the his­to­ry of sci­ence:  the 19th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish­man Michael Fara­day, whose exten­sive exper­i­ments and intu­itive the­o­ries in elec­tric­i­ty and mag­net­ism led direct­ly to James Clerk Maxwell’s for­mal dis­cov­ery that light was an elec­tro­mag­net­ic wave;  the 18th cen­tu­ry French chemist Antoine Lavoisi­er, whose dis­cov­ery of the con­ser­va­tion of mass had to be re-for­mu­lat­ed as the con­ser­va­tion of mass-ener­gy in the wake of Ein­stein’s Rel­a­tiv­i­ty The­o­ry; the 18th cen­tu­ry French trans­la­tor of Isaac New­ton, Emi­lie du Châtelet, who used the empir­i­cal find­ings of Willem Gravesande to change New­ton’s for­mu­la for ener­gy from E=mv to the one favored by Got­tfried Wil­helm Leib­niz, E=mv²; and the Aus­tri­an-born physi­cist Lise Meit­ner, whose ground­break­ing research into nuclear fis­sion in the 1930s helped con­firm the accu­ra­cy of Ein­stein’s equa­tion. Togeth­er, the scenes depict the his­to­ry of sci­ence as a roman­tic strug­gle of extra­or­di­nary indi­vid­u­als against the resis­tance of less­er minds.

To learn more about Rel­a­tiv­i­ty and E=mc², here are some free online resources:

“On the Elec­tro­dy­nam­ics of Mov­ing Bod­ies”, Ein­stein’s famous paper from the June 30, 1905 edi­tion of Annalen der Physik, out­lin­ing the Spe­cial The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty. Avail­able as HTML or PDF.

“Does the Iner­tia of a Body Depend on Its Ener­gy Con­tent?”, Ein­stein’s three-page fol­low-up to the paper above, deriv­ing his famous equa­tion from the prin­ci­ples laid out in the ear­li­er work. It was pub­lished in Annalen der Physik on Sep­tem­ber 27, 1905 and is avail­able online as a PDF.

Rel­a­tiv­i­ty: The Spe­cial and Gen­er­al The­o­ry, Ein­stein’s clas­sic guide for the lay read­er, writ­ten in 1916 and avail­able free in var­i­ous for­mats at Project Guten­berg.

The ABC of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty, Bertrand Rus­sel­l’s very acces­si­ble 1925 book, avail­able in an abridged audio edi­tion through links in our Feb. 18 post.

Cours­es on Ein­stein can be found in the Physics sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of 500 Free Online Cours­es. And don’t miss Ein­stein for the Mass­es, a lec­ture giv­en by Rama­mur­ti Shankar, Pro­fes­sor of Physics & Applied Physics at Yale.

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  • Paul C says:

    I’d rec­om­mend a recent book by Bri­an Cox & Jeff For­shaw called “why does E=mc²? (and why should we care)” which is an acces­si­ble read and kept me read­ing to the end.

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