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So why would you have to multiply the mass of that walnut by the speed of light to determine how much energy is bound up inside it?
Of course, intuitively understanding that energy and matter are essentially one, as well as why and how so much energy can be wrapped up in even minute bits of matter, is another thing. Energy in a nutshell: Though it hardly looks full of pep, a simple walnut has enough potential energy locked within it to power a city. Perhaps the equation's most far-reaching legacy is that it provides the key to understanding the most basic natural processes of the universe, from microscopic radioactivity to the Big Bang itself. Today we know radioactivity to be a property possessed by some unstable elements, such as uranium, or isotopes, such as carbon 14, of spontaneously emitting energetic particles as their atomic nuclei disintegrate.
Every time a patient undergoes a positron emission tomography, or PET, scan, she is "paying direct homage to Einstein's insight," Jim Gates says. One application that draws on this larger equation, Gates says, is the giant neutrino detector now being built in Antarctica. Astounding as it seems, the elements that make up our bodies and all other matter on Earth originated within stars like our sun, which are veritable E = mc2 factories.
A grasp of the equivalence of mass and energy also comes in handy when studying antimatter. Einstein's equation even tells of what transpires at black holes, which can contain the mass of millions of stars.
After all, the equation grew directly out of Einstein's work on special relativity, which is a subset of what most consider his greatest achievement, the theory of general relativity. On the most basic level, the equation says that energy and mass (matter) are interchangeable; they are different forms of the same thing. The reason is that whenever you convert part of a walnut or any other piece of matter to pure energy, the resulting energy is by definition moving at the speed of light.


And E = mc2, which focuses on matter at rest, is a simplified version of a more elaborate equation that Einstein devised, which also takes into account matter in motion (more on that in a moment).
They are metamorphosing mass into energy in direct accordance with Einstein's equation. Unceasing E = mc2 disintegrations from radioactive elements such as plutonium provide everything from power for telecommunications satellites to the heat needed to keep the Mars rovers functioning during the frigid martian winter. Sunk deep in the ice, it will detect the eerie blue light, known as Cherenkov radiation, that is given off by neutrinos. When a particle meets its antiparticle, they annihilate eachother, leaving only a pulse of energy; by the same token, a high-energy photon can suddenly become a particle-antiparticle pair.
The warmth we feel from the sun, for example, is the result of the energy generated as hydrogen deep within our star continuously fuses to form helium. In the first seconds after the Big Bang, energy and matter went back and forth indiscriminately in exact accordance with the equation. Until Einstein's time, scientists typically would observe things, record them, then find a piece of mathematics that explained the results, he says. But I hope that you, like I, now have a basic comprehension with which to appreciate the equation's prodigious influence. In the 1905 paper in which he introduced E = mc2 to the world, he suggested that it might be possible to test his theory about the equation using radium, an ounce of which, as Marie Curie had discovered not long before, continuously emits 4,000 calories of heat per hour. Neutrinos are subatomic particles so lacking in mass that they pass straight through the Earth unscathed.
In fact, proper design of particle accelerators, as well as analysis of the high-speed collisions within them, would be impossible without a thorough comprehension of the equation. So the speed of light squared is the conversion factor that decides just how much energy lies captured within a walnut or any other chunk of matter.


Einstein believed that radium was constantly converting part of its mass to energy exactly as his equation specified. Many everyday devices, from smoke detectors to exit signs, also host an ongoing, invisible fireworks of E = mc2 transformations. Photons streaming out from the sun and other stars hold energy that in the vacuum of space can theoretically be harnessed to propel a spaceship. Studying their light helps cosmologists better understand these mysterious particles and their distant sources, which may include black holes. When two hydrogen atoms fuse to form a helium atom, the mass of the resulting helium is less than the two hydrogens, with the missing mass manifesting itself as fusion energy. Within accelerators, colliding particles are constantly vanishing, leaving only energy, and dollops of energy are constantly transmuting into newly fashioned particles. When they exhaust their hydrogen, they begin to burn new fuels and create new elements, which are spewed out into the universe when the stars eventually explode, as burnt-out stars are wont to do. If it weren't for E = mc2, the universe would have ended up with a completely different collection of particles than we have now. He starts off with a beautiful piece of mathematics that's based on some very deep insights into the way the universe works and then, from that, makes predictions about what ought to happen in the world. Radiocarbon dating, which archeologists use to date ancient material, is yet another application of the formula. And without knowing the relationship between the energy, momentum, and mass, that would be inconceivable to do.



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