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Dartmouth College, explains the significance behind this hallowed

equation:

It is the most famous equation in the world. Many can recite itand attribute it to

Albert Einsteinbut few know its significance.

It tells us that mass and energy are related, and, in those rare instances where mass is

converted totally into energy, how much energy that will be. The elegance with which

it ties together three disparate parts of natureenergy, the speed of light and mass

is profound.

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It was known for some time before Einstein's insights that electromagnetic radiation

(light, for example) possessed momentum. This quality of radiation is small in

magnitudeafter all, you needn't worry about being knocked over by sunlightbut

easily measurable. Applying an understanding of light's momentum within a little

thought experiment, it is possible to see how E = mc2 comes about.

Consider a cubic hollow box at rest in space with sides of length D and a mass of M.

This box is also symmetrical in its mass distribution. One of the faces inside the box is

coated with a fluorescing material, and, at a given moment, a photon (i.e., a particle

of light) is emitted from that material, perpendicular to its surface. The momentum of

this photon causes the box to move in the opposite direction as the photon, and it

continues to move until the photon hits the opposite wall. During this time the box

moves a very small distance, x.

E=mc2 figure

Image: RONALD LASKY

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12/11/2017 What is the significance of E = mc2? And what does it mean? - Scientific American

Newton's laws of mechanics tell us that the center of mass cannot move, because the

box has not been acted upon by an outside force. However, in order to keep the center

of mass constant, since the box has moved, some mass must have been transferred

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from the fluorescing side of the box to the absorbing side in the process of generating

the photon and its striking the opposite side. Therefore the photon must have a mass,

m.

So the photon, which also possesses energy E, is emitted from the fluorescing side of

the box. Its momentum, Pphoton, is equal to its energy divided by the speed of light:

Pphoton = E / c. The photon will impart this momentum to the box, causing the box to

move a small distance, x, during the time, t, in which the photon travels to the

opposite side of the box. The momentum of the box, Pbox, is also equal to its mass, M,

times the velocity, vbox, at which it moves before the photon strikes its target. (Note:

The box loses the photon's mass, m, during this process, but this slight loss can be

neglected here.) Hence:

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12/11/2017 What is the significance of E = mc2? And what does it mean? - Scientific American

We can also determine the time it takes for the photon to travel across the box: it is

equal to the length, between parallel faces, of the box (which is D), minus the amount

the box moved in the opposite direction (x), divided by the speed of light, c. (The

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target will essentially have moved a slight distance closer, meaning the photon did

not have to travel the full distance D.):

t = (D - x) / c

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t = D / c (2)

vbox = xc / D(3)

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12/11/2017 What is the significance of E = mc2? And what does it mean? - Scientific American

xc / D = E / cM

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xM = ED / c2 (4)

Assuming the center of the box is initially at x = 0, this position is also the center of

mass, xm. After the photon event, the box moves x to the left, as shown in the figure

below, and the equivalent mass of the photon, m, is deposited on the opposite side. As

mentioned above, we recall from Newton's Laws that the center of mass must not

change, because the box is not acted upon by an outside force. This concept is

expressed in the center of mass equation below. The center of mass is at x = 0 in the

left half of the equation and it is still at 0 after the photon strikes the opposite wall as

described in the right half of the equation.

0 = (Mx - mx + mD) / M

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0 = (mD - (M + m)x) / M

Solving for x:

x = mD / (M + m)

x = mD / M (5)

(mDM) / M = ED / c2

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12/11/2017 What is the significance of E = mc2? And what does it mean? - Scientific American

m = E / c2

E = mc2

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