The Daily Rhino
Anatomy of THE Equation
We all know it. The most famous equation in history is 100 years old this year. But not many of us know how it came to be. Einstein invented it, right? Here the DR profiles six amazing minds, including two trailblazing and sadly overlooked women, all of whom changed the very way we look at the world. Those three letters explained how stars shine - and paved the way towards a bomb that would kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Michael Faraday, British scientist, 1791-1867
In the early 1800s, when Michael Faraday was a young man, the world had not grasped the concept that energy is a universal force. They believed the heat from a fire was quite separate from the light from the Sun or the chug from a steam train. Michael Faraday embodied the most inspiring of scientific heroes, the self-taught pauper who fought against prejudice and snobbery to win widespread praise.
A recent observation, not much more than a curiosity until Faraday turned his attention to it, was the finding that a compass misbehaved near an electric wire. Faraday methodically plotted the direction of the needle with respect to the wire and found that the needle was being deflected in a particular, consistent pattern. He realised a magnetic field is created at right angles to the direction of electrical flow. So what would happen if this was reversed?
He managed to deflect a wire through which a current was flowing, using a magnet. He had created the world’s first electric motor. Whilst today we are familiar with the invisible lines emanating from a magnet thanks to iron filings and primary school, Faraday was the first to realise that electricity and magnetism were intrinsically linked. He had discovered electromagnetism. This began a cascade of events leading to the realisation that energy was never destroyed nor created, merely converted between forms.
It is little wonder Faraday was so gifted, as he hailed from south London. He was the son of a blacksmith and began work as an apprentice bookbinder at the age of 14, with no education. He read every book that he laid his hands on and gradually worked his way up the ranks of the Royal Society, suffering much abuse on account of his class. But he showed those posh mofos!
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, French nobleman, tax collector, lawyer and amateur chemist, 1743-1794.
Lavoisier was a fastidious French aristocrat, deeply unpopular with most of his fellow citizens due to his position as taxman. His meticulous nature leant itself well to his enthusiasm for chemistry and biology. His contribution to the equation consisted of discovering that mass, like energy, cannot be destroyed nor created.
At the time, people thought that when wood burned, for example, mass was lost during the process of burning – as obviously ashes weigh less than the original log. The bizarre explanation was that a substance called phlogiston was lost, forever. All materials contained phlogiston, some more than others. Lavoisier rightly thought to himself “Sacre bleu, c’est merde!” He set about weighing every single variable in simple reactions, like rusting iron.
Years of unbelievably painstaking work, ably supported by his highly intelligent and apparently beautiful wife, led to the conclusion that no mass was lost or gained in a closed reaction, the mass on both sides of a chemical equation must always be equal.
Lavoisier had a big impact on science. He named hydrogen and found that combining it with oxygen produced water (the reaction that put men on the moon). But his important contribution to E = mc2 was to be one of his last. Despite being one of the few liberal tax collectors, Lavoisier lost his head at the age of 51. The revolutionary who ordered his assassination had held a grudge for many years, after Lavoisier had dismissed one of his scientific proposals.
Celeritas, or the speed of light.
Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, British mathematical physicist, 1831-1879.
Light is pretty fast. 670 million miles an hour, in fact. The energy and matter bit seems reasonable, so how does light fit into the equation? Back to good old Michael Faraday. For years he had wondered whether electromagnetism (a term he coined) was the same as light. His lack of education had one drawback – he was not a great mathematician. But help was at hand in the form of the youthful and enthusiastic James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell’s keen mind calculated that electricity could only produce a magnetic field and vice versa at a certain, fixed speed. He worked out this speed was 670 million miles an hour. The speed of light. The two friends had proved that light was a product of electromagnetism.
Emilie du Chatelet, French aristocrat, mathematician and physicist, 1706-1749.
The tragically short life of Emilie du Chatelet was quite remarkable. The contribution that she made to E = mc2 actually disproved Newton. A moving body, such as a falling body, possesses energy. We know this as kinetic and potential energy. Newton believed that a ball going twice as fast as another identical ball would have double the energy – sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? du Chatelet believed it would have four times as much energy. She tested this with the strikingly simple experiment of dropping lead balls into soft clay and measuring how far they went in.
She found the balls dropped into the clay possessed energy equal to the SQUARE of their velocities. Any object’s energy is a product of the square of its velocity – thus the superscript 2 in the equation.
du Chatelet had an amazing life. I urge you to have a quick read about her, especially any fans of girl power. For Emilie du Chatelet defied the position a woman was expected to hold in 18th century France. She had countless affairs – of which most her husband was fully aware – including with Voltaire. She learnt science, arts and languages was fiendishly intelligent and had a bunch of sprogs. Indeed an affair with a young soldier was her undoing. She fell pregnant at the dangerous age of 43 and died during childbirth.
E = mc2
Albert Einstein, German (later Swiss and American) pantheist, celebrity and physicist.
I could write reams on Einstein (in fact I will, in the future), so I’ll keep it brief for now. Einstein was one of the first to grasp that c is constant. No matter what speed you go, a beam of light always leaves you at 670 million miles an hour. It sounds bonkers. But Einstein grasped Maxwell’s idea and realised that if c does not change, what happens when a body approaches the speed of light? Its mass must increase.
It was a huge step to make. In a nutshell, his famous equation states that energy and mass are intimately linked – they are the same. Energy is mass and mass is energy. Due to the enormous figure of c2, the amount of energy possessed by even a small amount of mass is vast.
1905 was an astounding year for Einstein. I’ve included a picture of Einstein as a young man. We all know him as a crazy grey-haired joker sticking his tongue out, but it was young Einstein that wrote the equation. In the very same year Einstein put forward theories on Brownian motion, the particle nature of light and of special relativity.
A sound understanding of what the equation means – which is as straightforward as it looks – enables further leaps of imagination, some far darker than others. It explained nuclear reactions, which happens in the heart of a star, and ultimately it demonstrated how we are all stardust. The mind-blowing energy kicked out by our Sun is E = mc2 in action. A star converts mass into pure energy. Einstein’s equation also led to the devastating atom bombs dropped by the Americans, killing thousands. Einstein was haunted by this until his death.
The last figure worthy of recognition is Lise Meitner, another inspirational female scientist who battled against male-dominated establishments. Her work pioneered the field of nuclear fission – the process used by an atomic bomb. As a Jew, she fled her workplace of Berlin after the 1938 annexe, leaving all her work behind. She moved to Stockholm and found continuing her work very tough. Her colleague of many years, Otto Hahn, was left to take credit for all her work and he alone was awarded the Nobel Prize. Her friend Einstein praised her as “the German Madame Curie” and she was also a close friend of Bohr, Planck and Pauli. She died in Cambridge in 1968, aged 89.
The DR took much of his inspiration from this superb book.
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