Here at Sketchy Science we aren’t much for cliff hangers. Generally speaking, we like to lay all the cards on the table and leave you with a well-rounded understanding of a topic before disappearing for another week. With the topic of relativity, however, we thought it best to break things up. Few subjects can blow a mind like relativity and it is easier to remember things in chunks as opposed to a giant blob of information. With that in mind, this week we are picking up where we left off last week. So, if you resisted the urge to just google things for yourself and actually waiting for this week’s article, join us as we explore the weighty side of Einstein’s theory.
A Simply Complicated Equation
First off, weighty is the wrong word. We are talking about mass. Mass is the unimpeachable number assigned to how much heft and object has anywhere in the universe whereas weight is how much mass it has on Earth. In our day to day lives, these words mean the same thing, but to keep things properly scientific we will use the word mass from here on out since these ideas aren’t bound to our little blue planet.
Everyone has at some point come across Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2 and a few of us even know that it means energy (E) is equal to an objects mass (m) multiplied by the speed of light (c) squared. The speed of light is an incredibly large number, so you can appreciate that squaring it gives you something incomprehensibly huge. Basically the equation is a mathy way of saying that all objects contain a lot of energy and that mass is just a formof stored energy.
Last week we talked about the speed of light as the cosmic speed limit and how nothing can move as fast or faster than light. An interesting and unexpected upshot of this is that as objects accelerate through space, they gain mass. To understand this we need to go back to E = mc2.
It is easy to understand that the faster an object moves, the more energy it has. If you don’t believe me, go stand in front of a fastball thrown by a professional pitcher. We have already said that according to Einstein’s equation, mass is basically just energy waiting to happen. For this reason, stored energy is often referred to by scientists as inertial mass. Another way of looking at inertial mass is as the amount of resistance an object has to going faster. It is harder to push a car than it is to push a bowling ball, and it is harder to push a bowling ball than a marble. In each case the object has more mass, more stored energy, and more inertia.
Since objects aren’t allowed to travel faster than the speed of light they need to resist gaining speed when they get too close the magic number of 300,000 km/s (186,000 mps), otherwise known as light speed. To do this, they gain mass. For an object to move at the speed of light it would need to have infinite energy which is also infinite mass and infinitely impossible.
Harnessing the Higgs
You might remember hearing on the news a while back about scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider discovering something called the Higgs Boson and it being a big deal. The reason for the hype is that for a long time scientists have thought that the Higgs Boson could be the part of an atom that gives it mass. Observing this piece of the puzzle is the first step on the road to manipulating mass to the point where we could potentially create something capable of moving faster than light and it all goes back to E = mc2 .
Science is an ongoing process of observing and thinking and theorizing and building on the work of past scientists. Its progress depends on testing ideas and inching closer to major breakthroughs by making small discoveries and putting the pieces together. Einstein’s equation built the framework that allows modern scientists to understand how light speed travel could work and by digging deep into each piece of the equation, they move us all closer to what might right now seem like science fiction.
It may not seem like it, but knowing that you gain mass when you get up to make that sandwich in a way that has nothing to do with calories could one day lead to humanity exploring the stars. Relatively speaking, that is pretty awesome.