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<E = mc2 Explained ⁄ >




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One of Einstein's great insights was to realize that matter and energy are really different forms of the same thing. Matter can be turned into energy, and energy into matter.
For example, consider a simple hydrogen atom, basically composed of a single proton. This subatomic particle has a mass of
0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 001 672 kg
This is a tiny mass indeed. But in everyday quantities of matter there are a lot of atoms! For instance, in one kilogram of pure water, the mass of hydrogen atoms amounts to just slightly more than 111 grams, or 0.111 kg.
Einstein's formula tells us the amount of energy this mass would be equivalent to, if it were all suddenly turned into energy. It says that to find the energy, you multiply the mass by the square of the speed of light, this number being 300,000,000 meters per second (a very large number):
E=mc2
= 0.111 x 300,000,000 x 300,000,000
= 10,000,000,000,000,000 Joules
This is an incredible amount of energy! A Joule is not a large unit of energy ... one Joule is about the energy released when you drop a textbook to the floor. But the amount of energy in 30 grams of hydrogen atoms is equivalent to burning hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline!


If you consider all the energy in the full kilogram of water, which also contains oxygen atoms, the total energy equivalent is close to 10 million gallons of gasoline!
Can all this energy really be released? Has it ever been?

The only way for ALL this energy to be released is for the kilogram of water to be totally annhilated. This process involves the complete destruction of matter, and occurs only when that matter meets an equal amount of antimatter ... a substance composed of 'negative mass'. Antimatter does exist; it is observable as single subatomic particles in radioactive decay, and has been created in the laboratory. But it is rather short-lived (!), since it annihilates itself and an equal quantity of ordinary matter as soon as it encounters anything. For this reason, it has not yet been made in measurable quantities, so our kilogram of water can't be turned into energy by mixing it with 'antiwater'. At least, not yet.

Another phenomenon peculiar to small elementary particles like protons is that they combine. A single proton forms the nucleus of a hydrogen atom. Two protons are found in the nucleus of a helium atom. This is how the elements are formed ... all the way up to the heaviest naturally occuring substance, uranium, which has 92 protons in its nucleus.
It is possible to make two free protons (Hydrogen nuclei) come together to make the beginnings of a helium nucleus. This requires that the protons be hurled at each other at a very high speed. This process occurs in the sun, but can also be replicated on earth with lasers, magnets, or in the center of an atomic bomb. The process is called nuclear fusion.
What makes it interesting is that when the two protons are forced to combine, they don't need as much of their energy (or mass). Two protons stuck together have less mass than two single separate protons!



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