Wednesday, February 14, 2007


THE famous equation. Made famous not so much by the enormous press Einstein received and still receives, but by its association with those stunning images of A-bombs and H-bombs, it's the formula of something everybody knows but very few understand.

From E=MC2 we got many of the staple science-fictional gimmicks of the middle 20th century. Time dilation in starships traveling at near light speeds. Radioactive mutations that typically made insects as large as pickup trucks. Atomic-powered everything.

Until the concept of nanotechnology was made popular by Eric Dexler, there was nothing to replace or even compare with the science fictionally magical properties associated with atomic energy 60-ish years ago. The wonder of that era was, I think, based in our fascination with the invisible action at a distance of Ra: radio, radiation, rays. It was almost as if radiation replaced spiritualism in the public's mystical mind. From things that went bump in the night to things that glowed in the dark: vacuum tubes, radium dial wrist watches (the closest to personal atomic appliances we’ve come), television screens. Tesla stacks for the indulgent or adventurous.

It was a different world.

It is curious that the Golden Age continuum of sci-fi ground itself out in post-apocalyptic pessimism by the 70s. Our disillusionment and disappointment by the promise of atomic energy too cheap to merit paying for, atomic rockets that would blast us off to Jupiter, and good-old atomic powered everything from inflatable love dolls to lawnmowers, seemed to express itself in our official Fiction of Wonders.

After awhile, a Holy Trinity replaced the Great God Ra of yore. Cybernetics, quantum mechanics, and molecular engineering (of both DNA and raw matter), replaced those wonderfully spooky ghosts from our machines: invisibility rays, force fields, anti-gravity gizmoes, and huge metallic atomic rockets, even though, ironically, the Holy Trinity was far more likely to provide such capabilities than the Old Testamental Ra.

(neologism for religious right fundamentalist lunacy: testa-mental)

In the beginning was E=MC2. What do it mean, peoples?

Oh, it means all kinds of things, and many of us have read the Relativity for Dummies spectrum of layman level explanations. They mostly don't work. Worst of all, they don't give us the core answer: what does E=MC2 MEAN????????????

We know what it says: Energy equals Mass multiplied by the Speed of Light (186K miles per second) multiplied by the Speed of Light (186K miles per second).

So, the energy of one ounce equals one ounce times the speed of light squared. I still don't feel illuminated. How about you? It doesn't help that explanations provided express this in statements like "enough energy to light ten million light bulbs for 3 weeks!" or "which explains why a pound or two of plutonium can make such a huge explanation!". (Should read 'explosion’ but I like Freudian typos, don't you?)

We still don't know what E=MC2 is saying.

Frustrated by this, I interrogated E=MC2 mercilessly for hours one evening in the early 1980s. I had an epiphany. Like being shot in the forehead by a one-ounce pencil traveling 186Kmps2, or, 43,596,000mps. E=MC2 is a linear equation, and so is a pencil whose mass is completely converted into kinetic energy in a straight line going one way. That's what E=MC2 means, of itself, raw and unadorned by any permutations like dividing both sides of the equation by E or anything like that, the doing of which is how lovely oddities like Lorentzian contractions and time dilations are found, as well as the conclusion that nothing can travel as fast or faster than the speed of light.

Yes, the fact that nothing but light can travel as fast or faster than the speed of light makes it impossible for a one-ounce pencil to smite one's forehead at 43,596,000 mps. Sue me. Before one can 'do the math' that shows why nothing but light can travel as fast or faster than the speed of light, it helps to viscerally intuit what the dang equation MEANS.

That is, if you believe a high school dropout who can scarcely do more than the 1 of Algebra 101. I have offered this explanation to several physics profs and numerous college grads who felt they knew relativity physics enough to speak with authority on the matter. Few of them have comprehended it; the few who did said I was wrong but either a) admitted they couldn't tell me why I was wrong, or b) when they attempted to "correct" me vaulted over my head into arcane verbal reaches of science, none of which addressed or even mentioned poor little E=MC2. I am not exaggerating.

It seems so obvious to me that my explanation by 'pencil analogy' is a) not an analogy, b) bears rigorous fidelity to the terms of the equation, and c) makes perfectly easy sense. It is no more difficult than a 6th grade word problem about driving at x mph from Boston to New Delhi (hey, it's only a word problem not a geography lesson) in y hours thus traveling ? miles. I stand my ground and yield to no one unless they can make even more perfectly easy and sensible sense of this abusively revered equation.

It is as if the physics community believed Einstein's genius sprang forth from his forehead like a pencil retreating like a tachyonic entity from the inconceivably huge explosion it made in his forehead seconds before encountering the impossibility of traveling through Albert's forehead -- or anything, including total vacuum -- at C squared. Or a Zeus goose cleaved by Hephaestus' ex, Athena, or... this is relativity, people. It's supposed to be too confusing for mere mortals to comprehend. Or so it is said.

'Twas a time when mere mortals struggled to comprehend heliocentric planetary motion or the idea that an invisible force, gravity, bound it all together in invisible celestial clockworks. The idea that something thrown could continue indefinitely if not for the weight of the earth pulling it down, only it wasn't weight it was mass, which produced weight by squeezing itself into itself.... the understanding of Newton's Apple required, I suspect, something like the myth of Newton's apple epiphany to cut through the mystic post-Scholastic/Ptolemaic bullshit and make simple sense of gravity to idjits like me and maybe you. 'Twas a time when "an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by another force or object" was as mysterious a concept to the denizens of those days as time slowing down as we go faster via relativistic time dilation is for us now. None of the objects they experienced seemed to act that way because Nature abhors a vacuum and the world of Terra’s surface is never without some force or object to keep our would-be home runs inside the park. To grasp Newtonian physics one had to imagine both a perfect vacuum, that is, total absence of interfering objects or forces, and then within that vacuum imagine an invisible force called gravity. (One had to imagine some kind of outer space void of air, a concept we grew up with, explained by high-definition color-print textbook images and educational Disney cartoons. We saw humans in silver suits float in outer space during what are absurdly called ‘space-walks’. (A better and certainly more poetic term would be ‘cosmic dip’ or ‘universal swim’.) We grew up in a world that placed no cosmic spheres between us and the cosmos. When John Lennon sang “Imagine there’s no Heaven” he meant in some other science-fictional dimension, not in the sky. We’d already unimagined that much.)

When Einstein began pondering those things that were to become the theory of relativity, he didn’t start with ‘enough light bulbs to illuminate three weeks of ideas’ nor with sophisticated side-effects like time dilation. He started with a simple idea that I will describe crudely (for crude is good): what if light were your car? And your car traveled 186k mph, and that it didn't matter if other cars or buildings or yea, even the very streets thereof (I was raised Mormon and lapse into BoM-speak at odd moments) traveled toward it or away from it at 60 mph or 100k mph, because your car would approach them or depart them at the same speed relative to them irregardless. It just would. And a head-on collision between your car and another car would happen at the same speed whether the other car were headed toward you at 60 mph or 100k mph. It just would. What would that mean?

A very simple, and very absurd, idea. Comic book fodder.

Einstein was a loon. A poetic, violin-playing, day-dreaming loon. Surely no one was more surprised than him when this premise tied the riddles together, when the math balanced out, when subsequent field experiments verified the conclusions.

He didn't START with E=MC2. He CONCLUDED with E=MC2. Because E=MC2 was the simplest, most elementary equation that could embrace the implications of light speed being absolute in relation to all other motion. It was simple, or as physicists say, "Elegant". And so, in its crude, impossible, fantastically explosive way, is a one-ounce pencil of epiphany traveling through the insight of my third eye at 34,596,000 mps.
copyright Robin Morrison


kh.qbert said...

I don't think your explanation is an explanation at all! "A pencil whose mass is completely converted into kinetic energy in a straight line going one way is a linear equation." That doesn't mean anything to me, and its apparent lack of meaning may be why nobody can explain to you why it's wrong?

I had an epiphany about the nature of light when I was 15: "The electromagnetic radiation spectrum is a circle." It felt convincing and profound to me. Of course, it means nothing. It's nonsense. I realized that later.

Robin Bob Morrison said...

You're right that my sentence (that you quote) isn't rigorously explanatory. It is an undeclared analogy. A poetic indulgence, and a poorly written one at that. It would have been better had I written "A pencil whose mass is completely converted into kinetic energy in a straight line going one way is a linear equation IN ACTION," but that still would only be more metaphor than definition.

So, to satisfy the purposes of clear explanation, I will rephrase:

To me, E=MC2 says that if, for example, we released all the energy latent in a one-ounce pencil, and expressed that energy in one straight line, it would be the amount of kinetic energy expressed as a vector of force of one ounce of mass moving at the speed of light squared times the speed of light squared. Or, in plain english, that pencil traveling at the speed of light squared.

One can view this in at least two ways: how much energy would ot take to accelerate one ounce of mass to C2? Or, how hard would a one ounce object moving at C2 impact something, say, one's forehead? (I just like the visceral visuality of the latter.)

And again, yes, I know that the information encoded in E=MC2 also tells us that it would take more energy to accelerate a one-ounce pencil to C, much less C2, than exists in the conceivable cosmos.

But before one can figure that out, one needs to comprhend E=MC2 in plain, Cartesian/Newtonian terms, because that is the world in which we intuitively live, not a world where a single hair could heat a house fopr a week or a month, and where putting the pedal to the metal will make you live noticeably longer (if one survives the crash;)

That, I assert, is what I have done with the pencil formula. We could use flaming tapioca pudding too, or the Empire State building. Alla samee.

I can see why your electromag spec epiphany felt profound. For all I know, it IS profound. But its profundity appears to me to be that of addressing what isn't known about the electromac spec rather than what is, although it's probably incorrect to say "what isn't known" but rather, I should say 'what is typically mentioned only in absence', as in this statement from the opening paragraph of a wiki article titled "Electromagnetic Spectrum":

"The electromagnetic (EM) spectrum is the range of all possible electromagnetic radiation."

Which leads us link-wise to this:

"Electromagnetic radiation is generally described as a self-propagating wave in space with electric and magnetic components."

which still leaves us wondering what happens or exists when waves in space lose electric and magentic components? What happens at the end of the spectrum?

In the absence of answers readily available to laymen wiki readers like myself, I like the circular idea of infra and ultra meeting somehwere under the rainbow.

Even so, your circular epiphany neither addresses nor explains an equation proclaimed by the world to fundamentally explain electromagnetics, such as those found by reading the wiki article for "Maxwell's equations".

However, my pencil and its straight arrow flight at C2, exactly expresses what E=MC2, one of if not THE cornerstone equation of physics, says in a simple meaningful manner no more complicated than MPG(miles per gallon)=M(miles)/(divided by)G(gallons).

Thanks for playing.

Sylvarrh said...

All you bastards is wrong! Einstein was wrong!

Lessay we're communications experts who want to send two messages about "apparent lack of meaning." We'll use Morse code. We'll use two dots instead of dashes, since a dot is more Einsteinianly elegant. We'll make it a race between a pencil dot message and a dot of light message to see whether anything can travel faster than the speed o' light. Got that? (In some far off Galactic Federation future sending Morse code messages between the stars will be an important medium of communication.) Ima gonna show you how to send a message faster than the speed o' light. Okay? Reception of either dot will stand for "apparent meaning". The slower dot will experience "apparant lack of meaning."

So, here, take a pencil, let's say it's a linear, infinitely dense pencil that won't compress along its axis. Okay now put the point of the pencil against kh.qbert's forehead where it will make a nice dot.

Now, take a hammer, let's say an Estwing 22 oz framing hammer, the one with the long shank.

Now, take a flashlight, say a Ray-O-Vac 2 cell with a top-mounted switch that works instantaneously. I mean really really instantaneously so that there is no time lag between when ya turn the switch on and when the beam of light begins to leap out in front of the Ray-O-Vac. Got that?

Okay. Line up the flashlight so that the lens is perfectly even with the eraser end of the pencil so that the light would point at a spot right next to the pencil's point on kh.qbert's forehead. This makes the race even. We are sending a dot-of-light message from the Ray-O-Vac at the same time we send a dot message by imparting kinetic energy from the hammer via the pencil. Ready?

Now swing the Estwing 22oz framing hammer HARD in such a poetically indulgent way as to create an undeclared analogy where the face of the hammer smashes into the eraser end of the pencil at exactly the same time _ and I do mean exactly - that ya turn the switch on , on the Ray-O-Vac. Got all that?

Ready ... SWING and SWITCH!

Question: Which "message" travels faster onto kh.qbert's forehead? The hammer's kenetic energy dot-message that must travel the length of the pencil so that the pencil point will dot kh.qbert's forehead ? ... Or the dot of light that must travel the length of the pencil to splash onto kh.qbert's forehead?

Let's ask kh.qbert which message was more convincing and profound.

And who are you to not allow anonymous blog posts?

Robin Bob Morrison said...

I had no idea they were disallowed.

Yer fadduh's moustahce anyway.

"kenetic energy"

You mock my alter ego, sir.

Robin Bob Morrison said...

Gedanken torture.

A new art form.

How fast can you swing a hammer?

Can you swing it with enough force to move something infinitely dense? (Like, say, my forehead, but that's behiund, if not beside, the point. Depends on your POV?) Or that infinitely dense, i.e., infinitely massive pencil.

Light is the fastest thing around, last I heard. Pencil loses, lightbeam wins.