E=MC^2

Einstein’s famous formula is truly a work of art.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nature is a work of art, but the beauty that can be contained in a seemingly simple mathematical formula is truly astounding.

I have a very distinct memory of learning the famous E=MC^2 equation in high school, at which point it was explained something like this:

Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light squared. That means that the amount of energy in a hamburger (yes, that was the example) is equal to the mass of that hamburger times the the speed of light squared. The speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s, so that number squared is really really big. Therefore the amount of energy in a hamburger is really really big.

Mind = blown.

Well, sort of.

The above description is accurate and it is, in fact, remarkable that so much energy could be contained in something of small mass. But that explanation is so flat, so uninspiring, so…uninformative.

Why should anyone care that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared? And what does the speed of light have to do with anything? It is just some magic number that you can throw into an equation to solve all your problems and sound really smart?

The famous E=MC^2 equation is the most practical form if you’d like to calculate energy, but I personally prefer to think in terms of that mysterious constant, c:

The speed of light – in a vacuum, a critical detail – is equal to the square root of energy over mass.

That is to say, energy and mass have an inverse relationship, and their ratio is constant. That ratio is the square of the maximum speed an object with no mass can travel –

The speed of light in a vacuum.

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