COLUMN: I can recite E=mc², but I’m no Einstein

COLUMN: I can recite E=mc², but I’m no Einstein

Knowing the famous equation is not the same as understanding what it means

The world’s most famous equation, developed by physicist Albert Einstein in the early 20th century, is deceptively simple to recite. E=mc².

I know it by memory — and I’m no Einstein.

The famous mass-energy equivalence is likely the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century and it has affected the world in significant ways.

It has also become part of our popular culture and a shorthand to represent something which is at once both simple and brilliantly profound.

Today, 140 years after Einstein’s birth on March 14, 1879, almost everyone can recite this simple equation.

But simply being able to recite a short equation has little value.

There’s a lot more involved than the few characters used to put it in print.

What does this equation really mean?

Many of us could explain that the equation states that an object’s energy is equal to its mass times the speed of light, squared.

But this still does little to answer the question of what the equation means or how to put it to use.

Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity was published more than a century ago, in Annalen der Physik, a German physics journal, in 1905.

His work on general relativity was published in the same academic journal 11 years later.

In 1922, Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”

The equation as written in the first years of the 20th century was a little longer and more complex than it is today.

Eventually it was shortened and in the April 1946 issue of Science Illustrated, an article by Einstein is titled “E=mc²: the most urgent problem of our time.”

When Einstein refers to his equation as an urgent problem, it is worth paying attention.

But I still don’t understand what the equation means.

The Theory of Relativity deals with laws of physics, the constant speed of light and the relationship between space and time, but how any of this works together is something far outside of my understanding.

I’m no Einstein.

The equation has some important practical uses, most notably in the development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

Again, this is something I do not understand.

I don’t design or build nuclear reactors or nuclear bombs in my spare time.

I know the simple equation, but that’s really all I know about Einstein’s famous theory.

Being able to recite this short equation is not the same as knowing how Einstein arrived at it, or what it means.

Knowledge is not the same as understanding.

And even if I was well-versed in the Theory of Relativity, such knowledge and understanding would tell me how to use the equation, not whether it should be used in specific situations.

The power unleashed by an understanding of Einstein’s equation can be used to provide electrical power to millions.

Or it can be used to cause mass destruction.

When to use this information is far more important than simply being able to put it to a practical use.

Understanding is not the same as wisdom.

I can recite the famous equation.

Since I enjoy collecting trivia, I’m fascinated with nuggets of knowledge such as this one.

But I don’t pretend to understand the Theory of Relativity or how to use it.

I’m no Einstein.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Flight with COVID
Another Kelowna flight with COVID-19 exposure

Westjet flight on April 5 from Kelowna to Edmonton

Lori Jantz snapped this picture of a fight between a bald eagle and an osprey above Osoyoos Lake on Friday. (Lori Jantz photo)
Battle in the sky erupts above South Okanagan lake

Bald eagle and osprey fight mid-air in Osoyoos

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.[CDC]
More COVID-19 exposures reported at schools in Kelowna

Interior Health added additional schools and dates to their list of exposures

Royal LePage Arena was an addition to West Kelowna championed by Len Novakowski. (File photo)
West Kelowna community leader Novakowski dies

Former Westside regional district director Len Novakowski dies after lengthy health battle

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

A second case of COVID-19 has been confirmed at Vernon’s BX Elementary School. (Kerry Hutter photo)
Second COVID case confirmed at Okanagan elementary school

Exposure at Vernon’s BX Elementary happened April 6 and 7

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
UPDATE: RCMP investigating after child, 6, dies at motel in Duncan, B.C.

The BC Coroners Service is conducting its own investigation into the circumstances around the child’s death

Highway 97 being converted to four lanes in April 1990. This photo taken in Lake Country. (Greater Vernon Museum and Archives Photo #14025)
HISTORY: How the old Highway 97 in Lake Country got new name

Pelmewash Parkway recognizes the First Nations history in Lake Country

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations near Vancouver Island

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

Most Read