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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
As we have seen, energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only converted from one form to another. One of the remarkable conclusions derived by Albert Einstein (see Albert Einstein ) when he developed his theory of relativity is that matter can be considered a form of energy too and can be converted into energy. Furthermore, energy can also be converted into matter. This seemed to contradict what humans had learned over thousands of years by studying nature. Matter is something we can see and touch, whereas energy is something objects have when they do things like move or heat up. The idea that matter or energy can be converted into each other seemed as outrageous as saying you could accelerate a car by turning the bumper into more speed, or that you could create a bigger front seat by slowing down your car. That would be pretty difficult to believe; yet, the universe actually works somewhat like that.
The remarkable equivalence between matter and energy is given in one of the most famous equations:
In this equation, E stands for energy, m stands for mass, and c , the constant that relates the two, is the speed of light (3 × 10 ^{8} meters per second). Note that mass is a measure of the quantity of matter, so the significance of this equation is that matter can be converted into energy and energy can be converted into matter. Let’s compare this equation of converting matter and energy to some common conversion equations that have the same form:
Just as each conversion formula allows you to calculate the conversion of one thing into another, when we convert matter into energy, we consider how much mass the matter has. The conversion factor in this case turns out not to be either 12 or 100, as in our examples, but another constant quantity: the speed of light squared. Note that matter does not have to travel at the speed of light (or the speed of light squared) for this conversion to occur. The factor of c ^{2} is just the number that Einstein showed must be used to relate mass and energy.
Notice that this formula does not tell us how to convert mass into energy, just as the formula for cents does not tell us where to exchange coins for a dollar bill. The formulas merely tell us what the equivalent values are if we succeed in making the conversion. When Einstein first derived his formula in 1905, no one had the faintest idea how to convert mass into energy in any practical way. Einstein himself tried to discourage speculation that the large-scale conversion of atomic mass into energy would be feasible in the near future. Today, as a result of developments in nuclear physics, we regularly convert mass into energy in power plants, nuclear weapons, and high-energy physics experiments in particle accelerators.
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