Was Einstein Really The Brain Behind E=mc2?
Jedidiah Becker for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Sir Isaac Newton – perhaps the greatest scientific mind that ever applied itself to the mysteries of our universe – once famously stated that his paradigm-changing contributions to science had only been possible because he had stood “on the shoulders of giants.” It was in this way that he showed his indebtedness to the intellectual labors of those who had preceded him and paved the way for his own revolutionary discoveries.
Not even the most brilliant or hermitic researcher truly works alone, and every scientist – just like every artist or author – inevitably finds inspiration in the works of their intellectual peers, past and present.
It should perhaps come as no surprise then, that a new study indicates one of Einstein’s most profound discoveries may not have been entirely his own.
According to two American physicists, the world’s most famous and elegant equation, E = mc2 may have its origins in an obscure Austrian physicist named Friedrich Hasenöhrl.
As every high school student learns, Einstein’s equation established, once and for all, a concrete connection between pure energy and matter, showing the two could be converted back and forth, and forever changing the way physicists understood the nature of the universe.
In a new paper slated for publication in the upcoming issue of The European Physical Journal H, researchers Stephen Boughn of Haverford College and Tony Rothman of Princeton University argue Hasenöhrl’s little-known work in the field of blackbody radiation led him to an idea that closely anticipated Einstein’s most famous equation.
In fact, the authors argue neither Einstein nor Hasenöhrl were the first to come up with the idea that mass and energy were related, holding instead that this concept cropped up in various forms in the years and decades preceding both men’s work.
However, given Hasenöhrl came exceptionally close to uncovering the correct formula before Einstein, as well as the fact his contribution has been all but ignored by scientific historians, Boughn and Rothman wanted to take a closer look at what the Austrian physicist was working on and why he so narrowly missed the mark.
Blackbody radiation is a specific type of electromagnetic radiation given off by a physical body (known as a ‘black body’) that absorbs all electromagnetic radiation regardless of its frequency or angle of incidence. Hasenöhrl wanted to determine the change in mass of a black body moving in a cavity with perfectly reflective walls. Through his intense studies, he came up with the equation E = 3/8 mc² in 1904 – just one year before Einstein published his paradigm-shattering theory of special relativity.
Boughn and Rothman then went on to investigate the reasons why the Austrian physicist arrived at a close, yet incorrect, energy-mass correlation. What they found was Hasenöhrl appeared to have failed to take into account the amount of mass lost by the blackbody while it radiated – a seemingly minor oversight that nonetheless fatally vitiated his discovery.
In 1905, Einstein presented the world with the correct formula relating mass to electromagnetic radiation, and just a few years later, the German physicist Max von Laue would show that the equation was true not only for electromagnetic radiation but for all forms of energy.
In the decades that followed, some debate ensued as to whom should get credit for the discovery, especially amongst a group of anti-Semitic German physicists eager to strip Einstein – a Swiss Jew – of his laurels. However, by the mid 1920s, most agreed Einstein was the true father of the formula. Unlike the Nobel-prize winning German physicist Max von Laue, Einstein did not stumble upon the formula through experimental lab work but rather arrived at it through his deep and profound insight into the nature of space and time.