Monday, February 9, 2009

Entretempo: Relativity and how to have a roof over the head and food on the table

collage by marguerita

The wave theory was wildly successful in explaining nearly all optical and electromagnetic phenomena, and was a great triumph of nineteenth century physics. By the late nineteenth century, however, a handful of experimental anomalies remained that could not be explained by or were in direct conflict with the wave theory. One of these anomalies involved a controversy over the speed of light. The constant speed of light predicted by Maxwell's equations and confirmed by the Michelson-Morley experiment contradicted the mechanical laws of motion that had been unchallenged since the time of Galileo, which stated that all speeds were relative to the speed of the observer. In 1905, Albert Einstein resolved this paradox by revising the Galilean model of space and time to account for the constancy of the speed of light. Einstein formulated his ideas in his special theory of relativity, which radically altered humankind's understanding of space and time. Einstein also demonstrated a previously unknown fundamental equivalenceenergy and mass with his famous equation between

E = mc^2 \,

where E is energy, m is rest mass, and c is the speed of light in a vacuum.

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