E=mc2 passes tough MIT test

December 21, 2005

In a fitting cap to the World Year of Physics 2005, MIT physicists and colleagues from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report the most precise direct test yet of Einstein's most famous equation, E=mc2.

And, yes, Einstein still rules.

The team found that the formula predicting that energy and mass are equivalent is correct to an incredible accuracy of better than one part in a million. That's 55 times more precise than the best previous test.

Why undertake the exercise? "In spite of widespread acceptance of this equation as gospel, we should remember that it is a theory. It can be trusted only to the extent that it is tested with experiments," said team member David E. Pritchard, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics at MIT, associate director of MIT's Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE) and a principal investigator in the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms.

As he and colleagues report their results in the Dec. 22 issue of Nature: "If this equation were found to be even slightly incorrect, the impact would be enormous -- given the degree to which [it] is woven into the theoretical fabric of modern physics and everyday applications such as global positioning systems."

In the famous equation, E stands for energy, m for mass, and c for the speed of light. "In the test, we at MIT measured m, or rather the change in m associated with the energy released by a nucleus when it captures a neutron," said former MIT graduate student Simon Rainville.

The NIST scientists, led by Scott Dewey, measured E. (The speed of light is a defined and therefore exactly known quantity, so it was simply plugged into the equation.)

Specifically, the NIST team determined the energy of the particles of light, or gamma rays, emitted by the nucleus when it captures a neutron. They did so using a special spectrometer to detect the small deflection of the gamma rays after they passed through a very pure crystal of silicon.

The mass loss was obtained at MIT by measuring the difference between the mass of the nucleus before the emission of a gamma ray and after. The mass difference was measured by comparing the cyclotron orbit frequencies of two single molecules trapped in a strong magnetic field for several weeks.

Pritchard notes that the mass of the nucleus is about 4,000 times larger than the much smaller mass difference. As a result, "determining the mass difference requires the individual masses to be measured with the incredible accuracy of one part in 100 billion -- equivalent to measuring the distance from Boston to Los Angeles to within the width of a human hair!"

Despite the results of the current test of E=mc2, Pritchard said, "This doesn't mean it has been proven to be completely correct. Future physicists will undoubtedly subject it to even more precise tests because more accurate checks imply that our theory of the world is in fact more and more complete."
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Pritchard's MIT colleagues are Rainville (now at Université Laval, Quebec) and James K. Thompson (now an RLE postdoctoral associate in the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms). Rainville and Thompson are co-lead authors of the Nature paper.

This work was funded by the National Science Foundation and by a Precision Measurement Grant from NIST.

Included is a link to an audio clip of Einstein explaining his famous equation: http://www.aip.org/history/einstein/voice1.htm

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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