Student News Net staff
When math and science get really
challenging, you can thank Albert Einstein who lived from 1879-1955. He discovered the
mystery of the atom and the relationship between energy, mass and the speed of light. In
2000, Time Magazine named him the Person of the Century for his contributions to science.
EINSTEIN WAS BORN March 14, 1879 in Germany. When
he was five, his father, Hermann, showed him a compass. No matter how Einstein turned the
compass, the needle always pointed in the same direction. He knew that "something
deeply hidden had to be behind things," and he spent the rest of his life trying to
figure out what that something was.
After a lot of studying, he developed a theory
about how time, space, mass, motion, light and gravity are related to each other. He
explained the relationship in an equation, E=mc2, known as "Einstein's Theory of
Relativity." He figured this out in 1905 when he was only 26 and spent the rest of
his life working on his theory!
Einstein's theory helps explain how much
energy you can produce in scientific reactions. An atom is the basic structure of all life
and is made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Einstein was the first scientist to
figure out atoms could release a lot of energy if they were split apart.
The letters in Einstein's equation actually stand
for numbers: E stands for energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light. The number 2
means you "square" the speed of light, multiply 186,282 by itself, or 186,282
E IS ENERGY, M IS MASS, C IS LIGHT
The equation means that the amount of energy
(E) you can produce by splitting up atoms is equal to (=) the mass of the atom (m) times
the speed of light, squared (c2). The amount of energy changes because different atoms
have different weights.
This discovery led to the atomic age, which
started with the construction of the atom bomb in the 1940s and nuclear weapons after
that. Since then, many other peaceful applications have been created, including nuclear
power plants for electricity and systems to run ships and submarines.
Energy (E) is created by splitting atoms apart
into their electrons, protons, and neutrons. The process of breaking atoms apart to get
energy is called nuclear fission.
Mass (m) is the amount of matter in an atom. It
is determined by dividing the weight of the atom by speed because of gravity, the force
that keeps us from floating away! All atoms have a different mass.
Light (c) travels at 186,282 miles per second.
The number 2 in the equation means you "square" the speed of light - multiply
186,282 by itself or 186,282 x 186,282. If you have a calculator, try the problem. Check
your answer at the end of this story to see if you got it right!
Also, light from the sun takes a total of 8
minutes and 20 seconds to get to the Earth! How many miles are between the Earth and the
Sun if light travels at 186,282 miles per second?
You may have seen a nuclear power plant
before. They have very large cooling towers located next to a body of water, because so
much heat is produced during a nuclear reaction that a lot of water is needed to cool
everything down - just like a radiator in a car!
Nuclear power produces these huge amounts of
energy by breaking apart uranium atoms into their electrons, protons and neutrons. This is
atomic energy. Uranium is an element, a group of all of the same kind of atoms stuck
To make enough electricity to send into your
home, the nuclear power plant takes uranium atoms and splits them apart into their
electrons, protons, and neutrons. This process is called nuclear fission. It produces a
huge amount of energy (E) that can be sent out from the power plant as electricity to
homes and businesses.
When atoms split apart, most of them are changed
into new material that cannot be used. This is called nuclear waste. While the electricity
is sent into your home, the waste is sealed tightly, carried away from the plant and
buried in isolated areas of the country.
Nuclear power is made by using uranium. It is
found in small amounts in some rocks. Canada, South Africa and the United States produce
the most uranium, and in the United States, uranium is found in Colorado, New Mexico,
Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
Uranium was discovered in 1789 by German chemist
Martin Klaproth. He named uranium after the planet Uranus, which had been discovered just
eight years earlier.
In the 1700s, uranium was used to color glass.
Later, it was used in processing photographs. For these uses, the atoms were not split
But in the 1930s, uranium was found to be a good
choice to use for atomic, or nuclear, energy. It is the heaviest natural element, so when
you put the mass of the uranium into E=mc2, because the m is larger, you get more energy!
The energy given off from splitting a single uranium atom is 220 trillion electronvolts!
Splitting one pound of uranium atoms produces as much energy as burning 1,140 tons of
coal! A ton weighs 2,000 pounds. So you would need to burn 2,280,000 pounds of coal to get
the same energy from one pound of uranium in a nuclear reaction!
A German scientist used uranium to perform the
first nuclear fission test in 1938 in Germany, which was then ruled by Adolf Hitler, who
started World War II in 1939.
In 1939, Einstein, then living in the United
States, told President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a letter that he thought it was possible
to make an atom bomb using the same nuclear fission reaction. An atom bomb would produce
huge amounts of heat and is very destructive.
Einstein also warned Roosevelt that Germany might
be thinking of making an atom bomb. German scientists did know, in fact, that an atom bomb
could be made but they were too afraid to tell Hitler. Once he found out about it, Hitler
would demand it within a short period of time and the scientists would be unable to meet
his deadline. And if they didn't meet his deadline, they could be killed!
Roosevelt agreed to start atomic bomb research
under the code name The Manhattan Project. The government put ads in various science
journals to recruit scientists to work on components of the bomb but very few people had
the whole picture.
The project was a success and on Aug. 6 and Aug.
9, 1945, the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan putting an end to World War II.
Harry Truman, now President of the United States after the death of FDR, made the decision
to drop the bombs because he thought it would take another 18 months to win the war and
many more Americans would be killed.
In the movies, James Bond had all sorts of
adventures stopping bad guys from stealing uranium to make atom bombs to blow up the
world! The United States government still keeps a close eye on countries that want to
obtain uranium to refine it for nuclear weapons.
Einstein was one of the key founders of the
atomic age and a key player in American history. His "Theory of Relativity"
explained for the first time that energy and matter were not separate but related. He
discovered that atoms could be changed into large amounts of useful energy by splitting
them apart. Einstein went on to calculate how much energy could be released from atoms so
that useful applications of atomic energy could be created.
After living to see the destruction that the atom
bombs caused in two cities in Japan to end WWII, Einstein devoted the rest of his life to
peaceful uses of his theory. He lived in Princeton, NJ until his death on April 18, 1955.
DID YOU GET IT RIGHT?
How far is the Earth from the sun? You can
answer this question by changing eight minutes and 20 seconds all into seconds. That's 500
seconds. Then multiply 500 seconds by the speed of light, 186,282 miles per second. The
answer is 93,141,000. The earth is 93 million miles from the sun!