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Tag Archives: Hans Christian Andersen

The Myth of Matter, p. 8

After Einstein

Some people say –perhaps rightly– Einstein didn’t really invent any new theories at all. It’s a fact that other people were working on parts of the same ideas that Einstein put together in his four miracle papers. This complaint reminds me of the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” On one level, like with Einstein’s work, Hans Christian Andersen’s story was based on a German version of a story that was originally published by a 14th century Spanish author.[1] Did Andersen plagiarize the fairy tale, or did he recast and improve it? (In the original, there was no innocent child calling out the truth of the naked emperor; that was due to Andersen’s creative input alone.)

On another level, Albert Einstein was like Andersen’s child calling out the naked truth. There was no such thing (necessarily) as ‘luminiferous ether’. Nor was there any such thing (fundamentally) as indestructible matter, atomic or otherwise.

Now to get back to the theory of matter and energy, let us spend some time thinking (naively) about their relationship, as proposed by Einstein. Our everyday experience is that we can release energy by converting one type of matter, say gasoline, air and a spark, to another type of matter, like smog, and use some of that energy to annoy other people with powerful low-frequency sound vibrations coming out of the trunks of our cars. But if you could stand it long enough, you would be able to follow that car, collect all the smog, weigh it, and you would find the mass of smog was precisely equal to the combined masses of the gasoline and air wasted by the mobile “music lover” as they converted chemical energy into bad karma. Mass, a.k.a. ‘matter’, would have been preserved; energy would have been preserved. Of course, the usefulness and sanity of having a car with a full tank of gas would be converted into the useless insanity of, …(Hey! Turn down that noise! What? Why you little…! The thermodynamic term for that is ‘entropy’.) … but physically, matter would still be matter and energy would still be energy.

But doesn’t Einstein’s theory propose that it could be possible to rip all that useless, blinking, thumping hardware out of the offender’s car and completely vaporize it into a blinding flash of pure energy – the matter being totally eliminated – that could (in naive theory) be used for constructive purposes (Just think of it next time you are out driving — why, the possibilities are endless!)? The answer is a qualified, patronizing, “Yes,” and the qualification is, “it may be theoretically, but not practically, possible.”[2]


[1] Don Juan Manuel, Tales of Count Lucanor, 1335

[2] Max Jammer, Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2000

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