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Monday, January 02, 2012

The Beauty of E=mc2

Yesterday I watched an 80 minute video of an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, but more importantly (and the reason I knew who he was) a frequent guest on the Daily Show and Colbert Report. The interview, which was conducted by Steven Colbert, himself, out of his normal egotistical character he plays on his show, was held at a local middle school as part of a series their PTA holds as a way to help inform and cultivate knowledge to their students, faculty and community. (Educators and lovers of knowledge in Texas may sigh with jealousy now.)

I highly recommend spending an hour and a half watching the interview, which I've linked below. The whole interview is fascinating for lots of reasons, and because it is hosted by Colbert it's pretty funny (Tyson is funny, in his own right). but a few key points really stuck out at me from the interview.

I posted a couple of quotes from Tyson on my Facebook page yesterday after hearing them in the interview. The one that got me the most is at about the 22 minute mark. Colbert had asked Tyson if he sees beauty in science and, if so, which is the most beautiful. Tyson answers with very little hesitation that E=mc2 is the most beautiful thing in science. After his explanation, one would be hard pressed to argue that it may not be the most beautiful thing in the world.

Not just a famous equation that is a cliched "sciencey" thing to quote and throw about, E=mc2 is the concept that connects all human beings to each other, the earth and the cosmos. If you aren't aware, E=mc2 essentially means that if we (or anything, I guess) could travel at the speed of light times itself we would become energy. Read that sentence again and wrap your head around that for a moment or two.

Energy, which for my non-scientific brain is easiest to understand as light, and matter are essentially made out of the same thing. All of the elements in the world, in space and throughout the known universe are biproducts of the same material and can, infact become that material again. We are all connected in a very real way.

This struck me from a spiritual perspective, as well. Tyson, from what I've been able to gather is either an aetheist or agnostic. And yet, when he speaks of physics and science, he does so in a way that is reminiscent of theologians and spiritual leaders. He sees hope and beauty in the world through the lens of science in the same way that I, myself have learned to view it through God and through worship. I don't want to speculate or come to conclusions as to what this means for religion or Tyson, himself, but I find it incredibly fascinating and oddly coincidential. I love when he calls us "stardust" referencing back to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song "Woodstock" that says, "we are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." The way that I interpret these lyrics refers to the grandest idea of the hippy movement and Woodstock, itself as a time and place when the idea of coming together and recognizing our spritual and psysiological link to each other. This idea reinforces the need for us to not hate, not hurt, and help each other. This is a concept that is understood by Christians and scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson alike, whether or not they recognize it on a normal basis or not.

Finally, after reiterating his expertese as an astrophysicist and not as a poet, Tyson said this:
"Some of the greatest poetry is revealing to the reader the beauty in something that was so simple you had taken it for granted."

Tyson is specifically referring to the relative simplicity in Einstein's E=mc2, but the grand and wonderful conotations that are revealed because of it. However, I loved this quote so much because it is very true in a much greater sense. Often the best art, whether it be plays, films, paintings or poetry, are that which ask us to look at something simple or common with a new perspective.

Here's the link to the interview.

1/4/2012 UPDATE: So, I likely misinterpreted E=mc2. Regardless, watch the video and you will get what I'm talking about. Maybe.


Dwayne Bailey said...


While I'm not a physicist, I pretty sure you're interpretation of e=mc^2 is off. It doesn't say that at c (the speed of light) squared, an object becomes energy. It means that the theoretical amount of energy available from a given mass (m) if converted entirely into energy would be measured by mass x c (speed of light)^2.

That doesn't take away from your point, I don't think. Just thought you'd like to have the scientific/mathematics piece more correct.


Kyle said...

I'm probably wrong, but the speed of light part wasn't really explains by Tyson, so I did a quick Wikipedia search and briefly scanned the c part. Journalistic integrity anyone?

Mike Rizzio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Rizzio said...


Thanks for the post. There is an old adage from Dostoevsky's, The Idiot that "beauty will save the world." As a Christian one believes that Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior defines beauty, just as He defines truth and goodness (the transcendentals, with unity as the fourth). For the last five years I have been hoping that others would see the light of truth concerning E=mc^2 and its relationship to Christ (through whom all things were made). My blog at http://eucharist-emc2.blogspot.com is dedicated to this purpose. It is no mere coincidence that the Church has designated the Institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper as the fifth Mystery of Light.

God Bless You