If your speed gets to equal that of light – Monitor

It was the very first time that my class of Senior Three at Nabumali High School (1960) was hearing the name of Einstein.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) had died only five years back, and his fame was just then reaching our teenage ears in that wonderful world of ‘high school excitement of learning’.

It would take me years to somehow learn that way back in 1921 Einstein had won the Nobel Prize for Physics – but that his most famous work as the peerless genius that he was had occurred in 1905 with his formulation of his “theory of relativity”. 

In 1960, it was the particular reference our Physics teacher (Mr Tony Irvine) made to the theory of relativity that sent my mind staggering with utter amazement! Which was that according to Einstein’s theory, if anybody travelled through space and so accelerated as to reach the speed of light, he would suddenly stop existing as matter – and instantly explode into pure energy! 

How very fantastic! Man as matter exploding into energy! All this, said Irvine, did make sense within Einstein’s ingenious theoretical framework of E=mc2; where ‘E’ stands for energy, ‘m’ for matter, ‘c’ for the speed of light (‘speed’ in Latin being ‘celeritas’), and ‘c2’ for the speed of light multiplied by itself.

This was more heart-gripping than my earlier encounter, the year before (1959), with Archimedes (c. 287- c.212 BC) and his jumping out of his bath-tub and wildly running around stark naked as he shouted ’Eureka! I have found it’ – upon being struck by the brainwave that led to his formulation of the “principle of floatation”: that ‘an object wholly or partially immersed in a liquid displaces a volume of that liquid equal to its own mass’.

(Attention: Greedy Ugandan traders who overload and sink the boats upon our waters!)
But ‘matter exploding into energy’? Wow! This was also far more fascinating than the encounter, also the year before (1959), with Isaac Newton (1643-1727) – in a history book, The Early Modern Age – and a falling apple firing his brain into the subsequent formulation of the “law of universal gravity”.

And oh, the lofty and permanently memorable poetic tribute to Newton by his brilliant contemporary Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in the famous rhyming two-line epitaph – ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; / God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.’ 

‘And all was light’ indeed – light, of course, itself being one form of energy; that is, one form of ‘the capacity or power to do work’. And, as we may all be knowing from post-high-school self-improvement: ‘energy can exist in a variety of forms such as electrical, mechanical, chemical, thermal, or nuclear, and can be transformed from one form to another’- all of which ‘have no mass, volume, or shape’. 

Oh, I should have been a scientist! (And that way, I would be presently in the great books of their excellency the presidents of Africa as senior presidential advisor on Africa and the sciences.) Yes, I should have been a scientist! Perhaps a microbiologist. Or perhaps an astrophysicist, a student of the sky and deep space and the heavens beyond.

Our Physics teacher may well have overstated or slightly misrepresented the actual claim by Einstein regarding the exact speed at which moving matter turns into energy, but the fascination had been powerfully created regarding one existential entity instantly converting into a different existential entity! Matter into energy, and energy into matter? Or, who says the process is not reversible?

How about one form of matter instantly or multi-millennially converting into another form of matter? Why were some processes reversible, and others not reversible? Like steam into water and water into ice – and vice versa. But wood into ash, no ash into wood. And rock into soil, but no soil into rock! 

Prof Timothy Wangusa is a poet and novelist. 

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