Monday, January 30, 2012

Boy of Age 16 Asks Me about Relativity, etc.
10. Body's Mass Increases with Increasing Speed. Then, Why Is Light Mass Zero?

The diagram of Ole Roemer's method, used in 1676, to determine the speed of light by observing the eclipse (D) and reappearance (C) of (B) Jupiter's moon Io from different locations (E, F, G, H, L, K) in Earth orbit around the Sun (A). By Roemer.jpg: Ole Roemer derivative work: Gregors (Roemer.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (This diagram is not directly related to the present question, but is put here by the reminiscence from the speed of light.")
A friend of mine on Twitter, Aaron (a pseudonym), is an overseas, 16-year old boy, who seriously admires Albert Einstein and wants to become a physicist. He continually writes me (Ted, also a pseudonym) questions about the theory of relativity and related topics, and I am sending answers. In this series of blog posts, those questions and answers are reproduced with modifications. I am not an expert in the fields of physics related to relativity. So, my answers might contain errors. If you find any error, please do not hesitate to write a comment for the benefit, not only of the boy and me, but also of other readers.

Aaron's question of this time is closely related to the question made in the fifth story of this series, "The object's mass is zero when it is traveling at the speed of light, right? Where does its mass go?" Ted's answer to that question seems to have been insufficient for his understanding.

Aaron: According to Einstein's relativity, the mass of a body will increase when its speed approaches the speed of light, right? Then, how does it come that light has zero mass?

Ted: The relativistic increase of mass is caused, so to speak, as a result of "prohibiting" the acceleration of a body with a finite rest mass to a speed equal to or larger than the speed of light in vacuum. The light quantum, or the photon, has zero mass and always has the maximum constant speed without getting acceleration, so that no "prohibition" works on light. Light is a distinct entity in the Universe.

The above explanation is quite metaphorical. Physicists' understanding is just that the photon always has zero mass and light speed without suffering any change, even independently of relative velocity of the observer to the photon, because this hypothesis proposed by Einstein is consistent with every observation.

(Originally written on April 8 and 9, 2011)