Biology Explainer: The big 4 building blocks of life–carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids

The short version
  • The four basic categories of molecules for building life are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
  • Carbohydrates serve many purposes, from energy to structure to chemical communication, as monomers or polymers.
  • Lipids, which are hydrophobic, also have different purposes, including energy storage, structure, and signaling.
  • Proteins, made of amino acids in up to four structural levels, are involved in just about every process of life.                                                                                                      
  • The nucleic acids DNA and RNA consist of four nucleotide building blocks, and each has different purposes.
The longer version
Life is so diverse and unwieldy, it may surprise you to learn that we can break it down into four basic categories of molecules. Possibly even more implausible is the fact that two of these categories of large molecules themselves break down into a surprisingly small number of building blocks. The proteins that make up all of the living things on this planet and ensure their appropriate structure and smooth function consist of only 20 different kinds of building blocks. Nucleic acids, specifically DNA, are even more basic: only four different kinds of molecules provide the materials to build the countless different genetic codes that translate into all the different walking, swimming, crawling, oozing, and/or photosynthesizing organisms that populate the third rock from the Sun.

                                                  

Big Molecules with Small Building Blocks

The functional groups, assembled into building blocks on backbones of carbon atoms, can be bonded together to yield large molecules that we classify into four basic categories. These molecules, in many different permutations, are the basis for the diversity that we see among living things. They can consist of thousands of atoms, but only a handful of different kinds of atoms form them. It’s like building apartment buildings using a small selection of different materials: bricks, mortar, iron, glass, and wood. Arranged in different ways, these few materials can yield a huge variety of structures.

We encountered functional groups and the SPHONC in Chapter 3. These components form the four categories of molecules of life. These Big Four biological molecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. They can have many roles, from giving an organism structure to being involved in one of the millions of processes of living. Let’s meet each category individually and discover the basic roles of each in the structure and function of life.
Carbohydrates

You have met carbohydrates before, whether you know it or not. We refer to them casually as “sugars,” molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. A sugar molecule has a carbon backbone, usually five or six carbons in the ones we’ll discuss here, but it can be as few as three. Sugar molecules can link together in pairs or in chains or branching “trees,” either for structure or energy storage.

When you look on a nutrition label, you’ll see reference to “sugars.” That term includes carbohydrates that provide energy, which we get from breaking the chemical bonds in a sugar called glucose. The “sugars” on a nutrition label also include those that give structure to a plant, which we call fiber. Both are important nutrients for people.

Sugars serve many purposes. They give crunch to the cell walls of a plant or the exoskeleton of a beetle and chemical energy to the marathon runner. When attached to other molecules, like proteins or fats, they aid in communication between cells. But before we get any further into their uses, let’s talk structure.

The sugars we encounter most in basic biology have their five or six carbons linked together in a ring. There’s no need to dive deep into organic chemistry, but there are a couple of essential things to know to interpret the standard representations of these molecules.

Check out the sugars depicted in the figure. The top-left molecule, glucose, has six carbons, which have been numbered. The sugar to its right is the same glucose, with all but one “C” removed. The other five carbons are still there but are inferred using the conventions of organic chemistry: Anywhere there is a corner, there’s a carbon unless otherwise indicated. It might be a good exercise for you to add in a “C” over each corner so that you gain a good understanding of this convention. You should end up adding in five carbon symbols; the sixth is already given because that is conventionally included when it occurs outside of the ring.

On the left is a glucose with all of its carbons indicated. They’re also numbered, which is important to understand now for information that comes later. On the right is the same molecule, glucose, without the carbons indicated (except for the sixth one). Wherever there is a corner, there is a carbon, unless otherwise indicated (as with the oxygen). On the bottom left is ribose, the sugar found in RNA. The sugar on the bottom right is deoxyribose. Note that at carbon 2 (*), the ribose and deoxyribose differ by a single oxygen.

The lower left sugar in the figure is a ribose. In this depiction, the carbons, except the one outside of the ring, have not been drawn in, and they are not numbered. This is the standard way sugars are presented in texts. Can you tell how many carbons there are in this sugar? Count the corners and don’t forget the one that’s already indicated!

If you said “five,” you are right. Ribose is a pentose (pent = five) and happens to be the sugar present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Think to yourself what the sugar might be in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. If you thought, deoxyribose, you’d be right.

The fourth sugar given in the figure is a deoxyribose. In organic chemistry, it’s not enough to know that corners indicate carbons. Each carbon also has a specific number, which becomes important in discussions of nucleic acids. Luckily, we get to keep our carbon counting pretty simple in basic biology. To count carbons, you start with the carbon to the right of the non-carbon corner of the molecule. The deoxyribose or ribose always looks to me like a little cupcake with a cherry on top. The “cherry” is an oxygen. To the right of that oxygen, we start counting carbons, so that corner to the right of the “cherry” is the first carbon. Now, keep counting. Here’s a little test: What is hanging down from carbon 2 of the deoxyribose?

If you said a hydrogen (H), you are right! Now, compare the deoxyribose to the ribose. Do you see the difference in what hangs off of the carbon 2 of each sugar? You’ll see that the carbon 2 of ribose has an –OH, rather than an H. The reason the deoxyribose is called that is because the O on the second carbon of the ribose has been removed, leaving a “deoxyed” ribose. This tiny distinction between the sugars used in DNA and RNA is significant enough in biology that we use it to distinguish the two nucleic acids.

In fact, these subtle differences in sugars mean big differences for many biological molecules. Below, you’ll find a couple of ways that apparently small changes in a sugar molecule can mean big changes in what it does. These little changes make the difference between a delicious sugar cookie and the crunchy exoskeleton of a dung beetle.

Sugar and Fuel

A marathon runner keeps fuel on hand in the form of “carbs,” or sugars. These fuels provide the marathoner’s straining body with the energy it needs to keep the muscles pumping. When we take in sugar like this, it often comes in the form of glucose molecules attached together in a polymer called starch. We are especially equipped to start breaking off individual glucose molecules the minute we start chewing on a starch.

Double X Extra: A monomer is a building block (mono = one) and a polymer is a chain of monomers. With a few dozen monomers or building blocks, we get millions of different polymers. That may sound nutty until you think of the infinity of values that can be built using only the numbers 0 through 9 as building blocks or the intricate programming that is done using only a binary code of zeros and ones in different combinations.

Our bodies then can rapidly take the single molecules, or monomers, into cells and crack open the chemical bonds to transform the energy for use. The bonds of a sugar are packed with chemical energy that we capture to build a different kind of energy-containing molecule that our muscles access easily. Most species rely on this process of capturing energy from sugars and transforming it for specific purposes.

Polysaccharides: Fuel and Form

Plants use the Sun’s energy to make their own glucose, and starch is actually a plant’s way of storing up that sugar. Potatoes, for example, are quite good at packing away tons of glucose molecules and are known to dieticians as a “starchy” vegetable. The glucose molecules in starch are packed fairly closely together. A string of sugar molecules bonded together through dehydration synthesis, as they are in starch, is a polymer called a polysaccharide (poly = many; saccharide = sugar). When the monomers of the polysaccharide are released, as when our bodies break them up, the reaction that releases them is called hydrolysis.

Double X Extra: The specific reaction that hooks one monomer to another in a covalent bond is called dehydration synthesis because in making the bond–synthesizing the larger molecule–a molecule of water is removed (dehydration). The reverse is hydrolysis (hydro = water; lysis = breaking), which breaks the covalent bond by the addition of a molecule of water.

Although plants make their own glucose and animals acquire it by eating the plants, animals can also package away the glucose they eat for later use. Animals, including humans, store glucose in a polysaccharide called glycogen, which is more branched than starch. In us, we build this energy reserve primarily in the liver and access it when our glucose levels drop.

Whether starch or glycogen, the glucose molecules that are stored are bonded together so that all of the molecules are oriented the same way. If you view the sixth carbon of the glucose to be a “carbon flag,” you’ll see in the figure that all of the glucose molecules in starch are oriented with their carbon flags on the upper left.

The orientation of monomers of glucose in polysaccharides can make a big difference in the use of the polymer. The glucoses in the molecule on the top are all oriented “up” and form starch. The glucoses in the molecule on the bottom alternate orientation to form cellulose, which is quite different in its function from starch.

Storing up sugars for fuel and using them as fuel isn’t the end of the uses of sugar. In fact, sugars serve as structural molecules in a huge variety of organisms, including fungi, bacteria, plants, and insects.

The primary structural role of a sugar is as a component of the cell wall, giving the organism support against gravity. In plants, the familiar old glucose molecule serves as one building block of the plant cell wall, but with a catch: The molecules are oriented in an alternating up-down fashion. The resulting structural sugar is called cellulose.

That simple difference in orientation means the difference between a polysaccharide as fuel for us and a polysaccharide as structure. Insects take it step further with the polysaccharide that makes up their exoskeleton, or outer shell. Once again, the building block is glucose, arranged as it is in cellulose, in an alternating conformation. But in insects, each glucose has a little extra added on, a chemical group called an N-acetyl group. This addition of a single functional group alters the use of cellulose and turns it into a structural molecule that gives bugs that special crunchy sound when you accidentally…ahem…step on them.

These variations on the simple theme of a basic carbon-ring-as-building-block occur again and again in biological systems. In addition to serving roles in structure and as fuel, sugars also play a role in function. The attachment of subtly different sugar molecules to a protein or a lipid is one way cells communicate chemically with one another in refined, regulated interactions. It’s as though the cells talk with each other using a specialized, sugar-based vocabulary. Typically, cells display these sugary messages to the outside world, making them available to other cells that can recognize the molecular language.

Lipids: The Fatty Trifecta

Starch makes for good, accessible fuel, something that we immediately attack chemically and break up for quick energy. But fats are energy that we are supposed to bank away for a good long time and break out in times of deprivation. Like sugars, fats serve several purposes, including as a dense source of energy and as a universal structural component of cell membranes everywhere.

Fats: the Good, the Bad, the Neutral

Turn again to a nutrition label, and you’ll see a few references to fats, also known as lipids. (Fats are slightly less confusing that sugars in that they have only two names.) The label may break down fats into categories, including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. You may have learned that trans fats are “bad” and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what does it all mean?

Let’s start with what we mean when we say saturated fat. The question is, saturated with what? There is a specific kind of dietary fat call the triglyceride. As its name implies, it has a structural motif in which something is repeated three times. That something is a chain of carbons and hydrogens, hanging off in triplicate from a head made of glycerol, as the figure shows.  Those three carbon-hydrogen chains, or fatty acids, are the “tri” in a triglyceride. Chains like this can be many carbons long.

Double X Extra: We call a fatty acid a fatty acid because it’s got a carboxylic acid attached to a fatty tail. A triglyceride consists of three of these fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol. Our dietary fat primarily consists of these triglycerides.

Triglycerides come in several forms. You may recall that carbon can form several different kinds of bonds, including single bonds, as with hydrogen, and double bonds, as with itself. A chain of carbon and hydrogens can have every single available carbon bond taken by a hydrogen in single covalent bond. This scenario of hydrogen saturation yields a saturated fat. The fat is saturated to its fullest with every covalent bond taken by hydrogens single bonded to the carbons.

Saturated fats have predictable characteristics. They lie flat easily and stick to each other, meaning that at room temperature, they form a dense solid. You will realize this if you find a little bit of fat on you to pinch. Does it feel pretty solid? That’s because animal fat is saturated fat. The fat on a steak is also solid at room temperature, and in fact, it takes a pretty high heat to loosen it up enough to become liquid. Animals are not the only organisms that produce saturated fat–avocados and coconuts also are known for their saturated fat content.

The top graphic above depicts a triglyceride with the glycerol, acid, and three hydrocarbon tails. The tails of this saturated fat, with every possible hydrogen space occupied, lie comparatively flat on one another, and this kind of fat is solid at room temperature. The fat on the bottom, however, is unsaturated, with bends or kinks wherever two carbons have double bonded, booting a couple of hydrogens and making this fat unsaturated, or lacking some hydrogens. Because of the space between the bumps, this fat is probably not solid at room temperature, but liquid.

You can probably now guess what an unsaturated fat is–one that has one or more hydrogens missing. Instead of single bonding with hydrogens at every available space, two or more carbons in an unsaturated fat chain will form a double bond with carbon, leaving no space for a hydrogen. Because some carbons in the chain share two pairs of electrons, they physically draw closer to one another than they do in a single bond. This tighter bonding result in a “kink” in the fatty acid chain.

In a fat with these kinks, the three fatty acids don’t lie as densely packed with each other as they do in a saturated fat. The kinks leave spaces between them. Thus, unsaturated fats are less dense than saturated fats and often will be liquid at room temperature. A good example of a liquid unsaturated fat at room temperature is canola oil.

A few decades ago, food scientists discovered that unsaturated fats could be resaturated or hydrogenated to behave more like saturated fats and have a longer shelf life. The process of hydrogenation–adding in hydrogens–yields trans fat. This kind of processed fat is now frowned upon and is being removed from many foods because of its associations with adverse health effects. If you check a food label and it lists among the ingredients “partially hydrogenated” oils, that can mean that the food contains trans fat.

Double X Extra: A triglyceride can have up to three different fatty acids attached to it. Canola oil, for example, consists primarily of oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid, all of which are unsaturated fatty acids with 18 carbons in their chains.

Why do we take in fat anyway? Fat is a necessary nutrient for everything from our nervous systems to our circulatory health. It also, under appropriate conditions, is an excellent way to store up densely packaged energy for the times when stores are running low. We really can’t live very well without it.

Phospholipids: An Abundant Fat

You may have heard that oil and water don’t mix, and indeed, it is something you can observe for yourself. Drop a pat of butter–pure saturated fat–into a bowl of water and watch it just sit there. Even if you try mixing it with a spoon, it will just sit there. Now, drop a spoon of salt into the water and stir it a bit. The salt seems to vanish. You’ve just illustrated the difference between a water-fearing (hydrophobic) and a water-loving (hydrophilic) substance.

Generally speaking, compounds that have an unequal sharing of electrons (like ions or anything with a covalent bond between oxygen and hydrogen or nitrogen and hydrogen) will be hydrophilic. The reason is that a charge or an unequal electron sharing gives the molecule polarity that allows it to interact with water through hydrogen bonds. A fat, however, consists largely of hydrogen and carbon in those long chains. Carbon and hydrogen have roughly equivalent electronegativities, and their electron-sharing relationship is relatively nonpolar. Fat, lacking in polarity, doesn’t interact with water. As the butter demonstrated, it just sits there.

There is one exception to that little maxim about fat and water, and that exception is the phospholipid. This lipid has a special structure that makes it just right for the job it does: forming the membranes of cells. A phospholipid consists of a polar phosphate head–P and O don’t share equally–and a couple of nonpolar hydrocarbon tails, as the figure shows. If you look at the figure, you’ll see that one of the two tails has a little kick in it, thanks to a double bond between the two carbons there.

Phospholipids form a double layer and are the major structural components of cell membranes. Their bend, or kick, in one of the hydrocarbon tails helps ensure fluidity of the cell membrane. The molecules are bipolar, with hydrophilic heads for interacting with the internal and external watery environments of the cell and hydrophobic tails that help cell membranes behave as general security guards.

The kick and the bipolar (hydrophobic and hydrophilic) nature of the phospholipid make it the perfect molecule for building a cell membrane. A cell needs a watery outside to survive. It also needs a watery inside to survive. Thus, it must face the inside and outside worlds with something that interacts well with water. But it also must protect itself against unwanted intruders, providing a barrier that keeps unwanted things out and keeps necessary molecules in.

Phospholipids achieve it all. They assemble into a double layer around a cell but orient to allow interaction with the watery external and internal environments. On the layer facing the inside of the cell, the phospholipids orient their polar, hydrophilic heads to the watery inner environment and their tails away from it. On the layer to the outside of the cell, they do the same.
As the figure shows, the result is a double layer of phospholipids with each layer facing a polar, hydrophilic head to the watery environments. The tails of each layer face one another. They form a hydrophobic, fatty moat around a cell that serves as a general gatekeeper, much in the way that your skin does for you. Charged particles cannot simply slip across this fatty moat because they can’t interact with it. And to keep the fat fluid, one tail of each phospholipid has that little kick, giving the cell membrane a fluid, liquidy flow and keeping it from being solid and unforgiving at temperatures in which cells thrive.

Steroids: Here to Pump You Up?

Our final molecule in the lipid fatty trifecta is cholesterol. As you may have heard, there are a few different kinds of cholesterol, some of which we consider to be “good” and some of which is “bad.” The good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, in part helps us out because it removes the bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, from our blood. The presence of LDL is associated with inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to a variety of health problems.

But cholesterol has some other reasons for existing. One of its roles is in the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity. Cholesterol is inserted throughout the lipid bilayer and serves as a block to the fatty tails that might otherwise stick together and become a bit too solid.

Cholesterol’s other starring role as a lipid is as the starting molecule for a class of hormones we called steroids or steroid hormones. With a few snips here and additions there, cholesterol can be changed into the steroid hormones progesterone, testosterone, or estrogen. These molecules look quite similar, but they play very different roles in organisms. Testosterone, for example, generally masculinizes vertebrates (animals with backbones), while progesterone and estrogen play a role in regulating the ovulatory cycle.

Double X Extra: A hormone is a blood-borne signaling molecule. It can be lipid based, like testosterone, or short protein, like insulin.

Proteins

As you progress through learning biology, one thing will become more and more clear: Most cells function primarily as protein factories. It may surprise you to learn that proteins, which we often talk about in terms of food intake, are the fundamental molecule of many of life’s processes. Enzymes, for example, form a single broad category of proteins, but there are millions of them, each one governing a small step in the molecular pathways that are required for living.

Levels of Structure

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. A few amino acids strung together is called a peptide, while many many peptides linked together form a polypeptide. When many amino acids strung together interact with each other to form a properly folded molecule, we call that molecule a protein.

For a string of amino acids to ultimately fold up into an active protein, they must first be assembled in the correct order. The code for their assembly lies in the DNA, but once that code has been read and the amino acid chain built, we call that simple, unfolded chain the primary structure of the protein.

This chain can consist of hundreds of amino acids that interact all along the sequence. Some amino acids are hydrophobic and some are hydrophilic. In this context, like interacts best with like, so the hydrophobic amino acids will interact with one another, and the hydrophilic amino acids will interact together. As these contacts occur along the string of molecules, different conformations will arise in different parts of the chain. We call these different conformations along the amino acid chain the protein’s secondary structure.

Once those interactions have occurred, the protein can fold into its final, or tertiary structure and be ready to serve as an active participant in cellular processes. To achieve the tertiary structure, the amino acid chain’s secondary interactions must usually be ongoing, and the pH, temperature, and salt balance must be just right to facilitate the folding. This tertiary folding takes place through interactions of the secondary structures along the different parts of the amino acid chain.

The final product is a properly folded protein. If we could see it with the naked eye, it might look a lot like a wadded up string of pearls, but that “wadded up” look is misleading. Protein folding is a carefully regulated process that is determined at its core by the amino acids in the chain: their hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity and how they interact together.

In many instances, however, a complete protein consists of more than one amino acid chain, and the complete protein has two or more interacting strings of amino acids. A good example is hemoglobin in red blood cells. Its job is to grab oxygen and deliver it to the body’s tissues. A complete hemoglobin protein consists of four separate amino acid chains all properly folded into their tertiary structures and interacting as a single unit. In cases like this involving two or more interacting amino acid chains, we say that the final protein has a quaternary structure. Some proteins can consist of as many as a dozen interacting chains, behaving as a single protein unit.

A Plethora of Purposes

What does a protein do? Let us count the ways. Really, that’s almost impossible because proteins do just about everything. Some of them tag things. Some of them destroy things. Some of them protect. Some mark cells as “self.” Some serve as structural materials, while others are highways or motors. They aid in communication, they operate as signaling molecules, they transfer molecules and cut them up, they interact with each other in complex, interrelated pathways to build things up and break things down. They regulate genes and package DNA, and they regulate and package each other.

As described above, proteins are the final folded arrangement of a string of amino acids. One way we obtain these building blocks for the millions of proteins our bodies make is through our diet. You may hear about foods that are high in protein or people eating high-protein diets to build muscle. When we take in those proteins, we can break them apart and use the amino acids that make them up to build proteins of our own.

Nucleic Acids

How does a cell know which proteins to make? It has a code for building them, one that is especially guarded in a cellular vault in our cells called the nucleus. This code is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The cell makes a copy of this code and send it out to specialized structures that read it and build proteins based on what they read. As with any code, a typo–a mutation–can result in a message that doesn’t make as much sense. When the code gets changed, sometimes, the protein that the cell builds using that code will be changed, too.

Biohazard!The names associated with nucleic acids can be confusing because they all start with nucle-. It may seem obvious or easy now, but a brain freeze on a test could mix you up. You need to fix in your mind that the shorter term (10 letters, four syllables), nucleotide, refers to the smaller molecule, the three-part building block. The longer term (12 characters, including the space, and five syllables), nucleic acid, which is inherent in the names DNA and RNA, designates the big, long molecule.

DNA vs. RNA: A Matter of Structure

DNA and its nucleic acid cousin, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, are both made of the same kinds of building blocks. These building blocks are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of three parts: a sugar (ribose for RNA and deoxyribose for DNA), a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. In DNA, every nucleotide has identical sugars and phosphates, and in RNA, the sugar and phosphate are also the same for every nucleotide.

So what’s different? The nitrogenous bases. DNA has a set of four to use as its coding alphabet. These are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, thymine and cytosine. The nucleotides are abbreviated by their initial letters as A, G, T, and C. From variations in the arrangement and number of these four molecules, all of the diversity of life arises. Just four different types of the nucleotide building blocks, and we have you, bacteria, wombats, and blue whales.

RNA is also basic at its core, consisting of only four different nucleotides. In fact, it uses three of the same nitrogenous bases as DNA–A, G, and C–but it substitutes a base called uracil (U) where DNA uses thymine. Uracil is a pyrimidine.

DNA vs. RNA: Function Wars

An interesting thing about the nitrogenous bases of the nucleotides is that they pair with each other, using hydrogen bonds, in a predictable way. An adenine will almost always bond with a thymine in DNA or a uracil in RNA, and cytosine and guanine will almost always bond with each other. This pairing capacity allows the cell to use a sequence of DNA and build either a new DNA sequence, using the old one as a template, or build an RNA sequence to make a copy of the DNA.

These two different uses of A-T/U and C-G base pairing serve two different purposes. DNA is copied into DNA usually when a cell is preparing to divide and needs two complete sets of DNA for the new cells. DNA is copied into RNA when the cell needs to send the code out of the vault so proteins can be built. The DNA stays safely where it belongs.

RNA is really a nucleic acid jack-of-all-trades. It not only serves as the copy of the DNA but also is the main component of the two types of cellular workers that read that copy and build proteins from it. At one point in this process, the three types of RNA come together in protein assembly to make sure the job is done right.


 By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 
This material originally appeared in similar form in Emily Willingham’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology

Wordless Wednesday: Best video from space–EVAR


This is a time-lapse video of images captured from the International Space Station from August to October 2011. You’ll see the auroras (borealis for the north, australis for the south) and, well, the entire island Earth. Bora Zivkovic, blog editor at Scientific American posted this last month. According to Bora, we owe thanks to Ron Garan, the photographer and astronaut who took the pictures and to Michael König for editing them into this lovely visual voyage. Enjoy!

Modern Astronomers

This edition of the Notable Women in Science series presents modern astronomers. Many of these women are currently working in fields of research or have recently retired. As before, pages could be written about each of these women, but I have limited information to a summary of their education, work, and selected achievements. Many of these blurbs have multiple links, which I encourage you to visit to read extended biographies and learn about their current research interests.

From L to R: Anne Kinney, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Vera Rubin, Dept. of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institute of Washington; Nancy Grace Roman Retired NASA Goddard; Kerri Cahoy, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; Randi Ludwig. University of Texas, Austin, Texas.
Vera Cooper Rubin was making advancements decades ahead of popularity of her research topic.  She received her B.A. from Vassar College, M.A. from Cornell University, and her Ph.D. from Georgetown University in the 1940s and 50s. She continued at Georgetown University as a research astronomer then assistant professor, and then moved to the Carnegie Institution. Among her honors is her election to the National Academy of Sciences and receiving the National Medal of Science, Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. She was only the second female recipient of this medal, the first being Caroline Herschel. She has had an asteroid and the Rubin-Ford effect named after her. She is currently enjoying her retirement.

Dr. Nancy Roman
Nancy Grace Roman has a lifetime love for astronomy. She received her B.A. from Swarthmore College and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the 1940s. She started her career as a research associate and instructor at Yerkes Observatory, but moved on due to a low likelihood of tenure because of her gender. She eventually moved through chief and scientist positions to Head of the Astronomical Data Center at NASA. She was the first female to hold an executive position at NASA. She has received honorary D.Sc. from several colleges and has received several awards, including the American Astronautical Society’s William Randolf Lovelace II Award and the Women in Aerospace’s LIfetime Achievement Award. She is currently continuing to inspire young girls to dream big by consulting and lecturing by invitation at venues across the U.S.

Catharine (Katy) D. Garmany researches the hottest stars. Dr. Garmany earned her B.S. from Indiana University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in the 1960s and 70s. She continued with research and teaching at several academic institutions. She has served as past president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and received the Annie Jump Cannon Award. She is currently associated with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory with several projects.

Dr. Elizabeth Roemer
Elizabeth Roemer is a premier recoverer of “lost” comets. She received her B.A.  and Ph.D. from University of California – Berkeley in the 1950s. She spent some time as a researcher at U.S. Observatories before going to the University of Arizona and moving through the professorial ranks. She has received several awards, including Mademoiselle Merit Award, one of only four recipients of the Benjamin Apthorp Gould Prize from the National Academy of Sciences, and a NASA Special Award. She is currently Professor Emerita at the University of Arizona with research interests in comets and minor planets (“asteroids”), including positions (astrometry), motions, and physical characteristics, especially of those objects that approach the Earth’s orbit.

Margaret Joan Geller is a widely respected cosmologist. She received her A.B. from the University of California-Berkeley, and M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University in the 1970s. She moved through the professorial ranks at Harvard University and is currently an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Some of her awards include the MacArthur “Genius” Award and the James Craig Watson Award from the National Academy of Sciences. She continues to provide public education in science through written, audio, and video media.

In 1995, the majestic spiral galaxy NGC 4414 was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope as part of the HST Key Project on the Extragalactic Distance Scale. An international team of astronomers, led by Dr. Wendy Freedman of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, observed this galaxy on 13 different occasions over the course of two months.


Wendy Laurel Freedman is concerned with the fundamental question”How old is the universe?”  She received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in the 1970s and 80s. After earning her Ph.D. she joined Observatories of the Carnegie Institution in Pasadena, California as a postdoctoral fellow and became faculty a few years later, as the first woman to join the Observatory’s permanent scientific staff. She has received several awards and honors, among them the Gruber Cosmology Prize. Her current work is focusing on the Giant Magellan Telescope and the questions it will answer. 

Sandra Moore Faber researches the origin of the universe. Dr. Faber earned her B.A. from Swarthmore College and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in the 1960s and 70s. She joined the Lick Observatory at the University of California – Santa Cruz and moved through the Astronomer and Professorial rankings. Her achievements include being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the Heineman Prize, a NASA Group Achievement Award, Harvard Centennial Medal, and the Bower Award. She continues to research the formation and evolution of galaxies and the evolution ofstructure in the universe.


Dr. Heidi Hammel

Heidi Hammel is known as an excellent science communicator, researcher, andleader. She earned her B.S. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii in the 1980s. At NASA she led the imaging team of the Voyager 2’s encounter with Neptune and became known for her science communication for it.  She returned to MIT as a scientist for nearly a decade. Among her honors, she has received Vladimir Karpetoff Award , Klumpke-Roberts Award, and the Carl Sagan Medal.  She is currently at the Space Science Institute with a research focused on ground- and space-based studies of Uranus and Neptune.


Judith Sharn Young was inspired by black holes. She earned her B.A. from Harvard University and her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in the 1970s. She began her academic career at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, proceeding through the professorial ranks. She has earned several honors, including the Annie Jump Cannon Prize, the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award, and a Sloan Research Fellowship. She is currently teaching and researching galaxies and imaging at the University of Massachusetts. 


Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the discoverer of pulsars. She earned her B.Sc. from the University of Glasgow and her Ph.D. from Cambridge University in the 1960s. After her graduation, she worked at the University of Southampton in research and teaching, and continued to work in research positions at several institutions. She is well known for her discovery of pulsars, which earned her research advisor a Nobel Prize. Among her awards are the Albert A. Michelson Prize, Beatrice Tinsley Prize, Herschel Medal, Magellanic Premium, and Grote Reber Metal. She has received honorary doctorates from Williams College, Harvard University, and the University of Durham. She is currently Professor of Physics and Department Chair at the Open University, England. 



Awards Mentioned:
The National Academy of Sciences is composed of select scientists who are leaders in their fields.
The National Medal of Science is a presidential award given to physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering scientists who have contributed outstanding knowledge to their field. 
The Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society is the society’s highest honor given in astronomy
American Astronautical Society’s William Randolf Lovelace II Award recognizes outstanding contributions to space science.
The Women in Aerospace’s Lifetime Achievement Award is given for contributions to aerospace science over a career spanning 25 years. 
The Annie Jump Cannon Award is given for outstanding research a doctoral student in astronomy with promise of future excellence. 
The Mademoiselle Merit Award was presented annually to young women showing the promise of great achievement.
The Benjamin Apthorp Gould Prize is given in recognition of scientific accomplishments by an American citizen. 
The NASA Special Award is given for exceptional work.
The MacArthur “Genius” Award is given to those who show exception merit and promise in creative work. 
The James Craig Watson Award is given for contributions in astronomy. 
The Gruber Cosmology Prize is given for fundamental advances in our understanding by a scientists. 
The Heineman Prize is given for outstanding work in the field of astrophysics. 
The NASA Group Achievement Award is given for accomplishment that advances NASA mission. 
The Harvard Centennial Medal is given to graduates of Harvard who have contributed to society upon graduation. 
The Bower Award is given for achievement in science. 
The Vladimir Karapetoff Award is given for outstanding technical achievement. 
The Klumpke-Roberts Award is given for enhancing public understanding and appreciation of astronomy. 
The Carl Sagan Medal is awarded for outstanding communication to the public about planetary science. 
The Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award is given to a female physicist for outstanding achievement in her early career. 
The Albert A. Michelson Prize is given for technical and professional achievement. 
The Beatrice Tinsley Prize is given for outstanding research contribution to astronomy or astrophysics. 
The Herschel Medal is given for investigations of outstanding merit in astrophysics.
The Magellanic Premium Medal is awarded for a discovery or invention advancing navigation or astronomy.


Much of the information for this post came from the book Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary edited by Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer.

Adrienne M Roehrich, Double X Science Chemistry Editor

Rest in peace, Sally Ride

Photo public domain image, via Wikimedia Commons.

By Matthew Francis, DXS Physics Editor


This week—on Monday, July 23—Sally Ride passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.


Dr. Ride was a physicist and passionate advocate for STEM education for girls, a position she bolstered through her fame as a former Space Shuttle astronaut. In fact, she was the first American woman in space, and only the third woman worldwide to travel into space. She flew twice aboard the Challenger, first in 1983 and then again in 1984, when she controlled the Shuttle’s robotic arm to deploy a satellite. Later, she served in the investigations after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the only person to sit on both committees. After retiring from NASA, she started Sally Ride Science, a company devoted to providing educational materials and classroom presentations to schools, specifically with an eye toward encouraging girls in the fields of science and engineering.


I remember her flights well, as I paid a lot of attention to the space program when I was young. (I also loved the robotic arm on the Shuttle, and wanted a chance to play with it. Now I understand that, while it might resemble a video game, it’s a video game with millions of dollars in equipment at stake. However, I still haven’t gotten over wanting to play with robotic arms. I can admit that, right?) I was the kid who wrote letters to NASA, asking for photos and information about their spacecraft. I have the pictures they sent me in a stack on my desk right now, in fact, and I’m looking at them as I write this post. While the photos themselves predated Dr. Ride’s trips into space (the last group photo in the batch comes from the third flight, STS-3, while she first flew on STS-7), my greatest interest in the Shuttle peaked during her time as as an astronaut.


Much digital ink has been spilled over the revelation about her sexual orientation—her partner in business, writing, and life for the last 27 years was Tam O’Shaughnessy, which was no secret to her family and friends but not widely known beyond. I can’t really blame Dr. Ride for keeping mostly quiet about it. After all, in the 1980s, it could have been grounds for dismissal from NASA; she faced enough sexism as it was. Her very existence as a woman astronaut was symbolic, and even today the default American astronaut is a white, (presumably) heterosexual male. Although the astronaut corps is a lot more diverse than it used to be, NASA’s close ties with the military and its historical homophobia have no doubt made it difficult for any astronaut to acknowledge their sexual identity openly. For Dr. Ride and her primary mission in life to encourage girls in science, I can understand her reluctance to make herself into another symbol. However, that very fact is a sad comment, that being a woman in the public sphere is enough to be considered unusual that she didn’t want to bring her sexual orientation into the picture. (I don’t even presume to call her a lesbian, since human sexual identity is more fluid than many of us like to admit.)


Over the last two days, many people have written eulogies, reminiscences, tributes, and biographies; I’m not sure I can add much to those. Here are some of the best:

  • Nadia Drake’s personal story from her childhood brought tears to my eyes. Similarly, I love astronomer Meg Urry’s tribute.
  • Here’s the big New York Times official obituary, which (as you might expect) is quite good and thorough.
  • While we rightfully celebrate Sally Ride’s accomplishments, let’s face it: the United States was really late in sending women into space. Institutional sexism delayed women astronauts far longer than should be acceptable in any civilized nation, and the locker-room culture at NASA during that era bears a lot of responsibility for the problem. Thirteen women trained to be part of the Mercury program, but were barred from ever flying. I lost a lot of respect for John Glenn when I found out he actively worked against allowing women to fly.
  • Natalie Wolchover at Space.com examines why there aren’t openly gay astronauts in much more detail; here’s another post on a similar personal note, from a lesbian astronomer.
  • An obituary from BuzzFeed, with comments from Ride’s sister, Bear. (Seriously, isn’t it also awesome to have a sister nicknamed “Bear”?)

Please leave your recollections of Sally Ride in the comments.

LEGO those gender stereotypes


My daughter, patiently waiting to get her own balloon jetpack.
Photo credit: Phil Blake
Why can’t you understand that my daughter wants a damn jetpack?

Last weekend, I took my daughters to a birthday party that featured a magician/balloon artist.  He was really fantastic with the kids, and kept their attention for close to 1 hour (ONE HOUR!!!).  At the end of his magic show, he began to furiously twist and tie balloons into these amazing shapes, promoting energetic and imaginative play.  Of these shapes was his own, very intricate invention: a jetpack.  

When he completed the first jetpack, I watched as the eyes of my five-year-old daughter, who happens to be a very sporty kid, light up with wonder.  She looked at me and smiled, indicating through her facial expression alone that she wanted the same balloon toy.  But, alas, when it was her turn for a balloon, her requests were met with opposition.  Here was the conversation:

Magician: How about a great butterfly balloon?

Daughter: No thanks, I’d like a jetpack please.

Magician: I think you should get a butterfly.

Daughter: I’d prefer a jetpack.

Magician: But you’re a girl.  Girls get butterflies.

Daughter (giving me a desperate look): But I really want a jetpack!

Realizing that my daughter was becoming unnecessarily upset, especially given the fact that there were 3 boys already engaging in play with their totally awesome jetpacks, myself and the hostess mother intervened.  We kindly reiterated my daughter’s requests for a jetpack.  And, so she was given a jetpack.

Later that evening, my daughter asked me why the magician insisted that she get a butterfly balloon when she explicitly asked for a jetpack.  Not wanting to reveal the realities of gender stereotype at that very point in time, I simply stated that sometimes we (a gender neutral “we”) might have to repeat ourselves so that others understand what we want.  Then she asked, “but why are butterflies only for girls?”

I was able to more or less able smooth it over with her, but it was clear to me that a very archaic reality was still in play, and my daughters were about to inherit it.  While I have nothing against typically female role-playing or dolls or princesses, I do not like when they are assumed to be the preferred activities.  I also do not like the idea that some toys, based on years of “market research,” are designed to basically pigeonhole girls into a June Cleaveresque state of being, especially without alternative play options.

The five LEGO Friends 
For instance, LEGO has recently launched a “for-girls-only” campaign, exemplified by the new “Friends” LEGO kit.  Slathered in pink and purple, this kit is designed around a narrative involving five friends and a pretend city named Heartlake.  Like nearly all cities, Heartlake boasts a bakery, a beauty salon, a cafe, and a veterinarian’s office to take care of sick animals.  However, unlike every city, Heartlake lacks things like a hospital, a fire department, a police station, and a local airport (thought they do have a flying club).  In essence, this toy is facilitating pretend play that centers ONLY on domestication, which absolutely limits both experiences and expectations for girls playing with this toy.  In essence, LEGO is assuming that all girls want the butterfly balloon instead of the jetpack.

Some might think, “jeeze, it’s just a toy!” and dismiss my objection to all that the Friends kit encompasses.  And perhaps when the Friends kit is offered in addition to a variety of toy types – gender neutral, masculine, and feminine – it may not have a significant effect on the mindset of its young, impressionable owner.  But what if that’s not the case?

Traditional LEGO bricks: For boys AND girls, goshdarnit!
LEGO has also gotten it wrong when it comes to the assumption that girls are not into the traditional LEGO blocks.  In fact, just last night, my daughter (the very one who wanted a jetpack) saw a commercial for a LEGO City product – I forgot which one – and asked that we put it on her ever expanding Christmas list.  Furthermore, both of my daughters are huge fans of the LEGO produced show on the Cartoon Network, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, which is based on the traditional LEGO figures and game.  My oldest daughter is arguably very sporty and may be more inclined to like “boy” things, but my younger daughter is chock-full of sugar and spice and yada yada yada.  She prefers to wear dresses, LOVES shoes, and demands to have her nails painted at all times.  And she still gets down with regular LEGOs and monster trucks and basketball and karate (all her own choices).  So why is LEGO shoving pastel bricks down girls’ throats?    

Gender and play

Play is an important part of cognitive development.  When children engage in play, they learn through discovery, become familiar with their own limitations, gain a better understanding of spatial relationships, become introduced to cause and effect, and, most relevant to this discussion, play exposes children to societal and cultural norms, as well as family values.  Placing limits on play can affect how a child sees him or herself in the world, which can impact both career and lifestyle choices.   

Research (and experience) has shown that the toys kids choose are shaped by societal expectations; however, these expectations are often dictated by marketing teams and their assumptions of what they think their customers want to see, perpetuating a toy culture that has changed little since the 1950s.  Furthermore, parents may impose toys that are gender “appropriate,” or even punish play that does not align with traditional gender expectations.  But what toys do kids actually want to play with?

In 2003, researchers at the University of Nebraska conducted a study to, in part, identify the impact that stereotyped toys have on play in young children.  There were 30 children who participated in this study, ranging in age from 18-47 months.  They were observed for 30 minutes in a room full of toys, with each toy defined as being traditionally masculine, feminine, or gender neutral.  Interestingly, when assessing the toy preferences of the children, boys tended to play with toys that were either masculine or gender neutral, whereas girls played with toys that were largely gender neutral.  These findings were consistent with previous studies showing that girls tend to play with toys that are not traditionally gendered (i.e. blocks, crayons, puzzles, bears, etc).  
Cherney, et al, 2003
Why is there a disconnect between the natural tendencies of toy choice among female children and what marketing executives deem as appropriate toys for girls?  While fantasy play based on domestic scenarios does have its place during normal development, restricting children to certain types of gendered toys can promote a stereotypical mindset that extends into adulthood, possibly adding to the gender inequity seen in the workplace.  Furthermore, assigning and marketing toys to a specific gender may also contribute to the gendering of household duties and/or recreational activities (i.e. only boys can play hockey or only girls do laundry).

This is obviously problematic for females, especially given the disproportionately low number of women executives and STEM professionals (just to name a few).  However, a conclusion from this study that I hadn’t even considered is the idea that overly feminized toys are not good for boys. 

How “girls only” is disadvantageous to boys

When looking at “masculine” versus “feminine” play, one would see that there is some non-overlap when it comes to learned skills.  For instance, “masculine” play often translates into being able to build something imaginative (like a spaceship or other cool technology) whereas “feminine” toys tend to encourage fantasy play surrounding taking care of the home (like putting the baby to sleep or ironing clothes). 

Both types of learning experiences are useful in today’s world, especially given that more women enter the work force and there is growing trend to more or less split household duties.  So when a kid is being offered toys that encourage play that has both masculine and feminine qualities, there is enhanced development of a variety of skills that ultimately translate into real, modern world scenarios.

However, the issue lies in the willingness to provide and play with strongly cross-gender-stereotyped toys.  Because of the number of toys having this quality, there is a huge gender divide when it comes to play, and boys are much less likely to cross gender lines, especially when toys are overtly “girly” (see figure above).  This is most often because of parents and caregivers who discourage play with “girl” toys, usually citing things like “they will make fun of you.”  Toys heavily marketed to match the stereotypical likes of girls, such as the Friends LEGO kit, clearly excludes boys from engaging in play that develops domestic skills (in addition to pigeonholing girls into thinking that girls can only do domestic things).   

Just yesterday, I came across an article on CNN discussing this issue, and it contained anecdotes similar to the one I described above.  The author described how a little girl was scoffed for having a Star-Wars thermos as well as how a little boy was told (by another little girl) that he could not have the mermaid doll he wanted.  My arguments thus far have been centered on developing a variety of skills through play, but I’d also like to add that limiting self-expression could be disastrous for the future wellbeing of an individual. 

There is some progress being made with regard to how toys are being presented in stores.  For instance, the same article described the new Toy Kingdom at Harrod’s, which does not conform to the traditionally separated “boy” and “girl” sections.  Instead, it has “worlds,” such as The Big Top(with circus acts and fairies) or Odyssey(with space crafts and gadgets).  This type of organization allows any child, regardless of gender, to engage in play that facilitates imagination and cognition.

Hey Toys’R Us, are you listening?                

 Final thoughts

Please don’t misinterpret this as being anti-pink, anti-princess, or anti-feminine.  I embrace my own femininity with vigor and pride.  I like to wear dresses and makeup and get my hair did.  Give me a pair of Manolo Blahniks and I will wear the shit out of them.  But I will do so while elbow deep in a biochemical analysis of intracellular cholesterol transport.    

My point is that if you are going to make a toy more appealing to girls by painting it pink, don’t forget to include facets that allow girls to be comfortable with their femininity while providing an experience that promotes empowerment and an unlimited imagination.  Furthermore, don’t exclude boys from getting an experience that helps them acquire skills that are applicable (and desirable) in the modern world.  As it stands right now, toys like the Friends LEGO kit does neither of these and I believe that they major fails, both of the Double X and the XY variety.    

For more, check out Feminist Frequency’s takedown of LEGO:



References:
Judith E. Owen Blakemore and Renee E. Centers, Characteristics of Boys’ and Girls’ Toys, Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 9/10, November 2005 [PDF, paywall]

Gerianne M. Alexander, Ph.D., An Evolutionary Perspective of Sex-Typed Toy Preferences: Pink, Blue, and the Brain, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 1, , pp. 7–14, February 2003 [PDF, paywall]

Isabelle D. Cherney, Lisa Kelly-Vance, Katrina Gill Glover, Amy Ruane, and Brigette Oliver Ryalls, The Effects of Stereotyped Toys and Gender on Play Assessment in Children Aged 18-47 Months, Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 23:1, 95-106, 2003

Carol J. Auster and Claire S. Mansbach, The Gender Marketing of Toys: An Analysis of Color and Type of Toy on the Disney Store Website, Sex Roles, 2012 [abstract link]

Isabelle D. Cherney and  Kamala London, Gender-linked Differences in the Toys, Television Shows, Computer Games, and Outdoor Activities of 5- to 13-year-old Children, Sex Roles, 2006 [PDF]

Isabelle D. Cherney and Bridget Oliver Ryalls, Gender-linked differences in the incidental memory of children and adults, J Exp Child Psychol, 1999 Apr;72(4):305-28 [abstract link]

Einstein's most famous equation, sort of. This is the transcription of the chalkboard from a public talk Einstein gave in Pittsburgh in 1934. (Credit: Dwight Vincent and David Topper)

Did Einstein write his most famous equation? Does it matter?

Why all the fuss about E = m c2?

By Matthew R. Francis

Albert Einstein in Pittsburgh, 1934. (Credit: Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph/Dwight Vincent and David Topper)

The association is strong in our minds: Albert Einstein. Genius. Crazy hair. E = m c2. Maybe many people don’t know what else Einstein did, but they know about the hair and that equation. They may think he flunked math in school (wrong, though he did have conflicts with some teachers), that he was a ladies’ man (true, he had numerous affairs during both of his marriages), and that he was the smartest man who ever lived (debatable, though he certainly is one of the central figures in 20th century physics). Rarely, people will remember that he was a passionate antiracist and advocate for world government as a way of bringing peace.

Obviously whole books have been written about Einstein and E = m c2, but a blog post at io9 caught my attention recently. The post (by George Dvorsky) itself looked back to a scholarly paper by David Topper and Dwight Vincent [1], which reconstructed a public lecture Einstein gave in 1934. (All numbers in square brackets [#] are citations to the references at the end of this post.) This lecture was one of many Einstein presented over the decades, but as Topper and Vincent wrote, “As far as we know [the photograph] is the only extant picture with Einstein and his famous equation.”

Well, kind of. The photograph is really blurry, and the authors had to reconstruct what was written because you can’t actually see any of the equations clearly. Even in the reconstructed version (reproduced below)…there’s no E = m c2. Instead, as I highlighted in the image, the equation is E0 = m. Einstein set the speed of light – usually written as a very large number like 300 million meters per second, or 186,000 miles per second – equal to 1 in his chalkboard talk.

Einstein's most famous equation, sort of. This is the transcription of the chalkboard from a public talk Einstein gave in Pittsburgh in 1934. (Credit: Dwight Vincent and David Topper)

Einstein’s most famous equation, sort of. This is the transcription of the chalkboard from a public talk Einstein gave in Pittsburgh in 1934. (Credit: Dwight Vincent and David Topper)

What’s the meaning of this?

It is customary to express the equivalence of mass and energy (though somewhat inexactly) by the formula E = mc2, in which c represents the velocity of light, about 186,000 miles per second. E is the energy that is contained in a stationary body; m is its mass. The energy that belongs to the mass m is equal to this mass, multiplied by the square of the enormous speed of light – which is to say, a vast amount of energy for every unit of mass. –Albert Einstein [2]

Before I explain why it isn’t a big deal to modify an equation the way Einstein did, it’s good to remember what E = m c2 means. The symbols are simple, but they encode some deep knowledge. E is energy; while colloquially that term gets used for a lot of different things, in physics it’s a measure of the ability of a system to do things. High energy means fast motion, or the ability to make things move fast, or the ability to punch through barriers. Mass m, on the other hand, is a measure of inertia: how hard it is to change an object’s motion. If you kick a rock on the Moon, it will fly farther than it would on Earth, but it’ll hurt your foot just as much – it has the same mass and therefore inertia both places. Finally, c is the speed of light, a fundamental constant of nature. The speed of light is the same for an object of any mass, moving at any velocity.

Mass and energy aren’t independent, even without relativity involved. If you have a heavy car and a light car driving at the same speed, the more massive vehicle carries more energy, in addition to taking more oomph to start or stop it moving. However, E = m c2 means that even if a mass isn’t moving, it has an irreducible amount of energy. Because the speed of light is a big number, and the square of a big number is huge, even a small amount of mass possesses a lot of energy.

The implications of E = m c2 are far-reaching. When a particle of matter and its antimatter partner meet – say, an electron and a positron – they mutually annihilate, turning all of their mass into energy in the form of gamma rays. The process also works in reverse: under certain circumstances, if you have enough excess energy in a collision, you can create new particle-antiparticle pairs. For this reason, physicists often write the mass of a particle in units of energy: the minimum energy required to make it. That’s why we say the Higgs boson mass is 126 GeV – 126 billion electron-volts, where 1 electron-volt is the energy gained by an electron moved by 1 volt of electricity. For comparison, an electron’s mass is about 511 thousand electron-volts, and a proton is 938 million electron-volts.

In our ordinary units the velocity of light is not unity, and a rather artificial distinction between mass and energy is introduced. They are measured by different units, and energy E has a mass E/C2 where C is the velocity of light in the units used. But it seems very probable that mass and energy are two ways of measuring what is essentially the same thing, in the same sense that the parallax and distance of a star are two ways of expressing the same property of location. –Arthur Eddington [3]

Another side of the equation E = m c2 appears when we probe the structure of atomic nuclei. An atomic nucleus is built of protons and neutrons, but the total nuclear mass is different than the sum of the masses of the constituent particles: part of the mass is converted into binding energy to hold everything together. The case is even more dramatic for protons and neutrons themselves, which are made of smaller particles knowns as quarks – but the total mass of the quarks is much smaller than the proton or neutron mass. The extra mass comes from the strong nuclear force gluing the particles together. (In fact, the binding particles are known as gluons for that reason, but that’s a story for another day.)

A brief history of an idea

The E0 = m version of the equation Einstein used in his chalk-talk might seem like it’s a completely different thing. You might be surprised to know that he almost never used the famous form of his own discovery: He preferred either the chalkboard version or the form m = E/c2. In fact, in his first scientific paper on the subject (which was also his second paper on relativity), he wrote [4]:

If a body gives off the energy L in the form of radiation, its mass diminishes by L/c2. The fact that the energy withdrawn from the body becomes energy of radiation evidently makes no difference, so that we are led to the more general conclusion that … the mass of a body is a measure of its energy-content …

In other words, he originally used L for energy instead of E. However, it’s equally obvious that the meaning of E = m c2 is present in the paper. Equations, like sentences in English, can often be written in many different ways and still convey the same meaning. By 1911 (possibly earlier), Einstein was using E for energy [5], but we can use E or L or U for energy, as long as we make it clear that’s what we’re doing.

The same idea goes for setting c equal to one. Many of us are familiar with the concept of space-time: that time is joined with space (thanks to the fact that the speed of light is the same, no matter who measures it). We see the blurring of the boundary between space and time when astronomers speak of light-years: the distance light travels in one year. Because c – and therefore c2 – is a fixed number, it means the difference between mass and energy is more like the difference between pounds and kilograms: one is reachable from the other by a simple calculation. Many physicists, including me, love to use c = 1 because it makes equations much easier to write.

In fact, physicists (including Einstein) rarely use E = m c2 or even m = E/c2 directly. When you study relativity, you find those equations are specific forms of more general expressions and concepts. To wit: The energy of a particle is only proportional to its mass if you take the measurement while moving at the same speed as the particle. Physical quantities in relativity are measured relative to their state of motion – hence the name.

That’s the reason I don’t care that we don’t have a photo of Einstein with his most famous equation, or that he didn’t write it in its familiar form in the chalk-talk. The meaning of the equation doesn’t depend on its form; its usefulness doesn’t derive from Einstein’s way of writing it, or even from Einstein writing it.

A small representative sample of my relativity books, with my cats Pascal and Harriet for scale.

A small representative sample of my relativity books, with my cats Pascal and Harriet for scale.

Even more: Einstein is not the last authority on relativity, but the first. I counted 64 books on my shelves that deal with the theory of relativity somewhere in their pages, and it’s possible I missed a few. The earliest copyright is 1916 [6]; the most recent are 2012, more than 50 years after Einstein’s death. The level runs from popular science books (such as a couple of biographies) up to graduate-level textbooks. Admittedly, the discussion of relativity may not take up much space in many of those books – the astronomy and math books in particular – but the truth is that relativity permeates modern physics. Like vanilla in a cake, it flavors many branches of physics subtly; in its absence, things just aren’t the same.

References

  1. David Topper and Dwight Vincent, Einstein’s 1934 two-blackboard derivation of energy-mass equivalence. American Journal of Physics75 (2007), 978. DOI: 10.1119/1.2772277 . Also available freely in PDF format.
  2. Albert Einstein, E = mc2. Science Illustrated (April 1946). Republished in Ideas and Opinions (Bonanza, 1954).
  3. Arthur Eddington, Space, Time, and Gravitation (Cambridge University Press, 1920).
  4. Albert Einstein, Does the inertia of a body depend upon its energy-content? (translated from Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energiegehalt abhängig?). Annalen der Physic17 (1905). Republished in the collection of papers titled The Principle of Relativity (Dover Books, 1953).
  5. Albert Einstein, On the influence of gravitation on the propagation of light (translated from Über den Einfluss der Schwerkraft auf die Ausbreitung des Lichtes). Annalen der Physic35 (1911). Republished in The Principle of Relativity.
  6. Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1916; English translation published by Crown Books, 1961).