Mass - Mass and Energy in Special Relativity

Mass and Energy in Special Relativity

The term mass in special relativity usually refers to the rest mass of the object, which is the Newtonian mass as measured by an observer moving along with the object. The invariant mass is another name for the rest mass of single particles. However, the more general invariant mass (calculated with a more complicated formula) may also be applied to systems of particles in relative motion, and because of this, is usually reserved for systems which consist of widely separated high-energy particles. The invariant mass of systems is the same for all observers and inertial frames, and cannot be destroyed, and is thus conserved, so long as the system is closed. In this case, "closure" implies that an idealized boundary is drawn around the system, and no mass/energy is allowed across it.

In as much as energy is conserved in closed systems in relativity, the mass of a system is also a quantity which is conserved: this means it does not change over time, even as some types of particles are converted to others. For any given observer, the mass of any system is separately conserved and cannot change over time, just as energy is separately conserved and cannot change over time. The incorrect popular idea that mass may be converted to (massless) energy in relativity is because some matter particles may in some cases be converted to types of energy which are not matter (such as light, kinetic energy, and the potential energy in magnetic, electric, and other fields). However, this confuses "matter" (a non-conserved and ill-defined thing) with mass (which is well-defined and is conserved). Even if not considered "matter," all types of energy still continue to exhibit mass in relativity. Thus, mass and energy do not change into one another in relativity; rather, both are names for the same thing, and neither mass nor energy appear without the other. "Matter" particles may not be conserved in reactions in relativity, but closed-system mass always is.

For example, a nuclear bomb in an idealized super-strong box, sitting on a scale, would in theory show no change in mass when detonated (although the inside of the box would become much hotter). In such a system, the mass of the box would change only if energy were allowed to escape from the box as light or heat. However, in that case, the removed energy would take its associated mass with it. Letting heat out of such a system is simply a way to remove mass. Thus, mass, like energy, cannot be destroyed, but only moved from one place to another.

In bound systems, the binding energy must (often) be subtracted from the mass of the unbound system, simply because this energy has mass, and this mass is subtracted from the system when it is given off, at the time it is bound. Mass is not conserved in this process because the system is not closed during the binding process. A familiar example is the binding energy of atomic nuclei, which appears as other types of energy (such as gamma rays) when the nuclei are formed, and (after being given off) results in nuclides which have less mass than the free particles (nucleons) of which they are composed.

The term relativistic mass is also used, and this is the total quantity of energy in a body or system (divided by c2). The relativistic mass (of a body or system of bodies) includes a contribution from the kinetic energy of the body, and is larger the faster the body moves, so unlike the invariant mass, the relativistic mass depends on the observer's frame of reference. However, for given single frames of reference and for closed systems, the relativistic mass is also a conserved quantity.

Because the relativistic mass is proportional to the energy, it has gradually fallen into disuse among physicists. There is disagreement over whether the concept remains pedagogically useful.

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