How Special Relativity Works

Mass and Energy

Mass has two definitions that are equally important. One is a general definition that most high school students are taught and the other is a more technical definition that is used in physics.

Generally, mass is defined as the measure of how much matter an object or body contains - the total number of sub-atomic particles (electrons, protons and neutrons) in the object. If you multiply your mass by the pull of earth's gravity, you get your weight. So if your body weight is fluctuating, by eating or exercising, it is actually your mass that is changing. It is important to understand that mass is independent of your position in space. Your body's mass on the moon is the same as its mass on the earth. The earth's gravitational pull, on the other hand, decreases as you move farther away from the earth. Therefore, you can lose weight by changing your elevation, but your mass remains the same. You can also lose weight by living on the moon, but again your mass is the same.


In physics, mass is defined as the amount of force required to cause a body to accelerate. Mass is very closely related to energy in physics. Mass is dependent on the body's motion relative to the motion of an observer. If the body in motion measured its mass, it is always the same. However, if an observer that is not in motion with the body measures the body's mass, the observer would see an increase in mass when the object speeds up. This is called relativistic mass. It should be noted that physics has actually stopped using this concept of mass and now deals mostly in terms of energy (see the section on the unification of mass and energy) . At this stage, this definition of mass may be a little cloudy, but it is important to know the concept. It should become clearer in the special relativity discussion. The important thing to understand here is that there is a relationship between mass and energy.


Energy is the measure of a system's ability to perform "work". It exists in many forms…potential, kinetic, etc. The law of conservation of energy tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be converted from one form to another. These separate forms of energy are not conserved, but the total amount of energy is conserved. If you drop a baseball from your roof, the ball has kinetic energy the moment it starts to move. Just before you dropped the ball, it had only potential energy. As the ball moves, the potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. Likewise, when the ball hits the ground, some of its energy is converted to heat (sometimes called heat energy or heat kinetic energy). If you go through each phase of this scenario and totaled up the energy for the system, you will find that the amount of energy for the system is the same at all times.

In the next section we'll look at the properties of light.