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The Direction Established

The next fundamental advance came once again from an unexpected direction. In 1905, Albert Einstein derived his famous relation between mass and energy, E = mc2 , as a consequence of the special theory of relativity. Einstein's equation showed that a tiny amount of mass could, in principle, be converted into a tremendous amount of energy. His relation generalized and extended the nineteenth century law of conservation of energy of von Helmholtz and Mayer to include the conversion of mass into energy.

What was the connection between Einstein's equation and the energy source of the sun? The answer was not obvious. Astronomers did their part by defining the constraints that observations of stars imposed on possible explanations of stellar energy generation. In 1919, Henry Norris Russell, the leading theoretical astronomer in the United States, summarized in a concise form the astronomical hints on the nature of the stellar energy source. Russell stressed that the most important clue was the high temperature in the interiors of stars.

balance

Aston showed in 1920 that four hydrogen nuclei are heavier than a helium nucleus.

F.W. Aston discovered in 1920 the key experimental element in the puzzle. He made precise measurements of the masses of many different atoms, among them hydrogen and helium. Aston found that four hydrogen nuclei were heavier than a helium nucleus. This was not the principal goal of the experiments he performed, which were motivated in large part by looking for isotopes of neon.

The importance of Aston's measurements was immediately recognized by Sir Arthur Eddington, the brilliant English astrophysicist. Eddington argued in his 1920 presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science that Aston's measurement of the mass difference between hydrogen and helium meant that the sun could shine by converting hydrogen atoms to helium. This burning of hydrogen into helium would (according to Einstein's relation between mass and energy) release about 0.7% of the mass equivalent of the energy. In principle, this could allow the sun to shine for about a 100 billion years.

In a frighteningly prescient insight, Eddington went on to remark about the connection between stellar energy generation and the future of humanity:

If, indeed, the sub-atomic energy in the stars is being freely used to maintain their great furnaces, it seems to bring a little nearer to fulfillment our dream of controlling this latent power for the well-being of the human race---or for its suicide.

Understanding the Process

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