Did Einstein discover E = mc2?

Philip Ball

E=mc2 on a blackboard
Who got there first?

Who discovered that E = mc2? It’s not as easy a question as you might think. Scientists ranging from James Clerk Maxwell and Max von Laue to a string of now-obscure early 20th-century physicists have been proposed as the true discovers of the mass–energy equivalence now popularly credited to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. These claims have spawned headlines accusing Einstein of plagiarism, but many are spurious or barely supported. Yet two physicists have now shown that Einstein’s famous formula does have a complicated and somewhat ambiguous genesis – which has little to do with relativity.

One of the more plausible precursors to E = mc2 is attributed to Fritz Hasenöhrl, a physics professor at the University of Vienna. In a 1904 paper Hasenöhrl clearly wrote down the equation E = 3/8mc2. Where did he get it from, and why is the constant of proportionality wrong? Stephen Boughn of Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Tony Rothman of Princeton University examine this question in a paper submitted to the arXiv preprint server.

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