Einstein and your Gas Bill
Taking refuge in my office this lunchtime for a sandwich and a cup of coffee I turned to the latest edition of Physics World and came across an funny little story about a physicist (who is completely new to me) with the splendid name of Fritz Hasenöhrl.
The news story relates to a paper on the arXiv, part of the abstract of which I’ve copied below:
In 1904 Austrian physicist Fritz Hasenohrl (1874-1915) examined blackbody radiation in a reflecting cavity. By calculating the work necessary to keep the cavity moving at a constant velocity against the radiation pressure he concluded that to a moving observer the energy of the radiation would appear to increase by an amount , which in early 1905 he corrected to …
Since I’ve been doing a bit of dimensional analysis with first-year students, I’m a bit surprised that the authors of this paper read so much into the fact that Hasenöhrl’s formula bears a superficial resemblance to Einstein’s most famous formula , probably the best known and at the same time worst understood equation in physics. In fact any physicist worth his or her salt no matter how incorrect their reasoning would have to get something like , with some dimensionless number, simply because the answer has to have the correct dimensions to be an energy.
Expressing energy in terms of the basic dimensions mass , length and time is probability easiest to do when you think of mechanical work (force×distance). Since Newton’s laws give a force equal to mass×acceleration, a force has dimensions , so work (a form of energy) has dimensions . Now try to make this out of a combination of a mass () and a velocity () and you’ll find that it has to be mass×velocity2. You can’t get the dimensionless constant this way, but the combination of and must be the way it is in Einstein’s formula.
Anyway, all this suddenly reminded me of a day long ago when I appeared on peak-time television in the consumer affairs programme Watchdog, explaining – or, rather, attempting to explain – the physics behind the way gas bills are calculated. Apparently someone had written in to the programme asking why it was that they weren’t just being charged for the volume of gas that had flowed through their meter, but that the cost involved a complicated calculation involving something called the calorific value of the gas.
The answer is fairly obvious, actually. The idea is that to make competition fairer between different forms of energy (particularly gas and electricity) the bills should be for the amount of energy you have used rather than the amount of gas. Since the source of fuel varies from day to day so does its chemical composition and hence the amount of energy that can be extracted from it when it is burned. Gas companies therefore monitor the calorific value, using it to convert the amount of gas you have used into an amount of energy.
On the programme I was confronted by the curmudgeonly Edward Enfield (father of comedian Harry Enfield) who took the line that it was all unnecessarily complicated and that the bill should just be for the amount of gas used, rather in the same way that petrol is sold. When I tried to explain that the way it was done was really fairer, because it was really the energy that mattered, it quickly became obvious that he didn’t really understand what energy was or how it was defined. He didn’t even get the difference between energy and power. I suspect that goes for many members of the general public.
It was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I enjoyed the sparring. Eventually he came out with a question about why energy was given by rather than or something else. So I launched into an explanation of dimensional analysis and why couldn’t be an energy because it has the wrong dimensions. His eyes glazed over. The shoot ended. My splendidly erudite and logically rigorous exposition of dimensional analysis never made it into the broadcast programme.
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