I understand that when the electron and proton are arranged to form a hydrogen atom, the potential energy of the system is lower than when separated. As a result, according to mass-energy equivalence, the mass of the hydrogen atom is lower. However, my question is about the physical process through which the mass or "inertia" is lowered. How does the arrangement of the proton and electron reduce the force needed to accelerate the system?

If what I am asking is not clear enough, consider the following example I borrowed from a PBS space-time video. Imagine a massless box with a perfectly reflective interior containing photons. The photons have energy and are contained in the box; Therefore, the box must have mass. This mass or "inertia" is felt when accelerating the box since more photons bounce off the backside of the box than the front, creating resistance.

Similarly, I am asking for the process behind the lower inertia of the hydrogen atom.

Also, if every system has a different "process" for why energy causes mass, it seems like too much of a coincidence. Is there a common process for why the mass is increased or decreased?

Edit: If it is not clear what I mean by physical process, I mean the kind of reasoning Matt - the guy in the video - gives for the 2 examples (one of the photon box and the other of a compressed spring) in the video at 1:32.

link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSKzgpt4HBU&vl=en

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    $\begingroup$ Do you understand binding energy? $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2020 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ Do you accept that you have to add energy to a ground-state hydrogen atom to separate it into a free proton & a free electron? $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Aug 9, 2020 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Cosmas Zachos Yes, binding energy is the energy required to separate the electron from the proton. But my question is how energy changes inertia. $\endgroup$
    – Chandrahas
    Aug 9, 2020 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ "How" a basic law came to be? $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2020 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ Near duplicate. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2020 at 22:34

5 Answers 5


Mass in special relativity is just energy, as measured in the center of momentum frame. So to determine how massive something is relative to something else, you can just consider how much work it takes to go from one arrangement to another.

If you have a large box with photons in it, it takes energy to make it smaller, since the photons exert pressure on the walls of the box as you push them in. Hence, a small box with photons in it has more energy and thus is more massive than a larger box with the same photon content.

On the other hand, protons and electrons are attracted to one another, so it takes energy to separate them. Thus, a system with a proton and electron separated has more energy and thus more mass than a hydrogen atom.

  • $\begingroup$ I know that energy is mass. However, I don't understand the reason for why energy increases mass (not mathematically) -inertia or resistance to acceleration. $\endgroup$
    – Chandrahas
    Aug 8, 2020 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ As you make the box smaller, the walls approach each other. Reflected photons increase their frequency because of Doppler shift. Higher frequency means larger momentum change on reflection, and therefore increased inertia when the box is accelerated. The attraction between electron and proton is mediated by virtual photons. Is there some similar argument to show that the inertia drops as they get closer? $\endgroup$
    – mmesser314
    Aug 9, 2020 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ The four-momentum in the rest frame is given by $(E_0,0,0,0)$. If you apply the relativistic form of Newton's second law, it becomes obvious that the only way to recover Newton's second law in the classical limit is for $E_0=mc^2$. Essentially, it's a basic principle of relativity that energy in the rest frame is the same thing as mass is the same thing as inertia in the rest frame. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Aug 9, 2020 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ @mmesser314 When an electron and a proton approach each other, the electric field decreases, and therefore the energy that formed the electric field can be transferred to other forms. The lowest energy state is when the electron wave function and the proton wave function are concentric - there is zero field intensity outside of the space occupied by the electron. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2020 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ @mmesser314 I don't think "as you make the box smaller" means if you make the box smaller while the system is in it. I think it means if you put identical systems into a series of smaller and smaller boxes, how do the ones in the smaller boxes differ from the ones in the bigger boxes? There is no Doppler shift here, since the walls of the box do not move. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Aug 10, 2020 at 15:43

Let's start with re-hashing the underlying physical processes. You may know that a photon can "knock" an electron out of an orbit around a nucleus, producing a free electron and an ionized atom or molecule. Like almost all quantum processes this can be time-reversed: An electron is "captured" by an ion, neutralizing it, and in the process the energy difference is emitted as a photon. This is what you are interested in. This paper says

Recombination of free electrons with atomic or molecular ions is a fundamental quantum process of general interest to various fields of science. [...] Recombination into single atomic centers is known to proceed in three different ways: (i) The electron can be captured into a bound atomic state upon photo- emission. This process, which represents the time-inverse of photo-ionization, is referred to as radiative recombination.

[Emphasis by me.] Some energy has left the ion-electron system in the form of a photon. Since energy and mass are actually equivalent, the corresponding mass $m=E/c^2$ has left the system as well.2 Of course this is an event which has some finite probability per time unit under certain conditions; it may or may not happen. (And if it happened, it may be reversed yet again! And re-reversed! And re-{2..n}-reversed!) If we put a free electron and an ion in your impermeable, perfectly reflective box we cannot predict when they will combine; in fact, like Schrödinger's cat, the state of the box from the outside is a hybrid of both possibilities (with an increasing bias towards recombination, if that's the more stable state). You are right: Since nothing leaves the box we cannot know whether the particles have recombined, and consequently the system must have the same mass all along.

But note that the produced photon (or rather, the possibility of it) is still inside the box, hence part of that system; since it represents exactly the energy which is now missing in the recombined atom, the overall mass/energy in the box has not changed. If we accelerate it, we need to accelerate the photon with it. The overall system has the same inertia as it had before. If we open the box and let the photon escape its inertia will be smaller by exactly this quantum, which is unsurprising.

In general, we can say the following:

  1. Regardless of any possible events inside: An ideal closed system will not change any property which can be measured from the outside.1 This is in fact a more elaborate way of saying "it's closed": If something happened inside, and as a result we took note of a change on the outside, we would have some sort of communication, some interaction, between the inside and the outside. That is expressly forbidden.

  2. By contrast, any interaction of a system with its environment changes the system's properties exactly according to the interaction.

Neither sentence is overly surprising, but together they solve most questions revolving around "closed systems".

1 Which is mostly its mass, if I'm not mistaken, since the "closed system" does neither emit nor absorb radiation and must be in a perfect vacuum. As an aside, I suspect that this concept is inherently bogus. You cannot measure an object's mass without interacting with it, e.g. accelerating it. This interaction likely leaks energy (gravitational "Bremsstrahlung", http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1978ApJ...224...62K) or may reveal tidal forces inside the system. I'm also not sure how to contain gravitational waves from *inside* that box (which will, in minuscule amounts, be constantly produced by masses like atoms moving and gravitationally interacting in it). As a thought experiment, what will happen if you put two orbiting black holes in there and wait for them to collide? There is no gravitational equivalent to a mirror; we cannot disrupt space time.

2 This may sound surprising because everybody knows that "the photon is a massless particle "(https://www.desy.de/user/projects/Physics/Relativity/SR/light_mass.html); but, as the same article continues, it does have relativistic mass. The article actually then discusses "light in a box" much like your thought experiment.

  • $\begingroup$ @Urb Why the edit? The original link to the PDF actually contained the quote while the abstract does not. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2020 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ But I still son't see how the "inertia" of the recombined atom is lower. I guess I am missing something? $\endgroup$
    – Chandrahas
    Aug 9, 2020 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Chandrahas The abstract answer is "because it emitted a photon", which is energy/mass. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2020 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ Yes @Peter-ReinstateMonica, the quote is actually in the paper itself, but it is preferred when citing an article to link to abstract pages rather than the PDF directly. A potential viewer of your answer can then decide to open the PDF simply by clicking the Article PDF link in the abstract page. This is better for the reasons discussed in this meta post. $\endgroup$
    – Urb
    Aug 9, 2020 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Chandrahas I addressed your question in the answer itself, and in a footnote. Of course a photon has mass in free space as well -- it just doesn't have rest mass. Alas, it is never at rest ;-). $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2020 at 19:56

As an electron and a proton approach one another, their electrostatic potential energy is lowered. this means the system of a hydrogen atom (electron bound to a proton) is a lower energy configuration than (free electron) + (free proton) and so the atom will weigh slightly less than its constituents. The missing mass shows up as an increase in the kinetic energy of the electron and the release of a photon and is equal to the (mass difference) x c^2.

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    $\begingroup$ Some emission of light should be involved. $\endgroup$
    – my2cts
    Aug 9, 2020 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ @my2cts, will edit. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2020 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ Part , in the non relativistic case half, of the potential energy lowering is compensated by an increase in electron kinetic energy. $\endgroup$
    – my2cts
    Aug 10, 2020 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @my2cts, will edit. why not post your own answer? I'll delete mine then. -NN $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2020 at 21:23

Mass and energy are different forms of the same underlying phenomenon. A Hydrogen atom has less total energy then the separated constituents, an electron and a proton. Since it takes energy to separate the electron and the proton (once they are bound), we call it mass defect.

This mass defect is equal to the binding energy that binds the electron and the proton into a Hydrogen atom.

Now you are asking how the rearrangement of the free proton and electron lead to this mass defect.

When you have a free electron and proton separated (at infinity), these particles do have static EM fields around themselves, and what we call electrostatic potential energy. This energy is part of the total energy of the particles. At infinity, these particles' static EM fields affect each other the least, that is, the particles electrostatic potential energy is at the maximum.

When the particles start getting closer, the static EM fields start affecting the other particle, and the electron and the proton start giving up part of their electrostatic potential energies in favor of something we call binding energy.

As the particles come closer and closer they give up more of their electrostatic potential energies in favor of binding energy, and at a certain point the PEP kicks in.

At this point, the PEP balances out the EM repulsion, and the particles are said to be in a stable bound state, called the Hydrogen atom.

This Hydrogen atom has a lesser rest mass then the rest masses of the free electron and proton (at infinity). Why?

It is very important to understand that we call the binding energy mass defect. This energy decreases the net energy (that you here refer to as rest mass) of the bound system, and this caused by as you ask the rearrangement of the electron an the proton, and the fact that they give up (transfer) some of their electrostatic potential energy in favor of the binding energy (mass defect).


While in order to correctly describe a hydrogen atom's mass defect one needs to take quantum mechanics into account, the concept of electromagnetic mass — i.e., a change of inertia of a system due to electromagnetic interaction of its parts — appears already in non-quantum electrodynamics. An accelerating positive charge, compared to a positive charge moving with a constant velocity, creates a different EM field, which produces an additional acceleration in the same direction of nearby negative charges. (And vice versa, an accelerating negative charge accelerates nearby positive charges in the same direction.) As a result, when a force is applied to a system of two opposite charges close to each other, its acceleration is higher than when they are away from each other. I.e., the inertia of the system is smaller when the charges are closer to each other.


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