Friday, August 8, 2008

Einstein

It's difficult to think of the word "genius" without thinking of Einstein. His name and face have become practically the archetype of genius ... wild in appearance, eccentric, and too brilliant to be understood by most people. The real Einstein was quite different from the cartoon version that we think of today, but why spoil a good myth?

Like Isaac Newton, Einstein had an annus mirabilis, a "miracle year." In 1905, Einstein published five papers that changed pretty much our entire conception of reality. If he had done nothing else in his lifetime (though he certainly did), those five papers alone would have established him as one of the greatest and most important thinkers in history. These are described in detail in Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness, by John S. Rigden, but briefly, they are:

  1. a paper demonstrating that light acts both as waves of pure energy, and as particles. The photo-electric effect, the basis of solar cells, relies on this particle aspect of light.
  2. an explanation of how to determine the size of molecules.
  3. a demonstration that Brownian motion, the motion of, for example, yeast floating in water, is caused by collisions with molecules.
  4. the theory of special relativity, showing that time and space are not fixed absolutes.
  5. the theory that matter can be converted to energy via the formula E=mc2.
These are described in more detail in Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics, by Roger Penrose and John Stachel.

Einstein spent much of his later life trying to find a theory that would unite all the forces in the universe, the so called unified field theory. He was not ultimately successful in this, though many think the current string theory holds the promise of fulfilling Einstein's expectations.

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