All entries for Saturday 26 March 2005

March 26, 2005

Einstein: 100 years

Although I've missed his birthday now by 12 days, I have decided to dedicate a post to one of the greatest men ever to have lived: Albert Einstein. This post bears some significance because this is the centenary year of the publication of his first three papers, more on these later.

So what was he like as a person? Well, he was a very late speaker as a baby. His parents were quite concerned that he had yet to utter a word, but then when he did speak he would start to string whole sentences together. All this time he was learning how to speak, mulling things over without actually showing any hint of this to the outside world until he had a complete technique. This unique attitude to problem solving would continue to display itself throughout his career. By the age of 10, he had met a young student known to the family, and had read and discussed, amongst other things, Kant's Critique of pure reason. This, as any philosophy student will tell you, is not an easygoing text, and mightily impressive for a 10 year old to read and debate intelligently with a man over twice his age.

School however did not agree with the young genius. He excelled at science and mathematics (although he was always adamant in later years that mathematics was not a strong point of his in relation to his colleagues), but the general discipline and structure were at odds to Einstein's creative, thoughtful and alternative approach to academia. Some of the academics he met were astounded by his sheer brilliance but frustrated by his unwillingness to conform to the set form of learning that they worked in. He tried for university study at the age of 16 at Zurich, but failed the entrant's exam. He did however gain entry a year later, and graduated in 1900 as a teacher of maths and physics. He then failed to obtain a teaching post, although not for want of trying. He eventually accepted a job as a patent clerk in Bern, which he held from 1902 to 1909.

Of his 1905 papers, the first explained the photoelectric effect originally observed by Max Plank, disproving the classical electromagnetic theory of Maxwell. In this paper, Einstein proposed that light was in fact emitted in discreet packets (or "quanta" in latin) which he called photons, and so the birth of quantum physics and the overthrow of classical physics began here.

His second paper proposed what we call Special Relativity, in which he overthrew the real father of science, Sir Isaac Newton. Although Gallileo can perhaps be credited with creating Science, Newton really advanced science from almost nothingness into a very prominent subject, amongst other things coming up with scientific explanations for gravity and motion (both of which are still in wide use today, even though Einstein has proved them to be ever-so-slightly wrong, and woefully inadequate for relativistic speeds) and inventing calculus. In reality, Newton was a most disagreeable character, but nevertheless his work for science deserves massive credit. Einstein had been thinking about light for years; it was a subject that truly fascinated him. He would do endless thought experiments about travelling at light speed, imagining how things might look. To him, Newton's explanations made no sense at light speed, but he couldn't quite understand why. He was almost driven mad before he realised that time was the joker in the pack, and that frames of reference are relative and the speed of light is absolute (as opposed to Newton who proposed that things are the other way around). This was a monumental shake-up for the world of physics, demolishing many of the solid pillars and totally re-writing concepts that had stood for hundreds of years. Not bad for a 26 year old clerk. Later in 1905 he showed that mass and energy were equivalent through the extremely famous relationship e=mc2. His last paper in 1905 was on statistical mechanics, although this was much less ground-breaking than the first two.

After these papers, he continued to think in the same areas as he had done. He sought to extend special relativity to phenomena involving acceleration, and in 1907 via the principle of equivalence showed that gravity was indistinguishable from a mechanical force. Gravitational mass was therefore identical to inertial mass. In 1908 he became a lecturer at the university of Bern, and the following year became proffesor of Physics at Zurich. Einstein's academic career had finally taken off, and he resigned from the patent office.

In 1911, he predicted how gravity from massive objects such as the sun could bend light as it passed by them. He made predicitions about how stars would appear to be in different positions if the light had passed near the sun or not, and this was verified in 1919 by observation during a solar exlipse, although later the experiment was shown to have errors as large as the effect it was trying to measure! The phenomenon has however been properly verified. At last, Einstein had experimental proof for his work. He also solved the problem of the perhilion of Mercury, a slight eccentricity in it's orbit which had previously thought to been the effect of a yet-to-be discovered planet.

In 1915, he published his theory of general relativity. This was far more unified and complicated than special relativity, to the point where even during the moon landings in the 1960's NASA were still using Newtonian physics, as the small errors (calculated to be a few feet) were not considered to be worth removing with the immense effort of going through general relativity. When questioned by a journalist about a claimed statement that there were only three people in the world who understood general relativity, Einstein paused for a moment and famously said "I am struggling to think of who the third could be". Heavy stuff indeed…

In later life he played active roles in science and politics, as an advocate of peace and a socialist. He eventually moved to Princeton in the US. His scientific quest became a search for a unifying theory for all of physics, but his search was never completed. His work upheaved physics, creating whole new branches including the weird world of quantum mechanics. Einstein disliked the chance-like nature of quantum mechanics, and is very famously quoted as stating "god does not play dice", meaning that the universe is deterministic and has no chance involved, however he never managed to disprove it scientifically.

As a man, he was an eccentric, prone to intense periods of concentration of days and weeks. He would often not eat, or let his dinner go cold for hours while pondering. He was a theoretical thinker who conducted radical thought experiments in his brain, with a very creative mind. Another famous quote of his is "Imagination is more important than knowledge", and he despised regimented and factual learning, preferring to be allowed far more freedom and space for inventive thought. He thought that much of his achievement was not down to any great mathematical ability, indeed many of his peers were probably better at mathematics and equations than he, and Einstein was not immune from making mistakes with formulae. Einstein's genius was in not accepting the norm, challenging the most accepted ideas with questions of child-like simplicity which nonetheless took great effort and genius to answer. His theories have led to many wonders of modern technology, and without them we would be living in a comparative dark age. Einstein: a true legend, and father of our time.

March 2005

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