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.

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  1. See you dedicated more time to that post than to your third year project so far ;-)

    27 Mar 2005, 16:12

  2. That's because the subject was interesting. My third year project is also on an interesting subject, however the actual project itself is boring. This is because there is an immense amount of unnecessary crap that has to go with the interesting part (the research, which took a few hours to do and was good, and quickly reached a conclusion). I now have to figure out a way of expanding a few short descriptive paragraphs and a sentence at the end saying "want that one" into a 50 page report, with graphs, numbers and tables. Argh. I hate reports :-(

    27 Mar 2005, 16:39

  3. I suggest that the arguements for "want that one" can easily be expanded on by writing in such a way that the report is not in "engineer" speak. Usually this can expand a single sentence to a page.

    27 Mar 2005, 20:50

  4. Alas, no luck. The combination of warwick blogs, MSN and a total apathy for project has yielded a total productivity for this weekend of reading through stuff quickly, making the few corrections that Cartwright outlined in my draft report, and that's pretty much it. I now have basically a bit under 5 days in which to do the whole report, and from now on I'll be busying myself during daylight hours (which have now been extended) with more mechanic-ing and mass destruction with chainsaws. Oh well, I never wanted a degree anyway…

    27 Mar 2005, 21:22

  5. Greg Tram

    …stop posting science stuff. You're an engineer – you know about as much about science as David Blunket knows about sunsets.

    09 May 2005, 14:30

  6. Is that so? Funny, I have a number of qualifications in science as well as a big interest in anything scientific. And, for your information, the dictionary definition of an engineer:

    "engineer n 1: a person who uses scientific knowledge to solve practical problems"

    So if I didn't have scientific knowledge, I wouldn't be much of an engineer. I'm sick of scientists trying to make out that they're better than engineers. You're not. You are no more likely to have a good understanding of science if you take physics or engineering (well if you intend to be a technical engineer anyway). The only difference is that engineers apply science to create technology and good solutions to practical problems, whereas scientists do not. Please take your inter-disciplinary rvalries and preconceptions elsewhere. The world has moved on.

    09 May 2005, 15:03

  7. godfrey


    I think the bad science you spray all over this blog is testimony to your lack of scientific knowledge. You aren't doing engineers any favours with most of what you put on your blog. Plus I think you can tell the difference between a scientist and an engineer by the way you guys get a handbook which tell you how to do things to take into your exams while scientists have to be able to work things out themselves to pass their exams.

    09 May 2005, 15:16

  8. I take your point that engineers are much more concerned in how to apply theory than derrive it from principles. Does this lead to a lack of grasp of the theory though? In some cases, I'd probably say that yes, it does. In others, not at all. The thing is, engineers have to actually get a grasp of an awful lot of theory before they go and design something, and to take forever to derrive everything from first principles when it's been done before is pretty conter-productive in my opinion. We are now at the stage in the automotive industry where we can go from project ininiation to market in around 2 years – that just wouldn't be possible if we first spent 6 months making sure that yes, wheels were still the best thing to have for a car and yes, 4 is best. I could blog endlessly about the sort of science I study in engineering – Finite Element Analysis, Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer, Fluid Mechanics etc etc, but to be honest it wouldn't be very interesting for anybody else and I have better things to do with my time anyway. Unless you'd like me to talk at great length about heat exchanger design?

    Most of my posts aren't scientific-related anyway. This particular one was dedicated to a scientist, and is to the best of my knowledge correct. If you can find an example of my "bad science" here then please, please tell me. Einstein is one of my true heroes and in many respects a man that I greatly look up to, and as such I wouldn't want to be doing him an injustice by including false information on this entry.

    09 May 2005, 15:34

  9. Lenny Crabpits

    …if you love science sooo much then why didn't you do a pure science – rather than soulless engineering?

    "I'm sick of scientists trying to make out that they're better than engineers" – but they are.

    "I have a number of qualifications in science" – GCSE, A level, Primary school science fair 'best bicycle pump rocket', what?

    As a side note – why are engineers so right wing? Does engineering make you this way or is it that slightly lefty types choose science over 'oh, maybe I can get a job killling the planet with Halliburton' engineering?


    09 May 2005, 16:25

  10. godfrey

    the "bad science" i was referring to was the rubbish in the thread on climate change

    09 May 2005, 16:27

  11. I do love science, but I love practical application of science and machinery. Hence I saw engineering as my opportunity to put theory to good practical use. Scientists work in labs and classrooms, engineers take that and give us the technology we actually use.

    I'll take your claim that scientists are better than engineers with a pinch of salt judging by the ridiculous name under which you post. My qualifications extend to GCSE triple science grade A's in Physics and Chemistry, A Level grade A's in Physics and Chemistry, and an Advanced Extension Award in Physics, grade distinction (matter-of-factly, I was the only one of the 20 or so physicists who took this in my school to achieve the top grade, and many of them went on to read physics and engineering at Oxford and Cambridge). So stick that in your pipe and smoke it Mr.

    Some engineers are left wing. Less so than pure scientists I think. My own highly opinion-based and by no means proven theory on this is that pure scientists are much more idealistic and detatched from the real world, whereas engineers are much more practical and realistic, hence the aversion to the impractical ideologies of left-wing politics.

    09 May 2005, 16:38

  12. Lenny Crabpits

    Sir – i find your slur agains my historic family name deaply, deaply, insulting and I ask that you tke it back you rapscallion!
    I'm not ure you really know what scientists do, by the way. Engineers are not he sole source of usefull stuff – they work is usually based applcation of old science.
    but you're not gonna listen to this because youre convinced that youre brilliant. Give yourself a pat on the back mate!
    Then cry your sad-ass to sleep tonite.

    09 May 2005, 16:47

  13. Trace Brazen

    Scientists are more left-wing because they are trained to think in an analytic way. If you apply scientific method to politics, you will come to left wing conclusions.

    Engineers are right wing because they don't have this kind of analytical approach, they just put numbers into equations. if you combine this with their unwarranted arrogance and desire to make lots of money, you get right wing people. More so usually than economists, because at least they'll think about things a bit more.

    Well done on getting A-levels by the way.

    09 May 2005, 16:48

  14. I remain convinced that that isn't your real name. Apologies if it is. I also noticed a stark decrease in the standard of your grammar between your posts – not sure if you're the same poster twice but oh well!

    I disagree with Trace on the point that Engineers don't have an analytical approach – we are specifically trained to solve practical problems. Our analysis tools are essential to this. Engineering is practically a degree in analysis, so I don't know where you got this preconception from! If you apply pure analytical techniques to politics you do indeed get left-wing conclusions. I am afraid however that the world is not as perfect as scientists would like it to be (believe me, I'm in that camp!). In the real world, I firmly believe that left-wing ideologies just don't add up. And I didn't mean to boast or sound arrogant with my qualifications, nor was I seeking praise, I was merely challenged on them. Although thanks for the kind words all the same :-)

    09 May 2005, 17:33

  15. Trace Brazen

    in what camp??? the scientist camp? I don't think so.

    I've forgotten the golden rule here: in internet arguments – no one wins, so I'm off to do something useful and talk to some people in the real world instead.

    ps – if you think I'm made up too, go to my website

    09 May 2005, 17:44

  16. Well if you don't think me a scientist then fair enough. I still reckon myself to be (and I was referring to the camp of those who wished the world to be as perfect as we make out on paper). As to the made-up thing… I know of a lot of people who have had problems with people posting under strange names by non-logged in or non-linked to blogs users. Hence I'm skeptical of them.

    09 May 2005, 17:53

  17. Trace Brazen

    Like I said, you can check that I'm real.

    Back to the A-levels, it doesn't really mean a great deal nowadays what with the far lower standards. Anyone who turns up gets an A these days for jehovahs sake!

    10 May 2005, 15:05

  18. Tom

    Yeah, I got a sack load of the buggers. Didn't have to cheat or anything.

    10 May 2005, 15:56

  19. I don't doubt that you are real, Trace, firstly because your tone of posting is reasoned and above that of a juvenile delinquent, secondly because your're repeatedly posting under the same name. And I re-iterate on my qualifications: it was merely a response to a challenge as to what qualifications I'd actually achieved. I don't try and pretend that A-Levels are as hard as they used to be, etc etc.

    10 May 2005, 17:13

  20. Trace Brazen

    I think it's insulting to all those people who get A-levels now to insist they aren't as hard as they used to be. If I were 18 or 19 and you said that to me, I'd be offended. – the greatest band in the world!

    10 May 2005, 17:17

  21. Well I hate to point this out, but you made the suggestion that A-grades are handed out for turning up, whereas I merely suggested that the examinations are easier. Looking at the trends, you surely concur that grades and pass-rates are increasing. There are potentially three possible explanations for this. Firstly, the examination standards are getting easier. Secondly, the quality of teaching has improved. Thirdly, the pupils are getting smarter. I would contest the third point quite strongly, as suggesting that there is that marked a difference in intelligence over such a short time-span is a little out of order. I would say that improved teaching is, to an extent, responsible for the increase. However, comparing the examinations of 30 or so years ago with the current papers (I haven't done this but have been informed by those who have), there is a trend of reduced content and depth of knowledge and understanding. It is not an insult to point this trend out – it is still a great achievement to be successful at A-Level. But to suggest that such a basic trend cannot be identified on the basis that it would be insulting to those who have sat the current exams is, in my opinion, extremely crass.

    10 May 2005, 17:26

  22. Trace Brazen

    I can't believe you actually wasted your time replying to that! Well done

    10 May 2005, 17:29

  23. Anything but revision!

    10 May 2005, 17:32

  24. Trace Brazen

    With that attitude you certainly wouldn't have got any A-levels in my day when they were much harder!

    10 May 2005, 17:34

  25. Perhaps not!

    10 May 2005, 17:36

  26. Godfrey

    so are you on the masters engineering course, or the bachelors????

    15 May 2005, 14:10

  27. Masters

    15 May 2005, 18:24

  28. Godfrey

    it's obvious you engineers are idiots – you think that j is an imaginary number when it's i that's an imaginary number!

    16 Jun 2005, 09:18

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