Einstein: man and myth
His theories helped shape 20th-century physics and astronomy. This year, scientists throughout the world are celebrating the 100th anniversary of his greatest discoveries.
Newhouse News Service
If the name Albert Einstein is synonymous with genius, it is mostly because of the work he did in 1905 — the year, as he described it, when "a storm broke loose in my mind."
In just seven months, the scientific legend produced theories that still underpin modern physics, and that ultimately made possible such developments as the atomic bomb and global positioning technology.
To mark the 100th anniversary, the United Nations has declared 2005 the International Year of Physics. Over its course, historians will try to breathe life into an icon who is often reduced to caricature, while scientists struggle to explain his impact on the world.
In January 1905, Einstein was working as a patent clerk, third class, and living in Bern, Switzerland, with his wife of three years and a newborn son.
"He'd published a couple of papers, but nothing you'd associate with greatness," said Michael Shara, lead curator for a traveling exhibit from New York's American Museum of Natural History that draws on letters, manuscripts and other personal effects to portray Einstein and his work.
Then, from March through September, he finished his doctoral dissertation and published four papers describing the nature of light, the atomic nature of matter and the relationships between time and space, and mass and energy.
"Pure magic"The work was "pure magic," said John Rigden, professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis and author of "Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness," a book due out in January from Harvard University Press.
In one paper, Einstein wrote that light, then thought to be a continuous wave, was actually made up of discrete particles, later dubbed photons. The idea enabled the invention of lasers, among other practical applications.
Another paper led to the acceptance of atoms as the basic building block of matter. It paved the way for still another, which outlined his most-quoted insight: E=mc(squared).
That famous equation means that "energy and mass are the same things and there is a conversion factor between the two," Shara said.
For an analogy, think of linear measure. Because there are 12 inches in a foot, feet can be converted into inches by multiplying by a conversion factor of 12. Einstein wrote that the conversion factor between mass and energy is "one with 2,100 zeros behind it," Shara said. That's why transforming a few pounds of plutonium into energy can generate a devastating blast.
In the same year, Einstein also penned his famous theory of special relativity, which said that time and space are intertwined. The faster an object moves, he posited, the slower time passes. The slower its motion, the faster time. When one factor changes, the other automatically adjusts.
The implication that everyone experiences time differently remains mind-boggling, because day-to-day, the effects are so minute as to be undetectable. But an astronaut orbiting the Earth for two years at 18,000 mph actually would age at a slower rate — albeit less than a second — than people on the ground.
In 1905, Shara said, "that was a shocking result, to think that time isn't constant."
Today, said Nergis Mavalvala, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "the fact that we can design satellites and space shuttles that don't come crashing back to Earth is because we take special relativity into account." The theory also makes global positioning systems possible.
In 1915, Einstein expanded special relativity. General relativity, as the larger theory was called, explained gravity as the ripples that objects create in space and time.
While scientists have observed indirect evidence of such ripples, or gravity waves, none has ever been directly detected, Mavalvala said. She is an investigator at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, one of several exquisitely sensitive and incredibly expensive instruments trying to measure the elusive waves.
Public figureInfluential as they were, nothing in Einstein's theories could have explained the enormous celebrity he acquired, especially after 1933, when he emigrated to the United States from Germany after Adolf Hitler's rise to power.
His scientific legacy prompted Time magazine to name him its Person of the 20th century, and his musings on science, war, peace and God helped make him a name known worldwide, his image on coffee mugs and dorm room posters with his mass of unkempt white hair and in a famous photograph with his tongue sticking out. He received thousands of letters from around the world asking for everything from love advice to homework help.
"His persona really magnified the things he did," Rigden said. "He was a complete package, and the public really adopted him."
But contrary to his popular image as a warm, avuncular, scatter-brained professor, Einstein had many sharp edges. He was an outspoken pacifist, a supporter of the civil-rights movement and of Israel. He denounced the Communist witch hunts instigated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Cold War, earning him the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.
In the past few years, researchers have documented his womanizing and his cruel treatment of his first wife, Mileva Maric. There have even been suggestions that Maric, a physicist in the same doctoral program as Einstein, was an uncredited collaborator in his 1905 work.
In essence, he had a dual nature, said Julie Silverman, chief explainer and science coordinator for the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where the traveling Einstein exhibit is on display through May.
Locking hornsTo Rigden, what both endeared him to the public and made him a great physicist was that he started with the same questions many of us do: "What is the universe and what is our place in it?" Einstein himself said he wanted to uncover nothing less than "the thoughts of God."
It was an approach that "served him well until about age 40," said Roger Blandford, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University.
That's when physicists began to probe the bizarre behavior of subatomic particles, or quanta. At the quantum level, it is impossible to locate matter reliably at any point in space or time. At best, we can express the probability, or the odds, that the matter is here and not there.
At the level of everyday objects, this effect is negligible. The odds that your newspaper will disappear and show up on Mars approach zero. But at the quantum level, the only way to find an electron is to calculate the probability that it's where you think it is.
Einstein rejected this idea, arguing that "God" — to whom he referred as a cosmic intelligence — "does not play dice with the universe." Straitjacketed by relativity, he spent his final years objecting to the theories developed by others.
He insisted there must be a simpler, more comprehensible explanation to unite the physics of relativity with that of the subatomic world, a grand unified theory. At the time of his death in 1955, he was still searching for it, and scientists continue the search today.
Ironically, gravity wave detectors like LIGO, designed to uncover direct evidence of general relativity, may also hold the key to supporting superstring theory, a grand unified theory grounded in the probabilistic view of the universe that Einstein decried.
The Associated Press provided information on Einstein's years in the United States.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.