Monday, March 14, 2005

A Good Year

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of Albert Einstein’s 26th birthday. Why not just say that Einstein was born 126 years ago today? Because in March of 1905 he was in the midst of the single most productive year, by one person, in the history of science.

Early in 1905 he was granted his PhD in Physics from the University of Zurich. Since he could not find an academic position, he continued to work in the Swiss patent office. In his spare time, he worked on some physics (hopefully not while on the clock at the patent office).

In March, he submitted a paper that explained the photo-electric effect. He won the Noble Prize in 1921 for this work.

In May, he wrote a paper on Brownian motion that was a major contribution to Statistical Mechanics (Thermodynamics).

And to top things off, that summer and fall he worked out the Special Theory of Relativity, including the famous formula E=mc2.

Any one of those contributions would have made his career, but the show-off had to go and do all three in the same year. At least he saved some stuff for later, like the General Theory of Relativity (1913) and the theory of Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (LASER) in 1916.

While Einstein ranks as probably the greatest physicist who ever lived, alas, he doesn’t rank very high as an economist. In 1949, Einstein wrote a defense of socialism, “Why Socialism?” that includes quotes such as:

“The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil.”


“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.”

This essay would be easy fisking for a trained economist. Come on King, haven’t you always wanted to fisk Einstein?


Blogger R-Five said...

For me, Einstein's genius was his willingness to accept reality. 100 years ago, his peers clung stubbornly to the notion of "the ether" that carried light through otherwise empty space, which of course they "knew" could not possibly happen. But when a famous experiment found the speed of light the same in every direction, Einstein was willing to accept that, yes, time and space can, indeed must be, distorted by relative motion. Hence the Special Theory of Relativity. The rest you know.

We have any number of "experts" still postulating "etherial" dogmas, like "investing in the public schools" will improve results. "Mass transit" is a key component of any strategy to reduce congestion. Ethanol will "reduce our dependence" on foreign oil. The MSM has editors...

8:17 PM  
Blogger Sisyphus said...

Good point R-Five,
You are correct about Einstein and Special Relativity. In fact, some historians of science don’t give Einstein the credit he deserves for special relativity because so much of it was derived earlier by others. For example, the Lorentz-FitzGerald equations were derived in 1892 to explain the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment. The postulates of special relativity (the laws of physics are equivalent for all inertial reference frames and the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant) are apparent in these equations, but one must be willing to accept that Newton’s laws are only approximately correct.

I think that this explains why so many revolutionary discoveries have been made by young scientists. Einstein was only 26 and a newly minted PhD in 1905. Louis de Broglie was still a graduate student when he proposed wave-particle duality. Heisenberg was 24 when he came up with the Matrix formulation of quantum mechanics. They were still new enough to the subject that they hadn't grown accustomed to the underlying assumptions. This is also epitomized by Benjamin Franklin. Although he was in his mid forties when he proposed that electricity was carried by particles, he had only recently begun his examination of the subject after retiring from business.

Maybe this means we should all retire from our jobs at forty and begin whole new careers. Or at least we should continue to challenge the generally accepted assumptions, even after we’ve accepted them too.

9:57 PM  

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