Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Einstein year

Today marks the beginning of the 100th anniversery of the publication of two of Einstein's greatest discoveries.

As occasionally happens in the world of science an oddity occured. One of the papers he published in 1905 was on the photoelectric effect. This is a quantum mecanical bit of information where the only explanation was, that photons, the particles of light, existed, and interacted with other types of matter, particularly electrons. Up until this time the observations of the nature of light had indicated that it was a "wave", and that there was in particular nothing "waving". For this experiment he won the Nobel Prize.

Just to make things really odd, some years later, it was determined that light was both a particle and a wave. When we interact with light, such as viewing a photo of Claudia Schiffer, light is a particle. But when light is somewhere out there in space traveling from a star to our eye, is is not a particle at all, but a wave in the electromagnetic field, that can "collapse" to make a particle that we can detect.

His second, and more important physics paper (I think), was what we now call the Special Theory of Relativity. Buried in this paper was the simple formula that now every schoolboy knows making mass and energy equivalent. For this paper he did not win a prize, but it was some 40 years later that it's importance became clear in a city named Hiroshima.

Einstein was a great genius. Not because he produced reams of great work, like Leonardo -- he didn't. But because he was able to synthesize the observations that were available to him in a way that not only made sense to him and other physicists, but like Darwin, to scientists in general. He once was asked what made him think of the idea of Special Relativity. He answered that he simply wondered what he would observe if he were riding on a beam of light, like riding on a train. From this simple question a great idea was born.

He seems to have shared this great mind for synthesis of great ideas from simple questions, with other great discoverers. For instance, Kary Mullis, who came up with the idea of using the restriction enzymes that gave birth to modern genetics, asked himself some simple questions while driving by a picket fence on a country road.

The great concept of evolution, had been around for some time before Darwin, but he just asked some simple questions that he really had no answer for -- and a great idea was formalized (a half step ahead of his competition, incidentally).

So in this Year of Einstein, let's remind ourselves of how far human understanding of the universe, of which we are a part, has come -- and how far it has to go. We can now, thanks to the man from Princeton, look at what was happening in the universe when it was only one ten-thousandth of a millionth of a second old. And yet to fully understand the beginning, we will have to go billions of times further back in time. We now understand, in broad terms, the history of life on earth.

How amazing.

And the man we honor had much to do with it.


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