Celebrating the Centennial of Einstein's Miraculous Year

Celebrating the Centennial of Einstein's Miraculous Year
▪ 2006
by John J. Dykla
      By his 26th birthday, in 1905, Albert Einstein had not yet obtained his doctorate in physics or obtained an academic teaching position. He had published five papers in the premier German physics journal, Annalen der Physik, but they were relatively undistinguished. Other than perhaps those closest to him—his wife (and former fellow physics student), Mileva Maric, and his fellow patent-office clerk Michele Besso—it is unlikely that anyone would have anticipated the significance of the next five papers that Einstein submitted to the journal. Those five papers, completed within a seven-month period in 1905, were landmarks in their respective fields that laid the foundation for modern physics. Not only did Einstein forever leave his mark on theoretical physics, but he also influenced mankind's view of science and of the universe.

      To commemorate the centennial of Einstein's remarkable achievement, the year 2005 was celebrated as the World Year of Physics throughout the world. Under the endorsement of the United Nations and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, many organizations and educational institutions throughout the world marked the occasion by seeking to promote public awareness of the importance of physics and to build interest in its ideas and study. A multitude of events and activities planned for the year officially began with the conference “Physics for Tomorrow,” held January 13–15 at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, with more than 1,000 participants, including many Nobel Prize winners and some 500 students from 70 countries. On December 1 a 12-hour live Webcast that included programs on Einstein and the legacy of his physics from leading science museums and physics research laboratories helped bring the year to a close. Among the many independently organized events—in addition to many symposia, lectures, and exhibitions—were activities that ranged from a competition in which schoolchildren used a household item to explain simple concepts in physics to a project by the Rambert Dance Company to mount a work inspired by Einstein's theories.

      What were these five physics papers that provided so much inspiration? Einstein's 1905 papers covered three fundamental topics: the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and the special theory of relativity.

      The photoelectric effect is a phenomenon in which light that strikes a metal surface ejects electrons from the metal. Physicists understood light to consist of electromagnetic waves, as had been well demonstrated, but to explain the photoelectric effect, Einstein's first paper showed that light also consists of “light quanta”—that is, particlelike bundles of energy (later called photons). It was especially for his explanation of the photoelectric effect that Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

      The second and fourth papers helped establish the idea that bulk matter consists of vast numbers of small particles (molecules) that are in constant motion. Einstein's second paper demonstrated that for this idea to be true, small particles suspended in a liquid should move in random erratic patterns. This type of movement, called Brownian motion, had been observed in studies of microscopic pollen grains in water, for example, but it could not be explained well by classical physics. Einstein, intent on demonstrating the physical reality of molecules, showed in his fourth paper how the size of molecules could be estimated from the effect that a suspension of small particles within a fluid would have on the viscosity of the fluid. (As it turned out, one of the calculations in this paper was incorrect, and he issued a correction in 1911. Even Einstein's published calculations were not always perfect!) Because of their practical applications in fields as diverse as the study of aerosol particles and semiconductor solid-state physics, these two papers are the most frequently cited of Einstein's 1905 work.

      The third paper that Einstein submitted in 1905, bearing the title “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” presented the foundation of what is now known as the special theory of relativity. The paper dealt with the apparent contradictions between the laws of motion for physical objects in nonaccelerating reference frames (that is, reference frames at rest or moving at an unchanging velocity) and the property that light and other electromagnetic waves have of always traveling at the same speed in all such reference frames. Einstein's insight was that the contradictions could be resolved by radically modifying the concept of absolute time and what it means for two events to be simultaneous. As a consequence, he showed that the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time are unified in a single entity, space-time. The fifth 1905 paper, a follow-up to the third, presented the relationship between the physical quantities of energy, mass, and momentum. For an object at rest, Einstein obtained the famous equation of special relativity, E = mc2 (“energy equals mass times the speed of light squared”).

      Einstein's work was not immediately accepted, and the idea of light quanta, in particular, was considered so radical that few physicists immediately adopted it. In 1913, when recommending him for a membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences, the eminent German physicist Max Planck was not yet convinced and still felt it necessary to excuse Einstein's work on the photon concept, writing “that he may sometimes have missed the target in his speculations, as for example in his theory of light quanta, cannot really be held against him.” In time, however, the idea of quanta, or discrete units, in many physical properties came to pervade physics and formed the basis of the field of quantum mechanics. By the end of the 1920s, quantum mechanics and its implications for basic atomic structure and interactions had been established, and today they inform the way scientists and nonscientists alike think about matter. Einstein's pioneering work in statistical mechanics and random fluctuations are fundamental to many areas of science, including molecular biology, physical chemistry, and theoretical economics. The equivalence of matter and energy derived from special relativity was borne out with the development of both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.

      Einstein's importance to the modern world in the 100 years since 1905 goes well beyond his achievements in science. After observations of a solar eclipse in 1919 showed that the gravitation of the Sun deflects starlight—as predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity from a few years before—Einstein soon gained international renown in a way that gave weight to many of his opinions and beliefs even outside physics. In the 1920s he started to engage actively in political and social issues, including pacifism, the establishment of a Jewish state, civil liberty, and the promotion of world government. He also sought to make the ideas of physics and of social issues understandable to the general population. The scientific ideas that Einstein developed beginning with his 1905 papers influenced the world view not only of physicists but also of other scientists, intellectuals, and the common person. Indeed, Einstein is now synonymous with genius, and Einstein's likeness is a cultural icon. Einstein believed that all human genius springs from one source: “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

      In addition to celebrating past achievements, a World Year of Physics looks forward. Perhaps Einstein's most lasting legacy is the search throughout the latter part of his life for a unified theory of the fundamental interactions in physical phenomena. Einstein's efforts were to unify gravitation and electromagnetism. Others have expanded the quest for a “theory of everything” to include the other two fundamental forces, the weak and strong nuclear interactions. The theoretical basis for the unification of electromagnetism and the weak interaction has been achieved, and various theories that would unify the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions await confirmation in experiments with the next generation of particle accelerators. Einstein's legacy inspires the theoretical physics of the future even as it points to the problems he left unsolved.

John J. Dykla is Associate Professor in the Physics Department of Loyola University, Chicago.

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Universalium. 2010.

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