Friday, October 21, 2011
Fifty Years After Einstein's Death, His Discoveries Still Matter
Everybody loves Einstein.
It's been 50 years since the death in 1955 of physics genius Albert Einstein at the age of 76. But Einstein remains as iconic as any modern-day rock star or movie idol. His memorable face -- with its bushy moustache and twinkling eyes, all topped by an unruly mass of long white hair -- is still seen on everything from posters and coffee mugs to computer commercials. And his famous theory of relativity -- E=MC2 -- while not necessarily understood, is committed to almost every student's memory. RFE/RL looks at Einstein's remarkable genius, his continuing relevance, and the special place he occupies in scientific history.
Prague, 18 April 2008 (RFE/RL) -- Albert Einstein's death 50 years ago today in the city of Princeton, New Jersey, was as quiet as his life's work was earthshaking.
"[Einstein's death] was rather undramatic," said Dr. Christophe Lehner, a scientist and Einstein scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, in Einstein's native Germany. "He died at home. Unfortunately, it's not known what he said last, because the only person that was next to him was an American nurse. So, she didn't understand. He said something in German that she didn't understand."
But most people had a hard time understanding Einstein, a fact not lost on the great mind himself:
"It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing -- a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind," Einstein once said.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of three scientific papers written by Einstein that still define how we look at the world. The United Nations has designated 2005 as the Year of Physics. Other events are planned around the world, including an exhibition at the Max Planck Institute itself.
But it was in the Swiss capital, Bern, where the 26-year-old Einstein wrote out his radical theories while working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office.
"I mean, the amazing thing about those 1905 papers is that they're not on one specific subject in physics," Christophe Lehner. "He covers all of modern physics with that. So basically, everything that's happened in the 20th century in physics has, in some way or other, to do with those papers."
The three papers concerned the verification of the existence of atoms, which had not been universally accepted at that time; the theory of relativity, which showed that time slows the faster an object travels; and quantum theory, which put forward the idea that light is not a wave but made up of small packets of energy, for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921.
And all of Einstein's discoveries continue to have modern applications -- for example, the global positioning system (GPS) would not work if it didn't correct effects related to the theory of relativity.
"It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing -- a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind." -- Einstein
Lehner said that such revolutions in physics simply don't happen that often. Before Einstein, he said, you'd have to go back to Galileo and Newton in the 17th century. He also thinks the lack of a latter-day Einstein has a lot to do with how physics itself has changed. Nowadays, he said, science is driven mostly by huge, anonymous corporations. It's less of a stage for great personalities.
Einstein, he said, did not shy away from asking metaphysical questions.
"One thing that makes Einstein very fascinating is that he wasn't very concerned about detailed technical issues in physics, but always was very much thinking of the big picture," Lehner said. "His questions were always philosophical in a way. And personally I think that's one problem with physics in the second half of the 20th century."
Einstein was a visionary, but that vision was often clouded by darkness. It was the potential for mass destruction inherent in his monumental theory of relativity that haunted Einstein to his last days.
Scientists in the 1930s -- using machines that could break apart the nuclear cores of atoms -- confirmed Einstein's theory, but also ushered in the age of atomic weapons. He called it the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man's discovery of fire.
But Lehner calls the E=MC2 formula a "footnote" to what Einstein did in 1905.
"The atomic bomb is just one of these things that somehow derived from Einstein's ideas," Lehner said. "I mean, it's no closer to E=MC2 than, say, the theory of the sun or the theory of chemical bombs. But in a way, it's this incredibly dramatic illustration of the fact that you can turn matter into energy. That's what E=MC2 says -- that E is energy, M is mass. That mass and energy are, in some very fundamental way, equivalent."
Concerned about the ability of Nazi Germany to harness the power of the atom for its own ends, Einstein -- who had fled Germany in December 1932 -- wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Einstein's letter helped convince Roosevelt to speed up Washington's own secret weapons program.
One week before his death, Einstein wrote another letter, this time to British philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell. In the letter, he agreed to sign his name to a manifesto urging all nations to renounce the use of nuclear weapons.
In the end, Einstein believed that a citizenry informed of the implications of nuclear weapons would "act for life and not for death." So far, as in most other areas in which he delved, Einstein has been proven right.