Tuesday, April 19, 2005

S^2: Einstein's legacy

CNN original

He stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue like the Beatles or Marilyn Monroe. He could've been president of Israel or played violin at Carnegie Hall, but he was too busy thinking. His musings on God, love and the meaning of life grace our greeting cards and day-timers.
Fifty years after his death, his shock of white hair and droopy mustache still symbolize genius.

Who else could it be but Albert Einstein?

Einstein remains the foremost scientist of the modern era. Looking back 2,400 years, only Newton, Galileo and Aristotle were his equals.
Around the world, universities and academies are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "miracle year" when he published five scientific papers in 1905 that fundamentally changed our grasp of space, time, light and matter. Only he could top himself about a decade later with his theory of general relativity.

Here is a brief chronology of his miracle year:
March, 1905: Conventional physics described light as a wave and could not explain how light can knock electrons off metal. Einstein showed that light is made of tiny packets of energy, or quanta, that can behave like individual particles, too.
This duality is the basis of quantum theory, a pillar of modern physics. His explanation of this "photoelectric effect" won him the Nobel prize in 1921.

April: Based on cafe conversations over tea, Einstein submits a paper that determined the size of sugar molecules by calculating their diffusion in the liquid.

May: He shows how particles (like pollen) that appear to be independently moving in water are being jostled by atoms in water that are moving chaotically. Known as Brownian motion, Einstein's calculations confirmed the atom's existence and by extension, the makeup of chemical elements.

June: Einstein's paper on "special relativity" separates him from the mainstream physics crowd. Scientists had concluded that light was just one of many kinds of electromagnetic waves moving through an unseen medium they called ether, and the speed of light is always the same.
Einstein recalled a teenage daydream of racing a light beam. According to the physics of his day, if he moved as fast as the light, then the beam would be stationary in space. Einstein said the speed of light is constant at 186,282 miles per second. But it will appear different depending on where you are and how fast you are traveling.

November: Einstein publishes an extension of special relativity regarding the conversion of mass into energy, noting that the "mass of a body is a measure of its energy content." In 1907, he abbreviated it to what would become science's most famous equation: The amount of energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, or E=mc2. This became the theoretical basis for both atomic explosions and atomic energy.

"Each of these papers is a landmark in physics," said University of Maryland physicist S. James Gates. "And yet all of his work in 1905 is a prelude to his greatest composition -- the theory of general relativity."

Einstein described relativity this way: "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That's relativity."

It is heard that as an old man, Einstein, rightly one of the greatest scientists of all times, used to say in a melancholy tone:
"The physicists say that I am a mathematician, and the mathematicians say that I am a physicist," he said. "I am a completely isolated man and though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really know me."

But his legacy, like the universe, keeps on expanding.



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