Happy Birthday Al! On this day, in the year 1879, a person was born whose name would become synonymous with our popular concept of genius. When we take a closer look at Albert Einstein’s contributions to science, it’s plain to see why. Within a single year, working at a Swiss patent office, Einstein wrote a series of papers explaining several key ideas that would revolutionize Physics –
- His paper on the particulate nature of light put forward the idea that certain experimental results, notably the photoelectric effect, could be simply understood from the postulate that light interacts with matter as discrete “packets” (quanta) of energy, an idea that had been introduced by Max Planck in 1900 as a purely mathematical manipulation, and which seemed to contradict contemporary wave theories of light.
- His paper on Brownian motion explained the random movement of very small objects as direct evidence of molecular action, thus supporting the atomic theory.
- His paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies introduced the radical theory of special relativity, which showed that the observed independence of the speed of light on the observer’s state of motion required fundamental changes to the notion of simultaneity. Consequences of this include the time-space frame of a moving body slowing down and contracting (in the direction of motion) relative to the frame of the observer. This paper also argued that the idea of a luminiferous aether–one of the leading theoretical entities in physics at the time–was superfluous.
- In his paper on mass-energy equivalence (previously considered to be distinct concepts), Einstein deduced from his equations of special relativity what has been called the twentieth century’s most well known equation: E = mc2. This suggests that tiny amounts of mass could be converted into huge amounts of energy and presaged the development of nuclear power.
When published in 1905, Einstein’s theories garnered little response from the scientific community. It wasn’t until 1921 that he received the Nobel prize for defining the law of the photoelectric effect – surprisingly not for either of his theories of relativity. Einstein’s special theory of relativity is best known for equating mass to energy with
E=MCÂ² and describes the relationship between space and time. Developed later, his general theory of relativity redefines the concept of gravity. Einstein spent much of the rest of his life attempting to unify this general theory with electromagnetism, and many others continue that work today.
Einstein was an accomplished daydreamer – many of his ideas were born from simply observing everyday life and re-imagining those situations with unusual variations in motion and perspective. So the next time you catch yourself ‘spacing out’, consider jotting down some of those wandering ideas – they may be the building blocks of something much greater.
As Gareth points out, the History Channel has a good documentary on Mr. Einstein, currently available for viewing online. And of course the all-encompassing Wikipedia has a ton of great info as well, including Albert’s individual theories and life in general.