BY DAYNA NORRIS
In 1905, the 26-year-old patent clerk Albert Einstein published four physics articles, each outstanding, together simply miraculous. The first paper suggested that light comes in discrete packets or particles or quanta called photons. This theory that light has properties of both waves and particles predicted the photoelectric effect, began quantum physics, and earned Einstein the 1921 Nobel Prize. Two papers interpreted the random or zigzagging motion (Brownian motion) of pollen particles suspended in liquid as proof of the existence of atoms. Einstein’s contribution transformed the atom from an abstract term in thermodynamics to concrete evidence of matter’s microscopic structure. The fourth paper, later known as special relativity, employed a radical new view of space and time—that they were not absolute, but relative to the observer. Moreover, space and time were not separate, but one and the same: space-time.
A few months later, in a fifth paper, Einstein added that at the atomic level, mass and energy are interchangeable—that mass can be converted to matter: E=mc2. In 1907, he upped the ante from a stationary observer and a moving object to consider the relativity of both in motion. General relativity (though Einstein preferred “invariance theory” to convey the new absolute of space-time) proved that gravity and acceleration were the same force. His later work focused on proving the theory of the unification of all the forces of nature. At the time discounted, unified field theory has now remerged as the hottest quest in modern particle physics.
Is it any surprise that 2005, the 100th anniversary of these revolutionary papers, has been named World Year of Physics? In Princeton, New Jersey, the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein was a faculty member from 1933 till his death in 1955, combined a celebration of Einstein’s 1905 papers with the Institute’s 75th birthday on May 20th. Lectures attended by renowned physicists and the general public (including me) continued all day. Some explained Einstein’s breakthroughs, while others included reminiscences of his life in Princeton and described the Institute’s founding. Thanks to the fortuitous combination of the sale of Bamberger’s Department Store in September 1929, the generosity of the Bamberger family, and the advice of a family friend, educator Abraham Flexner, the Institute was formed just in time to provide refuge for the Jewish Einstein to escape Nazi Germany. Einstein’s visage became the icon for a scientist (think of Doc Brown in “Back to the Future”), and his name remains synonymous with genius.
To understand the “before, during, and after” of the most profound year for physics and Einstein, start with the 1971 classic, Einstein: The Life and Times, by Ronald Clark. A newer book is Albert Einstein: A Biography, by Alice Calaprice and Trevor Lipscombe. To delve deeper into the details of his astonishing conclusions, read Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Fate of Physics, by Roger Penrose.
To get an overview of the current quests of modern physics, try two thorough but easily comprehensive books by Brian Greene: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and The Quest for the Ultimate Theory, and The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. Dr. Greene, Columbia professor of math and physics, and himself a string theorist, illuminates for the layman the dazzling world of eleven dimensions emerging from smaller-than-Planck-scale loops. His entertaining style includes enjoyable tidbits, such as, if human eyes could see wavelengths longer than orange or red, we could see not only the microwaves cooking our popcorn, but also the faint, uniform glow in the night sky known as cosmic microwave radiation background. Also, everyone has heard of Mach One, the sound barrier, but how many know it was named for Austrian physicist Ernst Mach? At his spring 2005, standing-room-only talk in ancient McCosh Hall at Princeton University, Greene even used photos of ants on a traffic light arm outside his Central Park West apartment to clarify how the smallest dimensions might be curled up.
There are hundreds of other books to start learning about quantum physics, but my favorite title is In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality, by John Gribbin. If you always regretted not going to MIT, you can pacify yourself with its Introduction to Quantum Physics. A century after Einstein’s insights, we’re used to the electronic/nuclear age, but the real quantum revolution will be when we truly appreciate quantum emotions, that the vibration of happiness affects the field more powerfully than words or actions.