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March 24, 2005

The Year of Albert Einstein and the Year of Physics 2005

Like Mozart in music, Shakespeare in drama and Michelangelo with his wide-ranging talent, Albert Einstein is recognized as the leader of the pack of many brilliant physicists in the 20th century.  Einstein died 50 years ago on April 18, 1955, but the most important date in his chronology is his miracle year in 1905.  While working as a “patent office slave” 40 hours a week, raising a family and writing his PhD thesis he wrote 4 papers in isolation that changed the world of physics forever.  One of these papers on his Theory of Relativity which spawned our most famous equation E=mc˛ was his PhD thesis. 

In the 50 years after 1905 as his ideas of space, time, and gravity were tested and verified he became the most famous scientist of the 20th century.  Newton 250 years before Einstein’s miracle year had a miracle year of his own that established the world view of space until Einstein changed all that in 1905. 

This year, the 100th year of his discoveries at age 26 Einstein is being recognized in the World Year of Physics with many books, celebrations and remembrances.  Last week CBC radio had a panel of physicists on their science program Quirks and Quarks honoring him.  There is also an interesting blog website (Quantum Diaries) where 29 physicists will keep on line diaries of their life in 2005.  The site has already shown that many of the scientists are very ordinary people outside their labs and classrooms.  The most interesting site is that of Dave Waller working underground in the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory. 

Albert Einstein 

Albert Einstein was an average, independent and sometimes uncooperative student who when he got his masters degree could not get work except as a patent agent.  In spite of a heavy workload, a family and his PhD thesis, he wrote four brilliant papers in a few months in 1905 in his spare time that changed the world of science and our world today in many ways. 

There was some positive reaction but some jealousy and resistance by other leaders in the field.  Einstein waited and improved his theory in his own unique way.  He was born in Germany but did not like the rigid lifestyle and moved to Switzerland and became a citizen and went to school, worked and raised his family there.  He eventually was able to leave the patent office and ended in a prestigious research position in Germany.  His greatness became worldwide when his theory that light was affected by gravity was proven correct during an eclipse of the sun in 1919. 

He eventually came to America where he became a researcher at Princeton University.  He won the Nobel Prize in 1921.  He fought the development of the Quantum approach to science and some of the panelist on the CBC programme mentioned above believe that he may still be right.  Einstein worked on refining his theories, developed others, and worked with the finest minds in the field.  The mystery surrounding his theories which were incomprehensible to most, along with his absent mindedness, set him up as the shaggy haired professor with the German accent in many cartoons and movies.  He used his celebrity status to fuel the humanist side of his personality all his life. 

He fought courageously on the side of people resisting the atomic bomb even though some of his discoveries led others to the discovery of the power of the atom.  He was a civil rights crusader long before the active 1960s and 70s and fought lynching, the McCarthy hearings and supported many other causes. 

As a Jew by birth he was not an adherent of the faith but after the Holocaust he supported a Jewish homeland and on one occasion was offered the Presidency of Israel.  During the Nazi era his theories were criticized, his books burned and his life theatrical. 

Space and my lack of understanding of his science prevent details of his theories here but there is much online under his name.  On a personal note I did get some help from 2 of my grandchildren who are studying physics at McGill and the U of T.  One was recently offered a full scholarship for a Phd in theoretical physics, so some other time I may get some help and say more about his many scientific achievements.  In the meantime I will take the advice of s friend who reminded me that I don’t have to be a genius like “Alfred Eisenstein” to do what I do.

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