Happy Einstein Day! Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no? I mean, is there an E=mc² Day?
Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. 26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect, the paper that would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics five years later, in 1921. In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass. This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².
Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist. Einstein dashed them off in just a few months, forever changing the field of physics. And, you noticed: Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc². He won it for the photo electric effect. Irony in history.
106 years later Einstein’s work affects us every day. Relativity theory at some level I don’t understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement. Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war. Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.
If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism. He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription. His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States. In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that. But Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views. Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs. (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)
Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it in the divorce settlement. Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character. His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke. For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words. He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?
When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them. (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers). Einstein is the only scientist in that group. So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century. This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.
A most interesting man. A most important body of work. He deserves more study and regard than he gets.
- American Institute of Physics (AIP) on-line exhibit on the life and work of Einstein — good stuff!
- Einstein’s biography at the Nobel Foundation website
- NPR’s Talk of the Nation show on Einstein’s birthday in 2005, featuring New York Times science correspondent Dennis Overbye, author of Einstein in Love
- Effect Measure at SciBlogs had a nice tribute today
- History Channel’s series, 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America featured a film on the letter Einstein wrote to FDR, “Einstein’s Letter.” Here’s a teachers guide
- The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque will hold its 14th Annual Einstein Dinner on March 19, at the Hotel Albuquerque