[Homestead] Einstein, the original and the next one

Tvoivozhd tvoivozd at infionline.net
Fri Sep 17 12:32:36 EDT 2004

By David Bodanis, David Bodanis taught at Oxford University for many 
years. He is the author of "E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most 
Famous Equation" (Walker & Co., 2000). His new book, "Electric 
Universe," will

Everybody has a good day from time to time, but what happened to Albert 
Einstein in 1905, when he was just 26 years old, was extraordinary: He 
wrote five powerful papers in one year — any one of which would have 
been worthy of the Nobel Prize, laying the foundation for the modern 
pharmaceutical industry, quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. 
He even came up that year with the beguilingly simple formula — E=mc2 — 
that has done so much to transform our century.

What made it even more extraordinary — as "Einstein," an exhibition at 
the Skirball Cultural Center, reveals — was that up until the start of 
that year, nobody had any idea he was capable of this. He'd been an 
average university student in Zurich, Switzerland, and because he had 
smarted off so much to his teachers he hadn't been allowed into graduate 
school. The best job he'd been able to wangle was that of patent clerk, 
third class, under the stern eye of one Herr Haller in the Federal 
Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He'd received a thorough 
enough grounding in the basic tools of physics from his schooling, and 
if he had gone straight to a university job, he wrote later, he probably 
wouldn't have had the time for the quiet, unpressured reflection needed 
for his breakthroughs.

Two beliefs kept Einstein motivated in those years at the patent office. 
The first was that there were great truths waiting to be discovered. He 
felt, as he once put it, like a little boy standing in a big, dark room 
lined with books with titles that were hard to distinguish — but with 
enough concentration and humility, a few of the waiting pages could be read.

His second motivating belief was that the universe was simple, and the 
same for everyone. If I, standing still, view a light beam as moving at 
a certain rate of speed, I have no right to say that this is the "true" 
rate, and that what you, running along beside the beam, might measure 
about its speed is wrong. Rather, there had to be a way to make any two 
such views be seen as just one aspect of a deeper, common truth. From 
that reasoning — and with just a few lines of high school algebra — much 
of relativity, as well as the formula E=mc2, could be deduced.

It also helped that he was struggling with these problems at a very 
propitious time. Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out that the reason it's 
so hard to hit .400 in major league baseball today is that the whole 
level of play has been raised. In the 1920s and 1930s there were many 
weak teams, against which it was easy for top hitters to pump up their 
averages. Today though, there are fewer consistently weak teams. Batters 
have a higher standard against which to try to stand out.

Einstein was like one of those old-time batters. Today there are 
thousands of physicists in the world, but when Einstein was at the 
patent office there were scarcely any — perhaps six full-time physicists 
in Switzerland and at most a few hundred in other major countries. He 
could take the time he needed for quiet mulling without too much worry 
that anyone would catch up to him.

To top it all, Einstein, who was born and raised in Germany, had the 
trait many immigrants share — because they are, in a sense, outsiders — 
of questioning what the society around them insists to be true. Although 
Einstein's parents were not very religious, he knew he came from a line 
of very Orthodox Jews who had no knowledge of 19th century science. At 
university, he learned that the biblical tales those ancestors had 
believed were false, or at least incomplete when it came to science.

But then when his Zurich teachers told him that what he was learning was 
the total and complete truth, he didn't believe them. After all, his 
family had been fooled once by taking too much on trust. He ended up 
questioning whether, by simple analogy, what his overconfident 
professors were teaching him could be incomplete as well.

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