Dr. Einstein: World Class Dreamer
History - World Released - Aug 09, 2015
Albert Einstein was a dreamer, albeit a brilliant dreamer. He graduated from one of the most prestigious schools in Central Europe but his grades were such that he couldn’t find a University teaching job. After two fruitless years of searching, he accepted a job as an assistant examiner in a Swiss patent office. In 1903, Einstein’s position became permanent, although he was passed over for promotion because he hadn’t “fully mastered machine technology.” The job didn’t exactly excite him, but it allowed him plenty of time to dream, to conduct what later would become known as “thought experiments.” Two years later (in 1905) he produced three disparate and revolutionary papers that would propel him from third-class patent clerk to first-class physicist. Each paper was worthy of a Noble Prize, though only one of them won it for him. This was the paper on the photon, or quantum. The other papers were on special relativity and on the atom. More about these papers in a moment.
There are three things you need to know about Albert Einstein, and about physicists in general: (1) they do not start with a clean sheet of paper so to speak, but rather build on the work of others; (2) physicists are gifted mathematicians but incredibly hard working. When they believe they are on to a scientific breakthrough, they will work 18-hour days for weeks and months, sometimes going several days without eating or sleeping, and often end up with nothing to show for it; and (3) physicists conduct experiments with physical objects and tools, and work relentlessly to arrive at mathematical equations to prove their theories.
Einstein was an exception. He was a genius, but he was unexceptional at higher math; in school he had never taken the time to learn the many formulas being taught. Why? Because he was bored. And he came to believe that schools, no matter how prestigious, ultimately stifled creativity. Had he been an outstanding student and mastered all the classic mathematical formulas, he may have become locked into the world of esteemed college professors and never have surpassed Newton’s laws of physics with his own groundbreaking laws governing the universe. Though employed as an assistant patent clerk, he was free to imagine what the universe was like, and asked himself questions such as: “What would the world look like if I rode on a beam of light?” Flights of fancy? You bet, but in conducting these “thought experiments” Einstein changed the world.
Earlier I said Einstein produced three groundbreaking papers in 1905; in fact, he produced five:
1 - QUANTUM PHYSICS—The first paper (released in March) was an answer to the question of why a light beam caused a piece of metal charged with static electricity to emit electrons. Scientists had thought light could move only as a wave. Einstein said light could also act as a particle (known as the photon) and that it was the particle form that knocks electrons from metals. He received the Nobel Prize for this work in 1921. From this emerged quantum physics, which made possible everything from our televisions to the fiber-optic cables that carry the signals they display, from our phones to our computers, from the technology of the Internet to our MRI machines. Even use of the most seemingly mundane of appliances—ovens, clocks, thermostats—have components that depend for their design on an understanding of the quantum.
2 - MEASURING MOLECULES—His second paper (in April) was his fourth attempt to write a dissertation that would be accepted for his doctorate in physics. It got him the doctorate, but it was more important for the simple question it asked and answered: How can you measure sugar molecules dissolved in a cup of tea? His formula for measuring the size of sugar molecules in a liquid was applicable to all molecules.
3 - ATOMS—Einstein’s third paper (in May) addressed the question of why tiny particles suspended in a liquid move in jerky motions. It was, he said, because atoms and molecules that make up the liquid are in constant motion and jostle the particles. This paper along with the one in April provided powerful support for the fledging idea that matter was made of atoms. This paper was an immediately sensation. It was so compelling that a crusty old physicist named Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, the atom’s noted archenemy, said after reading Einstein’s paper he was convinced that atoms were real.
4 & 5 - SPECIAL RELATIVITY—His fourth and fifth papers (June and September) concerned the theory of special relativity and came out of his thought experiments indicating that a ground-based observer would see time slowing down on a fast-moving train, but someone on the train would not notice a change. A derivative showed how matter and energy are interchangeable. It gave birth to the most famous mathematic formula, E=mc2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared). As great as his two papers on special relatively were, he outdid them in 1915 with his paper on general relativity. It explained gravity so well that it has become the accepted standard. It came from what Einstein called “the happiest thought of my life.” In his thought experiment he envisioned a man falling from a roof. If dawned on him that the falling man could not feel gravity. The man couldn’t tell if he was being pulled or pushed, and Einstein realized this meant that gravity and acceleration are the same.
Newton had said gravity is a force exerted by one body on the other. The flaw in this theory was that it could not explain how such a force could travel instantly over the vast distances between galaxies. Gravity would have to travel faster than the speed of light, and nothing could do that. Einstein concluded that gravity was not a force, like other forces that moved through space. Instead, it was a condition of space itself. Big objects cause space to curve around them, like water in a stream flowing around a rock. Everything in space was effected by gravity, including light. Gravity warped space, causing light to bend and to make planets like earth be forever trapped in perpetual orbit around the sun.
Einstein brought about a complete revolution in physics: a conceptual revolution but a fundamental one. Before Einstein, scientists would perform a number of observations, or carry out a number of experiments, and from these find a way to generalize them, and come up with a theory. Einstein, on the other hand, never performed a single experiment. Sitting in the quiet of his room contemplating the universe, he changed our entire conception of the universe.
Einstein also changed our concept of reality. Reality itself was subjective, he said, not objective. It was different for everyone. He wasn’t the first to say this. Questions involving the relations between observer and reality, subject and object, have haunted philosophers and thinkers since the dawn of reason. Twenty-four centuries ago the Greek philosopher Democritus wrote: “Sweet and bitter, cold and warm as well as all the colors, all these things exist but in opinion and not in reality; what really exists are unchangeable particles, atoms, and their motions in empty space.” Galileo was aware of the purely subjective character of sense qualities like color, taste, smell, and sound and pointed out “they can no more be ascribed to the external objects than can the tickling or the pain caused sometimes by touching such objects.”
The great German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz said: “I am able to prove that not only light, color, heat, and the like, but motion, shape, and extension too are mere apparent qualities.” In other words, just as our visual sense tells us that a baseball is white, so vision abetted by our sense of touch tells us that it is also round, smooth, and small—qualities that have no more reality, independent of our senses, than the quality of which we define by convention as white. The Oxford physicist Roger Penrose put it even more succinctly: “The world is an illusion created by a conspiracy of our senses.”
Thus gradually philosophers and scientists arrived at the startling conclusion that since every object is simply the sum of its qualities, and since qualities exist only in the mind, the whole objective universe of matter and energy, atoms and stars, does not exist except as a construction of the consciousness, an edifice of conventional symbols shaped by the senses of man. Einstein carried this train of logic to its ultimate limits by showing that even space and time are forms of intuition, which can no more be divorced from consciousness that can our concepts of color, shape, or size. Space has no objective reality except as an order or arrangement of the objects we perceive in it, and time has no independent existence apart from the order of events by which we measure it.
The universe as Einstein imagined it was orderly. The physicists who picked up where Einstein left off developed theories that revealed the universe to be a chaotic place, without certainties, only probabilities. This was the quantum revolution, and it bothered Einstein to no end. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he said, despite a growing mountain of evidence to the contrary. For better or worse, the quantum revolution has ushered in an incredible new world of conveniences that 25 years ago would have been thought impossible.
Sources: “The Upright Thinkers” by Leonard Mlodinow, Pantheon Books, 2015; “The Universe and Dr. Einstein,” by Lincoln Barnett, Harper & Row, 1948, and “Einstein’s Miracle Year” by Ronald Kotulak, Chicago Tribune, Mar 27, 2005
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