EINSTEIN’S LEGACY KEEPS ON EXPANDING
EINSTEIN’S LEGACY KEEPS ON EXPANDING
2005-04-17 at 11:42:00 am #8942
Einstein’s Legacy Keeps on Expanding
He stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue like the Beatles or
Marilyn Monroe. He could’ve been president of Israel or played violin at
Carnegie Hall, but he was too busy thinking. His musings on God, love and the
meaning of life grace our greeting cards and day-timers. Fifty years after his
death, his shock of white hair and droopy mustache still symbolize genius.
Who else could it be but Albert Einstein?
Einstein remains the foremost scientist of the modern era.
Looking back 2,400 years, only Newton, Galileo and Aristotle were his
Around the world, universities and academies are
celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s ”miracle year” when he
published five scientific papers in 1905 that fundamentally changed our grasp of
space, time, light and matter. Only he could top himself about a decade later
with his theory of general relativity.
Born in the era of horse-drawn carriages, his ideas
launched a dazzling technological revolution that has generated more change in a
century than in the previous two millennia.
Computers, satellites, telecommunication, lasers,
television and nuclear power all owe their invention to ways in which Einstein
peeled back the veneer of the observable world to expose a stranger and more
complicated reality underneath.
And, he launched an intellectual quest for a single
coherent law that governs the universe. Einstein said such a unified
super-theory of everything, still unwritten, would enable us to ”read the mind
”We are a different race of people than we were a century
ago,” says astrophysicist Michael Shara of the American Museum of Natural
History, ”utterly and completely different, because of Einstein.”
Yet there is more, and it is why Einstein transcends mere
genius and has become our culture’s grandfatherly icon.
He escaped Hitler’s Germany and devoted the rest of his
life to humanitarian and pacifist causes with an authority unmatched by any
scientist today, or even most politicians and religious leaders.
He used his celebrity to speak out against fascism, racial
prejudice and the McCarthy hearings. His FBI file ran 1,400 pages.
His letters reveal a tumultuous personal life – married
twice and indifferent toward his children while obsessed with physics. Yet he
charmed lovers and admirers with poetry and sailboat outings. Friends and
neighbors fiercely protected his privacy.
And, yes, he was eccentric. With hair like that, how could
he not be?
He famously stuck his tongue out at photographers – that
is, when he wasn’t wearing a Native American war bonnet or some other get-up.
Cartoonists loved him.
He never learned to drive. He would walk home from his
office at Princeton University, sockless and submerged in the pursuit of the
”eternal riddle,” letting his umbrella rattle against the bars of an iron
fence. If his umbrella skipped a bar, he would go back to the beginning of the
fence and start over.
In those solitary moments, he unconsciously demonstrated
the traits – intense concentration, disregard for fashion and innate playfulness
- that would rescue him when, inevitably, he would be interrupted by both
presidents and passers-by to explain the universe.
”Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into
nothing that is something,” Einstein once said, ”wearing stripes with plaid
Today, there are curiously few statues of the man. The most
notable is a 12-foot bronze at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington
depicting the wrinkled old sage gazing at his famous E=mc2 formula. Tourists
climb into his lap for snapshots.
Rolf Sinclair despises it. ”It’s one of the worst pieces
of public sculpture,” says the retired National Science Foundation physics
program officer. ”It makes him look like one of the Three Stooges reading his
The Einstein that Sinclair and others would prefer
immortalized is circa 1905, when he was 26 and about to rock the world.
By day, he worked in the Swiss patent office in Bern. He
called it his ”cobbler’s job,” but for seven years he analyzed a stream of
inventions dealing with railroad timekeeping and other matters of precision that
raised cosmic possibilities in his fertile mind.
After hours, he would work furiously on his ”thought
experiments,” that smashed through the limits of established physics.
”Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Einstein
said. ”The important thing is to not stop questioning.”
In 1905, he published five landmark papers without
footnotes or citations. It marked the beginning of an unrivaled, two-decade
Here is a brief chronology of his miracle year:
March, 1905: Conventional physics described light as a wave
and could not explain how light can knock electrons off metal. Einstein showed
that light is made of tiny packets of energy, or quanta, that can behave like
individual particles, too.
This duality is the basis of quantum theory, a pillar of
modern physics so paradoxical that even Einstein didn’t entirely buy into it.
His explanation of this ”photoelectric effect” won him the Nobel prize in
April: Based on cafe conversations over tea, Einstein
submits a paper that determined the size of sugar molecules by calculating their
diffusion in the liquid.
May: He shows how particles (like pollen) that appear to be
independently moving in water are being jostled by atoms in water that are
moving chaotically. Known as Brownian motion, Einstein’s calculations confirmed
the atom’s existence and by extension, the makeup of chemical elements.
June: Einstein’s paper on ”special relativity” separates
him from the mainstream physics crowd. Newton considered gravity to be absolute
- mass attracts mass. It’s what makes gas and dust form stars and debris form
But Einstein sought to explain anomalies in this rule.
Scientists had concluded that light was just one of many kinds of
electromagnetic waves moving through an unseen medium they called ether, and the
speed of light is always the same.
Einstein recalled a teenage daydream of racing a light
beam. According to the physics of his day, if he moved as fast as the light,
then the beam would be stationary in space.
Einstein said the speed of light is constant at 186,282
miles per second. But it will appear different depending on where you are and
how fast you are traveling.
For example, clocks on orbiting satellites run a bit slower
because the satellites are orbiting at 17,000 mph. They have programs that help
them align with clocks on Earth.
Or, suppose you were to ”witness” a star exploding into a
supernova. The explosion occurred thousands of years ago, but it has taken that
long for the light to reach you here.
November: Einstein publishes an extension of special
relativity regarding the conversion of mass into energy, noting that the ”mass
of a body is a measure of its energy content.” In 1907, he abbreviated it to
what would become science’s most famous equation: The amount of energy equals
mass times the speed of light squared, or E=mc2.
C2 is such a huge number that even small amounts of mass
pack big power.
This became the theoretical basis for both atomic
explosions and atomic energy.
”Each of these papers is a landmark in physics,” said
University of Maryland physicist S. James Gates. ”And yet all of his work in
1905 is a prelude to his greatest composition – the theory of general
Special relativity was incomplete because it did not deal
with gravity. To Newton, gravity was a constant, absolute force. Drop an apple
and it hits the ground. A planet traces a curved orbit because the sun’s gravity
tugs at the planet.
In Einstein’s relative world, matter warps the time and
space around it. So, the sun’s mass dents and distorts the space-time fabric,
curving the planet’s trajectory.
He reasoned that even particles of light, which have very
tiny mass, should be affected in this way.
In 1919, astronomers watching a solar eclipse observed the
light from a distant star being deflected by the darkening sun’s mass – by a few
hundredths of a millimeter.
General relativity laid the foundation for all kinds of
discoveries, such as the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe and black
Yet relativity is both so profound and confounding that
even other physicists have trouble grasping its nuances.
Einstein described relativity this way: ”Put your hand on
a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for
an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
In a lifetime that coincided with Rudolph Valentino and
Clark Gable, it’s hard to imagine Einstein as a lady’s man. With that hair? And
those rumpled clothes?
He had a passionate personality that drew admirers. But
physics always was his first love and that was the trouble.
The young Einstein’s indifferent, even ruthless, nature is
evident in his dealings with his first wife, Mileva Maric. She and Einstein were
students at the renowned Swiss National Polytechnic in Zurich.
In effusive letters and poetry, he called her Dollie and
She gave birth to an out-of-wedlock daughter at her
parents’ home in Hungary. The baby either died or was adopted. Einstein never
saw the child.
The episode ended Mileva’s career before it began. She
appears to have been a sounding board for his ideas, but historians doubt she
was a true collaborator. They married in 1902 and Mileva bore two sons, but
their passion soured as Einstein’s reputation grew. He complained that he had no
time for marital ”chatter.”
He and Mileva separated in 1914.
”You make sure … that I receive my three meals regularly
in my room,” he wrote in his cold list of conditions. ”You are neither to
expect intimacy nor to reproach me in any way.”
But eight years later, he gave her the $32,000 purse from
his Nobel Prize for physics.
Einstein had an affair with his German cousin, Elsa
Lowenthal, and she nursed him back to health when he collapsed from nervous
exhaustion in 1917. They married two years later, but she soon found herself
tolerating his girlfriends. They emigrated to Princeton, where she died in
Until his own death from heart disease on April 18, 1955,
relatives and his secretary kept house for Einstein at 112 Mercer Street. He
also developed attachments to several women who shared his love of music,
sailing and world affairs.
One was an alleged Soviet spy, Margarita Konenkova, a
Russian emigre married to a Greenwich Village sculptor.
Another was Johanna Fantova. She and her husband had met
the scientist in Prague’s intellectual circles that included the novelist Franz
Kafka. She emigrated to Princeton alone in 1939. She cut Einstein’s hair and he
telephoned several times a week. In her diary, she included this charming line
of verse from the physicist:
”Exhausted from a silence long/ This is to show you clear
how strong/ The thoughts of you will always sit/ Up in my brain’s little
As an old man, he revealed to Fantova a melancholy
”The physicists say that I am a mathematician, and the
mathematicians say that I am a physicist,” he said. ”I am a completely
isolated man and though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really