How an unknown scientist rewrote the rules of physics, and in the process, changed the world forever

1905: Einstein’s ‘Miracle Year’: how an unknown scientist rewrote the rules of physics, and in the process, changed the world forever

John Schwartz

One hundred years ago, a young patent clerk in Switzerland named Albert Einstein began publishing his revolutionary theories of how the physical universe worked, and the world hasn’t been the same since.

Einstein was 26 and unknown in 1905 when, in the course of a year, he completed three scientific papers that would begin to rewrite the rules of physics and make him a star. While the term genius is often overused, Einstein’s enormous accomplishments, beginning in what has been called his “miracle year,” established him as the most famous genius in the world. And his reputation has only grown in the decades since his death.

“Part of [Einstein’s] appeal is that he comes from nowhere and turns things upside down,” says Peter L. Galison, who teaches the history of science at Harvard. Einstein “had a transformative effect on the world,” Galison adds, “because of his relentless pursuit of what the right principles should be.”

That Einstein would become a universally revered scientist–known in later life for his unruly mop of white hair and baggy sweaters–would have been hard to predict from his youth.

SLOW LEARNER

Born in 1879 in Germany, he “developed slowly in childhood, and had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn to speak,” his sister, Maja, later recalled. Einstein excelled in math as a youngster but was often uncomfortable in school. He flunked his first college-entrance exam (though he did well on the math and science portions), and later, after getting a teaching degree in Switzerland, was unable to find a teaching job. By 1905, he was biding his time as a clerk examining patent applications in Bern, Switzerland, and during his spare hours, he wrote the papers that would later earn him his fame.

NEWTON’S WORLD

Until Einstein came along, the scientific understanding of how the physical universe operated was based largely on the 17th-century work of Englishman Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton’s world focused, by necessity, on things that could be seen with the naked eye or the primitive telescopes and microscopes of the time. In Newton’s conception, two key elements of physical dimension–time and space–were absolute and unchanging, which seemed logical enough in the 1600s.

But advances in technology over the next two centuries demonstrated that the universe was a more complicated place than it appeared in Newton’s day: By the early 20th century, scientists were measuring light from distant stars with precision and harnessing electricity and radio waves. In some cases, especially when matter traveled at high speeds, Newton’s rules didn’t seem to work as well.

Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity,” one of his accomplishments of 1905, postulated that time and space were not absolute, but instead varied, depending on one s perspective; in other words, they were “relative.” The science was complex (most non-scientists still have only a vague understanding of it), but some of the predictions it yielded were truly astonishing.

The most famous one said that for objects traveling at high speeds, time would slow down in a relative sense. Thus, if an astronaut traveled in a spaceship moving at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), his trip to the stars and back would be measured on Earth in years, decades, or centuries, but the astronaut himself would not have aged much at all.

E=[MC.sup.2]

The same theory yielded modern science’s most important equation, E=[mc.sup.2]. That equation says that energy (E) is equal to mass (m) times the speed of light squared ([c.sup.2]). While deceptively simple, its consequences were monumental because it described the enormous amounts of energy that might be liberated from matter–so much that a penny, if it could be completely converted into energy, would provide all the power used by New York City for two years.

The same concept would lead to the idea of harnessing the energy in matter to develop atomic weapons and nuclear power.

Einstein’s theories did not change the world overnight. Serious coverage of his work in The New York Times began in November 1919, when Britain’s Royal Society officially endorsed the General Theory of Relativity (a broader version of 1905’s Special Theory of Relativity) after confirming predictions made by Einstein in 1911: He had said that the light of distant stars would be bent slightly toward the sun as the light passed nearby, and this effect was measured during a 1919 solar eclipse. “Lights All Askew in the Heavens,” said a Times headline after the confirmation.

Askew was how the whole world seemed at the time. It was shell-shocked by the horrors of World War I, and now even space and time weren’t what people thought they were–they were “relative.”

Historian Paul Johnson has argued that the confirmation of Einstein’s theories, coming when it did, can be seen as the beginning of the modern world, a world that no longer seemed as certain as it had before. “At the beginning of the 1920s, the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value,” Johnson writes in the book Modern Times.

LIKE A ROCK STAR

For giving the world a whole new universe, Einstein received the kind of adulation now reserved for rock stars and movie heartthrobs. On his first trip to the United States in 1921, crowds waited for hours at the dock in New York for his ship to come in, and thousands more lined the streets to cheer for him.

A Times reporter described Einstein’s arrival:

A man in a faded gray raincoat and a flopping black felt hat that nearly concealed the gray hair that straggled over his ears stood on the boat deck of the steamship Rotterdam yesterday, timidly facing a battery of cameramen. In one hand he clutched a shiny briar pipe and with the other clung to a precious violin. He looked like an artist–a musician. He was.

But underneath his shaggy locks was a scientific mind whose deductions have staggered the ablest intellects of Europe. One of his traveling companions described him as an “intuitive physicist” whose speculative imagination is so vast that it senses great natural laws long before the reasoning faculty grasps and defines them.

Twelve years later, the world-famous Einstein returned to America for good, fleeing Nazi Germany and its persecution of Jews, and settled in New Jersey to work at Princeton University. His theories, and those of other physicists, led Einstein to believe that science could unlock the promise of E=[mc.sup.2]. In August 1939, with World War II looming, he wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that launched the massive effort to build the atomic bomb. “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable–though much less certain–that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed,” wrote Einstein, who had been a lifelong pacifist.

The two atom bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 brought the war to a close, but Einstein was devastated by the resulting destruction and loss of life. “I made one great mistake in my life–when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made,” he later wrote, adding, “but there was some justification–the danger that the Germans would make them.”

AN ‘EPIC POET’

After the war, Einstein and other physicists pushed to control the power they had helped to unleash, calling for arms control. Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel in 1952, but turned it down. He died a U.S. citizen in Princeton, in April 1955, at age 76.

In an editorial following his death, The Times said that what distinguished Einstein was his passionate devotion to truth, and his great imagination. “Mathematical physicists in Einstein’s class are the epic poets of our time,” the paper said. “The universe we conceive is their intellectual creation.”

Game Show

1905: Einstein’s ‘Miracle Year.’ Divide the class into 2-4 teams. Read statements below. Students must give their answers in the form of questions. After reading each statement, the teacher recognizes the first team to raise a hand. Correct answers are worth 10 points each. For incorrect answers, deduct 10 points and allow the other team (or if there are several teams, the team with the first hand raised) to respond. That team will then get 10 points for a correct answer or suffer a 10-point penalty for an incorrect one.

Statement to Read

1. Land of Einstein’s birth.

2. Einstein’s job in 1905.

3. “Special Theory of –“.

4. Einstein said space and this are not absolute.

5. Addressee of Einstein’s famous letter.

Correct Response

What is Germany?

What is a patent clerk?

What is relativity?

What is time?

Who was President Franklin D. Roosevelt?

John Schwartz covers science for The Times; additional reporting by Dennis Overbye of The Times, and Ian Zack.

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