Dr. Albert Einstein writes an equation for the density of the Milky Way on the blackboard at the Carnegie Institute, Mt. Wilson Observatory headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., in this Jan. 14, 1931, file photo. (AP Photo)
INDEPTH: ALBERT EINSTEIN|
The National | April 27, 2005
Producer: Debi Goodwin
Reporter: Bob McDonald
It may be surprising that one of the greatest icons of the past century was a physicist. Albert Einstein revolutionized the way we see the universe and brought real changes to our lives, and he became a celebrity with his eccentric looks, his outspoken views and the boldness of his imagination.
The language of theoretical physics is one that few of us speak or understand. It has symbols that try to make order out of the seeming chaos of the universe, that calculate both the actions of the tiniest things in it and the tremendous forces that created it.
Alice Calaprice worked as an editor of Einstein’s collected papers at Princeton University Press, and is the author of six books about him.
“First of all, I think people appreciated that fact that he was a genius not everybody is a genius,” she says. “He was so very human, and his modesty and humility, and his good sense of humour, and his hair, of course. He must have been a cartoonist’s dream. And I think all of these things, combined with the period of history that he lived in, made him an icon all over the world.”
Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. He says you can't talk about physics today without giving Einstein his due.
“It would be like thinking about psychoanalysis without Freud, you know, or rock and roll without Elvis or the Beatles,” he says. “From the point of view of those who work in his shadow, who work in his field, he laid the groundwork for what we do, and therefore we're enthralled. I think, actually, we're not enthralled enough.”
Enthralled enough to declare this the year of physics, with global events celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s "miracle" year, when he published four papers that changed our understanding of the cosmos.
In Princeton, N.J., people gathered to make sure the memory of the man lives on in the town that Einstein called his home for the last two decades of his life.
They watched as American sculptor Robert Berks unveiled his bronze bust of the physicist on the anniversary of the day Einstein died 50 years ago.
This is the first public monument to Einstein in Princeton. It took years and the commitment of a small group to make it happen.
Statue of Einstein
Mel Benarde led that drive.
“I said to myself, there’s nothing here. Not a street, not a plaque, not a statue. There were the people who said Einstein wouldn’t want it, and I had to beat that down. I had to keep writing and showing that Einstein would have wanted it,” he says. “It was the people who were living, not the dead, who were important. The kids needed models. We have so few models that didn’t have feet of clay.”
The humble resident who might not have wanted a statue was a different man from the arrogant European youth who constantly questioned authority.
“He was kind of brash and he didn’t get along very well with his professors in school or at university because he was pretty arrogant and he didn’t want to go to their lectures,” Alice Calaprice says. “ And he had his friends take notes and he preferred studying on his own. And then he had a hard time getting letters of recommendation from the faculty when he was looking for a job.”
The only job he could find in 1905 was in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. But it was there, as a loner, excluded from Europe’s best universities, that he found the time and space to put his great imagination to work.
Einstein liked to do what he called thought experiments, in which he would mentally step outside the bounds of normal physics and contemplate the universe.
One of these thought experiments involved the concept of time. Everybody before Einstein, from Newton back to the ancient Greeks, believed that you can’t mess with time. It’s constant. It’s absolute.
Einstein experimented with the concept of time
There was a clock tower that Einstein passed every day on his way to the patent office in Bern.
He wondered what that clock would look like if he were travelling at the speed of light. He realized that from that perspective the clock tower would appear to stop while his own watch would keep on running.
Time is not constant. It’s flexible, whether you’re moving or not. He said the same thing about space. You can bend it and twist it, and not only that, he could prove it mathematically, and it was that kind of thinking that shook the foundations of science itself.
But that was just one of his discoveries that year.
No less important was his writing that proved the existence of atoms. He saw them as distinct little energetic balls, capable of bouncing off each other.
Another paper, the one that eventually won the Nobel Prize, dealt with the nature of light. Rather than a wave, Einstein said, light is made up of small packets of energy called photons, units still used today in everything from CD players to telescopes.
And finally, there was special relativity, the one that came out of his clock tower experiment ... that proved how time, distance and mass can change depending on your perspective.
It was the paper that revolutionized our understanding of the laws of the universe and inspired the most famous but least understood equation: E=MC2
What's this famous formula all about?
E is energy, and M is mass.
Einstein's famous equation
Anything that weighs something has mass, your body has mass. There's a little bit of gas inside a balloon. It has a mass.
The formula says energy and mass are just different versions of the same thing and one can be converted into the other. Einstein was talking about the nuclear energy, the powerful forces that hold the atom together.
If you want to know how much energy there is in a mass, you multiply it by C, the speed of light which is just a really huge number squared. If you multiply anything by a really large number you get a lot, and that means a tiny bit of mass can give you a huge amount of energy.
That concept led to the nuclear age. World events brought the concept to reality.
During the 1930s, Einstein was forced to flee Germany when the Nazis made it unsafe for any Jew, even one of the world’s most eminent scientists. He took a position at the private Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and lived in a house on Mercer Street for the rest of his life.
But he did not retire from the world. He used his reputation to encourage the Americans to join in the war against Nazi Germany. And once war broke out, he and other scientists felt an urgency to turn the new understanding of the energy held in the atom into a weapon before the Germans did.
They sent a letter to the White House, urging the president to get an American program underway.
Once the Manhattan Project finally got up and running, Einstein was excluded. The U.S. government wouldn’t give the recent immigrant from Germany the security clearance.
As other great minds got closer and closer to unleashing the power of the atom, Einstein began to doubt whether anything so destructive could be good for the world.
He wrote another letter, this time urging the new weapon be used with great caution, kept only as a deterrent.
But U.S. President Harry Truman ignored the advice, and on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima killing more than 100,000 people.
The atomic bomb killed more than 100,000 people
After the war Einstein became one of the most celebrated spokesmen for the ban-the-bomb and peace movement, adding to his fame.
So he might not like the legacy shown here at the Numina Art Gallery in Princeton, where young artists submitted pieces inspired by his life.
Some illustrated Einstein's genius but most showed him as the creator of the nuclear age.
A piece by Christina Lesnanska shows a child on the day of the second atomic bomb attack, on Nagasaki
“Every time I think about Einstein, I think about the destruction in Japan,” Lesnanska says. “Most of the people have the same opinion as me, they usually do think of the atomic bomb. He started the era of big weapons that led to the Cold War and everything.”
The bomb was not the only thing Einstein came to regret. In his final years he repudiated quantum mechanics, a field he helped introduce with his paper on light.
It’s a field that involves uncertainties, where it’s impossible to predict the exact behaviour of atoms. Einstein could not believe that the universe could be so ambiguous, that, as he said, God would just roll the dice.
He spent his last years searching for one theory that would bring together all his ideas, one unifying theory. He never succeeded.
He was very disappointed,” Alice Calaprice says. “I think he still would have been working on it now if he were still alive. I think he had real faith that he could come up with something that would unify everything.”
Today scientists are still struggling with that same question at places like the Perimeter Institute.
Lee Smolin’s field is quantum gravity, part of the search for a unifying theory.
“Einstein started a revolution but he didn't finish it. It's more than 100 years after it started,” Smolin says. “Einstein left us with general relatively, which works in the domain of stars and galaxies and planets and the whole cosmology. It's the theory of gravity, space and time.
“Einstein also started quantum mechanics, which was later developed by other scientists, [Niels] Bohr, [Werner] Heisenberg and so forth, which is the theory of atoms, nuclei, of elementary particles and so forth. And these are two pieces of something new but we don't have the whole final theory.
“And putting these pieces together is the big problem, completing the task that Einstein started.”
And Smolin is carrying on another tradition of Einstiein’s – challenging the leading theory.
String theory says all the particles and all the forces of nature are vibrations of tiny strings. They call it the “answer to everything.”
But Smolin and colleague Makropulou Kalamara are specialists in loop quantum theory. It suggests space and time belong to a network of intersecting loops, known as spin networks. So far there’s no proof for either theory, no final theory after 100 years.
“Why is it so hard? I think that’s the right question to ask. People are always admiring how much progress there is in science, and I’m always thinking, how come there’s not more progress?” Smolin says.
“I’m certainly convinced there is a right answer to this question, that it’s beautiful. That it may take some little pieces from things that we have done in the past but it’s neither of the theories you hear about.
“None of the theories that you hear about are the whole thing. And so, therefore, it’s up to somebody who is very bold to take a new point of view and put all the pieces together, and I’m sure it will happen and it would not be … it would not surprise me if it happened next week.”
At the Perimeter Institute, the brightest minds in physics from around the world are encouraged to come together and share ideas on how to make the next leap in thinking. The institute’s new multimillion-dollar home was built with both government money and an endowment from Mike Lazaridis, creator of the Blackberry. It was designed to inspire the researchers there to think as imaginatively as Einstein himself.
“The beauty of the building stands for the beauty of the science that we're trying to do, and inspires,” Smolin says. “I believe it inspires many of my colleagues here to try to do better, to try to do science as beautiful as the building is.”
Everything from the layout of the tables in the Black Hole Bistro, where scientists from different fields can argue over pasta, to the games area was planned to keep ideas flowing.
Albert Einstein called play one of the key ingredients to success. And physicists Matthew Liefer and Etierre Levine are heeding that advice.
“You just kind of wait for the right idea to come and it usually doesn’t come in your office when you’re sitting down at the computers so sometimes I’m not saying come and play foosball but you need to clear the mind, play foosball, and then it comes,” Levine says.
It could take years for the scientific legacy of Einstein to play out. But for scientists like Lee Smolin who work in his shadow, it is his imagination, his willingness to think risky thoughts that keep them going.
“I went into physics because of reading something by Einstein,” Smolin says. “And what I got from that is life is short, life is complicated, often unsatisfying, but there is dignity in transcending the difficulties of life, and striving for beauty and truth and science, particularly this kind of science, is one way to do that. So Einstein is my imaginary mentor.”
Of all the tributes to Einstein this year, perhaps he would have liked this one most: a laser show put on by physics students at Princeton University a celebration of science and play, a joyous tribute to the icon, the brilliant scientist with his loner ways and his moral stance that still inspire today.