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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Boldly Going Nowhere

Thursday, February 3, 2005


One hundred years ago, in 1905, a series of papers appeared in Annalen der Physik, a German physics journal, submitted by a young man who was a technical examiner third class in a Swiss patent office with no university affiliation and no access to a laboratory. Apparently, his application to be promoted to technical examiner had been recently rejected and the young man had lots of spare time on his hands to ponder.

One of the papers examined the photoelectric effect of physicist Max Planck's quantum theory. Another dealt with the behavior of small particles in suspension. And a third paper outlined a special new theory of relativity.

The first paper explained the nature of light and won the young man a Nobel Prize. The second paper provided proof that atoms exist, a fact that was in dispute at the time. And the third paper changed the world.

The young man was Albert Einstein. Born in Germany in 1879, he moved to Switzerland as a teen-ager to continue his education. Ironically, he failed his college entrance exam on the first try. He was eventually accepted at Zurich Polytechnic Institute in a four-year course designed to produce high school science teachers.

Although not considered an outstanding student, Einstein graduated in 1900 and soon began to contribute papers to scientific journals. His first effort was a paper on the physics of fluids in drinking straws. Two years later, he found a job in the Swiss patent office in 1902 where he remained for the next seven years.

Regarding his paper in 1905 on what has become known as the theory of relativity, he originally entitled it "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." Unlike similar presentations, it had no footnotes or citations, and almost no mathematics. To the amazement of the physics community, he had reached his conclusions by pure reason.

"When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours -- that's relativity," Einstein once explained.

The famous equation that accompanies the theory of relativity is that energy is equal to the mass of an object multiplied by the speed of light squared (a very large number). Basically, matter (mass) and energy are reciprocal. Matter is untapped energy and energy is unshackled matter. The average-sized adult male contains enough matter to explode with the force of 30 hydrogen bombs.

This discovery led to the atomic age (nuclear power and nuclear bombs). Of his work, Einstein opined, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

After his papers had been published, Einstein applied for a job as a university lecturer but was rejected. He later applied to become a high school teacher and was again rejected.

He moved to America in 1933 and became a professor of theoretical physics at Princeton University.

Fifty years ago, in 1955, he died at the age of 76. His brain was examined during the autopsy. It weighed only 1,230 grams, considerably smaller than the average human brain which weighs about 1,400 grams.

Einstein was equally famous for his philosophical wit.

* "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

* "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."

* "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts."

* "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

* "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."

* "The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax."

Einstein was a man with a small brain and a bad haircut who couldn't get a job. He was also a man endowed with extraordinary intelligence. Except for the extraordinary intelligence, he and I had a lot in common.