Saturday, March 14, 2015

BIRTH | Mar. 14–Albert Einstein

This day was born in 1879 Albert Einstein, in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany.

Young Albert was a good student, but disrespectful of his teachers. He was also a  failure in his classics studies.

When he graduated from technical school in 1900, none of his instructors would write letters of recommendation for him to get a job in academia.

Consequently, he went to work for the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. He evaluated patent applications to determine if they were likely to produce useful inventions. He was efficient in his work, leaving him time to work on his own theories.

Just 110 years ago, in 1905 — a year that is called his annus mirabilis — he earned his doctorate and published four important papers:

1. June 9, "On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light", addressing the photoelectric effect and the nature of light, applying Planck's quantum theory, which had been proposed five years earlier and had been quietly forgotten. The paper proposed the idea of energy quanta. This paper won him the Nobel Prize in physics 16 years later.

2. July 18, "On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat", offering a stochastic model of Brownian motion.

3. September 26, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, which had the most profound effect on modern physics, containing Einstein's revolutionary Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein proposed that it was meaningless to speak of one body moving and another body being still. Bodies can only be thought of as moving in relationship to each other. All motion is relative to some frame of reference, and the laws of nature apply unchanged, whatever that frame of reference. In particular, this means that the speed of electromagnetic radiation (such as light) is always the same, no matter the frame of reference. In subsequent years, results predicted on the basis of his theory were confirmed repeatedly, and the Special Theory of Relativity changed how scientists viewed matter, space, time and all the things that interact with them.

4. November 21, in Annalen der Physik "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?"), in which Einstein developed an argument for arguably the most famous equation in the field of physics: E=mc2.

His massive productivity was not enough at first to get him an academic job, although the patent office gave him a promotion. But four years later, in 1909, at 30, he was given a professorship of theoretical physics in Zürich. Five years after that, he moved to Berlin, and began work on his General Theory of Relativity, which he published in 1916. He was given a specially created post as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute in Berlin.

His General Theory recognizes that mass and energy are two sides of the same coin, leading to the famous formula E=mc2. The new theory made bold predictions about the interaction of light and gravity that had not yet been observed and which were at variance with Newtonian physics.

After the First World War ended in 1919, scientists used a total eclipse of the sun to confirm that light from distant stars was indeed deflected as it passed through the influence of the sun's gravity, exactly as General Relativity predicted. Einstein became internationally renowned.

When Hitler took over as Germany's Chancellor in 1933, Einstein was in California working as a visiting professor. Einstein's apartment in Berlin and his summer cottage in the country were raided by the Nazis, his papers confiscated, and his bank accounts closed.

Einstein got the message right away that he was unwelcome. He returned to Europe and handed in his German passport. He considered offers from universities like Paris, Istanbul and Oxford, eventually deciding on Princeton, which offered him an attractive package teaching at its Institute for Advanced Study. He had hesitations about Princeton. It had a secret quota system allowing only a small percentage of the incoming class to be Jewish. The Institute's director, Abraham Flexner, was worried that Einstein would be too directly involved in Jewish refugee causes, so he micromanaged Einstein's public appearances, trying to keep him out of the public eye. He even declined an invitation for Einstein to see FDR at the White House without telling the scientist.

When Einstein found out, he personally called Eleanor Roosevelt and arranged for a visit anyway, and then complained about the incident in a letter to a rabbi friend of his, giving the return address as "Concentration Camp, Princeton."

In 1938, incoming freshmen at Princeton ranked Einstein as the second-greatest living person. First place went to Adolf Hitler.

My uncle Willem van Stockum was the first person to spell out the implications for Time Travel of Einstein's equations. Robert Wack, in Time Bomber, tells of Willem's time at Princeton.