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Looking at Einstein: physics one hundred years later

Fifty years ago this spring Albert Einstein died in Princeton, N.J. One hundred years ago, as a young man, he published four papers in the leading German physics journal, Annalen der Physik, launching what would become known as his "miraculous year." To commemorate both events, the General Assembly of the United Nations has declared 2005 to be the "World Year of Physics" (WYP2005).

Associate Professor of History Rich Kremer
Associate Professor of History Rich Kremer (photo courtesy of Dartmouth Library)

Physicists around the world will mark the event with dozens of special conferences. Exhibits on Einstein and physics will fill museums and public spaces. School children are designing posters for an international competition. Science educators will meet to discuss how to encourage more students to embark on careers in physics. An Italian group is offering a substantial monetary prize for the best five-minute multimedia presentation of Einstein' s special theory of relativity. Tens of thousands of pilgrims will travel to Bern, the Swiss city where Einstein wrote the 1905 papers while working as a clerk in the patent office. The European Physical Society will even sell you a WYP2005 wristwatch.

The papers of Einstein's miraculous year changed the style of physics. Rather than building sophisticated instruments and performing precise experiments, the typical way physics was practiced around 1900, Einstein asked simple, even childlike questions about phenomena long thought to be fully understood. What would I see if I rode on a beam of light? What does it mean to say that two events occur simultaneously? One 1905 paper suggested that light behaves like a particle and a wave; another that tiny heat-induced vibrations can prove the existence of atoms; a third presented E=mc2, that bit of physics now known by everyone, that says matter and energy can be transformed into one another under the right circumstances. A fourth paper challenged conventional notions of space, time and "observable reality," crafting what would become known as Einstein's theory of special relativity and forcing physicists to think hard about what it means to measure.

Yet it would be Einstein's post-1905 life, and not simply his iconoclastic 1905 papers, that made him the first intellectual media star. For many cultural observers, Einstein's new physics seemed to resonate with the "modernisms" of early twentieth-century art, music, literature, psychology and philosophy. Although Einstein constantly denied that his theory meant "everything is relative," his name often would be linked with figures such as Picasso, Joyce, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, Duchamp, Freud and with the idea that we interpret the world individually, not objectively.

Albert Einstein and Ernest Fox Nichols
Albert Einstein and Ernest Fox Nichols, Class of 1903 and Dartmouth College President from 1909-1916, together at Nela Park, a General Electric facility in the Cleveland area. (photo courtesy of Dartmouth Archives)

Einstein's post-1905 visage, with the frizzy hair and impish eyes, came to symbolize brainpower, creativity and imagination. His life-long pacifism, denunciations of German nationalism and pragmatic 1939 letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning that Hitler might build atomic weapons and calling for what would become the Manhattan Project, further contributed to his public persona as a moral giant. However, during WYP2005, I suspect that another Einstein truism will be emphasized: "God does not play dice." Always rejecting the probabilities of quantum theory, Einstein lived in a world of reason and causality. Quoting Kant, he once wrote that, "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility." Yet he spent the final two decades of his life seeking a grand unified theory that he did not find.

Those celebrating Einstein in WYP2005 are evoking a simpler time, when physics seemed able to plumb the deepest truths of our cosmos with a few simple theories. Nowadays we are drowning in complexity, unable to achieve the comprehensibility that Einstein wanted. Perhaps his was a naïve quest for a Holy Grail. Then again, perhaps not.

Rich Kremer teaches courses on and conducts research in the history of science

Last Updated: 6/19/09