Who knew? Try Einstein.
Almost 100 years since his theories blew away Newtonian physics, he's still shaking up the scientific world
At the dawn of the 20th century, a curly-haired, 26-year-old Swiss physicist with nothing but pen, paper, and a big imagination shook up the world. In the 21st century, it's still shaking.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1905, Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis ("miraculous year"), he published three of the four major papers that would lead him to be characterized, arguably, as the greatest scientific mind ever.
Blown away would be big patches of Newtonian physics, with its seemingly undeniable truths that were as apparent as, well, an apple bopping you on the head. Einstein's logic was provable, too, as later experiments would show, but also counterintuitive. The universe, he showed us, was a stranger neighborhood than we had thought.
Einstein, who died in 1955, may have been Time magazine's Person of the 20th Century (sorry, Winston Churchill), but to Einstein scholars he's just as relevant today. His work has led to the search for "the scientific underpinnings of 'Star Trek,' the technologies of the 22nd century," says Michael Shara, an astrophysicist and the curator of a major new Einstein exhibition opening Friday at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
His search for a "grand unified theory," a "theory of everything" that in the 1940s and '50s made him the self-proclaimed "village idiot" of Princeton University, is now the accepted holy grail being sought by modern physicists.
As a persona, an icon, Einstein remains one of the most familiar presences on the face of the earth, a celebrity personality as well known as Mickey Mouse or Marilyn Monroe. He's been portrayed in movies by actors from Walter Matthau to Robert Downey Jr. He's been seen on TV's "Star Trek" playing cards with present-day physicist Stephen Hawking and on stage sparring with Pablo Picasso in Steve Martin's play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile." His E=mc2 is the world's most famous (if inscrutable) equation, the basis for both nuclear power and nuclear bombs.
Amazon.com lists 248 books for sale with his name in their titles, and the Google Internet search engine links his name to 641,000 sites on the Web. His portrait (often in a lab coat and on the world's worst bad-hair day) can be seen selling products from books to cameras to computers.
Yet how he came to his remarkable conclusions about the nature of time and space remains elusive.
"When the blind beetle crawls over the surface of the globe, he doesn't realize that the track he has covered is curved," Einstein once said, trying to explain his unorthodox conclusions. "I was lucky enough to have spotted it."
"It is nearly impossible for me to comprehend how the human mind came up with something so subtle as Einstein's special relativity paper. But he did!" admires David Ward, a professor of philosophy at Widener University in Chester, Pa.
Einstein thought of himself as asking questions only children ask. He had "this simplifying way of looking at the world, and taking the risk that he might be wrong," says Gerald Holton, a Harvard University physicist who organized Einstein's papers into an archive after his death and has studied him for nearly five decades since. Rather than look for complexity, Einstein sought coherence and simplicity, a view of the big picture. "That is really running through his physics and everything else he did," Dr. Holton says. "I have not found that in any other of the many scientists I've studied."
Probing the nature of Einstein's genius is likely to continue during this centennial period, along with new tests of his theories. Atomic clocks will be sent to the International Space Station in the next few years, for example, to see if Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity holds up in that environment. "It's one of the most fundamental assumptions that's built into most physical theories, so a violation of it would be a very major thing, a very big deal," says Charles Lane, a physicist at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga., who is helping to design the experiments.