Fully relevant a century later, his theories inspire new advances, space missions, even a party.
Orbiting 400 miles above Earth, a satellite called Gravity Probe B is looking for subtle effects predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Finding them requires unparalleled precision. The rotors in the satellite's gyroscopic instruments are the closest humans have ever come to making perfect spheres. The mission is the latest confirmation that the quest to follow Einstein's lead never ends.Skip to next paragraph
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It has been 100 years since Einstein published five papers that led directly to two Nobel Prizes, unveiled the world's most famous scientific equation, and set physics on the course it still follows today.
Now, a century later, physicists are throwing a year-long, worldwide party to commemorate the results of that trajectory. Einstein's work - along with subsequent advances in quantum mechanics - have blossomed into scientific discoveries that touch ordinary lives in many surprising ways.
"If ever physics had a golden age, a case could be made that it is now," says Stephen Benka, editor of the magazine Physics Today. Physics not only informs our view of the natural world, it affects human life in many practical ways, he adds. For example, "we are rapidly gaining new knowledge of Earth and its physical systems." Think tsunami warning networks.
Biology, he says, "is increasingly enlightened by physics." Even esoteric aspects of quantum physics find practical use in the form of hard-to-break codes that protect the privacy of online bank records.
Other areas of physics remain more speculative: the possibility of many extra dimensions, for example, or the prospects of decoding the physical dynamics of complex and highly unpredictable systems, like Earth's climate. The Monitor will examine these and other research frontiers in coming months.
This year's celebrations will honor Einstein's achievements as part of human experience, Mr. Benka says. They will deal with the nexus where physics meets other aspects of that experience, including art and religion.
Of course, when cutting-edge physicists decide to celebrate, the results can be a little wild. Fire walkers in the Philippines will illustrate heat-transfer physics. German physicists in Tübingen offer a simulation of what the landscape would look like if you zoom down the street at the speed of light. Indian physicists plan street theater demonstrations. Musicals with an Einstein theme will bring song and dance to the party in the United States and Portugal.
In the spirit of whatever it takes to catch the public's attention, Einstein impersonators will be clowning around at various events. In Ireland, one such actor has already posed with a light bulb held over his head. No telling what will happen next month when an "Einstein" stalks the halls of the American Association for the Advancement of Science during its annual meeting in Washington.
Physicists have several names for their celebration. Some call it the World Year of Physics. The US Congress endorsed that name. The United Nations General Assembly calls it the International Year of Physics. Britain and Ireland simply say "Einstein Year" (see these websites: www.physics2005.org, www.wyp2005.org, and www.einsteinyear.org). That last title may be the most appropriate name, given what Einstein produced during what historians call his "miraculous year."
In 1905, Einstein's five papers showed how to prove definitively that atoms exist - a controversial subject at the time. They showed that light comes in discrete packets called photons. And they changed forever our perspective on time and space. Not bad for an unknown 26-year-old with a newly minted PhD working in the Swiss patent office.
The least famous of these "miraculous" papers dealt with a question that had puzzled observers for millenniums: Why did dust motes in the air and pollen grains in water jiggle about randomly?