March 14: Happy birthday, Albert Einstein! (b. 1879)

March 14, 2011

E=mcc - logo from AIP

E=energy; m=mass; c=speed of light

Happy Einstein Day!  Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no?  I mean, is there an E=mc² Day?

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein.  26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect, the paper that would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics five years later, in 1921.  In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass.  This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist.  Einstein dashed them off in just a few months, forever changing the field of physics.  And, you noticed:  Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc².  He won it for the photo electric effect.  Irony in history.

106 years later Einstein’s work affects us every day.  Relativity theory at some level I don’t understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement.  Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war.  Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism.  He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription.  His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States.  In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that.  But Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views.  Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs.  (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not  a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it in the divorce settlement.  Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character.  His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke.  For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words.  He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them.  (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers).  Einstein is the only scientist in that group.  So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century.  This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.

A most interesting man.  A most important body of work.  He deserves more study and regard than he gets.

More, Resources:

March 14: π Day!

March 14, 2011

Of course you remembered that today is pi Day, right?

Pi Day Pie from

Happy π Day! Pi Day Pie -

Oh, or maybe better, π Day.

The good people at suggest a few ways you can celebrate:

Make (and Eat) a Pie – These pie recipes for Pi Day from NPR’s McCallister look incredibly tasty. But, there’s no shame in putting a frozen store-bought pie in the oven, or picking up a pie from your local bakery. Any kind of pie is great on Pi Day! If you’re making your own, get inspired by these beautifully designed Pi Day Pies. Tell us on Facebook: What’s your favorite kind of pie for Pi Day?

Hope your π Day is complete as a circle, and well-rounded!

Quotes that will live in infamy: Michelle Bachmann, another history “F” (“shot heard ’round the world”)

March 14, 2011

In Concord, New Hampshire, on March 11 and 12, 2011, apparently testing to see whether that little state has bad enough education standards before announcing a presidential bid, Michelle Bachmann butchered history and geography once again, according to the conservative Minnesota Independent:

“You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord,” she said, referencing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” an ode to the lives lost at the start of the American Revolution in Concord, Massachusetts, not New Hampshire.

How many bites at the apple does stupid get?  Has Ed Brayton picked up on this yet?

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann


Tip of the old scrub brush to Pat Carrithers.

Update:  Oh, yeah, others noticed:

Jeff Danziger on Michelle Bachmann's mixing up Concords

Jeff Danziger

Quote of the moment: Edward Albee on democracies, and hope for the future

March 14, 2011

Playwright Edward Albee - Albee Foundation photo

Playwright Edward Albee - Albee Foundation photo

[On the slashing of arts education funding:] It’s especially discouraging when you live in a democracy where anything good is possible, if only we have the courage to deal with it.

— Edward Albee, playwright, Diane Rehm Show (WAMU-FM/NPR), March 14, 2011 (49:50 in)

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