Happy birthday, Albert Einstein! 136 years, today

How many ways can we say happy birthday to a great scientist born on Pi Day?  So, an encore post.
E=mcc - logo from AIP

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

Happy Einstein Day! to us.  Albert’s been dead since 1955 — sadly for us.  Our celebrations now are more for our own satisfaction and curiosity, and to honor the great man — he’s beyond caring.

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; that paper would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics in another five years, 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 fields 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.

English: Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp

Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 while urging FDR to keep up with the Germans, 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.)

English: USSR stamp dedicated to Albert Einste...

Everybody wanted to claim, and honor Einstein; USSR issued this stamp dedicated to Albert Einstein Русский: Почтовая марка СССР, посвящённая Альберту Эйнштейну (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife, in the divorce settlement, a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it. 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 though 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.

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2 Responses to Happy birthday, Albert Einstein! 136 years, today

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the explanation — I almost understand it!


  2. Porlock Junior says:

    An excellent tribute. I am emboldened to take on one minor point.

    The connection between General Relativity and GPS is actually not complicated, so long as one is not too nosy about the details.(*) It’s also sort of indirect, not in any real sense the operative principal of the GPS, but an engineering detail without which the clever idea wouldn’t work in practice. Which, now that I’ve written it, sounds no less confusing that if I’d left it alone.

    Anyway, if you’ve got a bunch of super-accurate clocks in different places, and those clocks synchronize their sending of beeps to you, you’ve got a positioning system. You know exactly when the beeps are sent, and when you receive the beeps; so you know exactly how long it takes a beep to reach you from each one — therefore, how far you are from each. You also know exactly where each one is — so where is the place where the beeps will arrive at just the calculated time from all the clocks?

    You draw circles around the clocks, the radius of each one being the distance from the clock to you. Where they meet is where you are. Except that the world isn’t flat, so you use spheres, and if you’ve got 4 of them, there is only one place where they intersect.

    No Relativity at all here, yet. But the clocks are way overhead, moving in orbit around the Earth, and that means that all these perfectly accurate clocks are running at slightly different speeds as seen from where we are, because, like it or not, time is running at different speeds in places that are moving differently. And this is a relativistic effect. If you assume the clocks are running at their designed speed, you’ll get tiny errors, which are cumulative and will ruin your position calculations after enough time has passed. Compute a correction from General Relativity, and the system goes on working till the clocks fail.

    So the running of the system is just timekeeping and geometry. (OK, plus tracking the clocks’ positions.) But the timekeeping is unexpectedly weird.

    (*) I mean details like the tensor calculus that figures out the actual numbers from the GR theory.

    As Einstein said, and I believe it’s provable that he really did, everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. To avoid the second error: the super-clocks use lasers in their operation. And lasers are based on a certain mathematical property of the behavior of a large class of particles. Bose-Einstein statistics, in fact. The guy pops up everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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