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Speaking Volumes: Unearthing a Discovery: Take a dip into the world of Einstein

August 11, 2005 By:
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Back in January, the "Science Times" section of The New York Times ran an article proclaiming 2005 to be "Einstein's year." The writer, Dennis Overbye, began the piece with a quote from one of the great scientist's letters. "What are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul?"

Thus did Albert Einstein, just 26 years old and working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, address his friend Conrad Habicht in the spring of 1905. As Overbye wrote, "Whatever Habicht, a math teacher in Schaffhausen, had been up to was not much compared to his irreverent friend, who had been altering the foundations of physics during the few free hours left to a young father, husband and government worker. As he related to Habicht, Einstein had just finished writing three major physics papers."

These were not, to put it mildly, incoherent doodlings or mere finger exercises on Einstein's part. One, according to Overbye, "showed how the existence of atoms … could be verified by measuring the jiggling of microscopic particles in a glass of water, a process known as Brownian motion; in another, his doctoral dissertation for the University of Zurich, he deduced the size of molecules. In still another, which he described as 'very revolutionary,' Einstein argued that light behaved as if it were composed of particles, rather than the waves that most physicists thought."

The last of these, which won the scientist the 1921 Nobel Prize, "helped lay the foundation for quantum theory, a paradoxical statistical description of nature on the smallest subatomic scales that he himself later rejected, saying that God did not play dice with the universe."

Still, Einstein wasn't done. There was a fourth paper, as he told his friend, which existed in rough draft and which "employed 'a modification of the theory of space and time.' "

That, of course, was relativity, the theory that fixed the speed of light as "the universal speed limit and loosened space and time from their Newtonian rigidity, allowing them to breathe, expand, contract and bend, and led to the expanding universe and the apocalyptic marriage of energy and mass in the famous equation E=mc2."

These quirky insights into Einstein's equally quirky personality, as well as a clear perspective on his brilliance, are echoed in The Einstein Almanac by Alice Calaprice. The work is published by Johns Hopkins University Press in honor of the century that has passed since the scientist devised the theory of relativity. The book is scrupulous in giving a sense of Einstein's accomplishments, even down to minute details, but it's by no means stodgy, too academic or incomprehensible to the general reader. In fact, it works like any other almanac, and so is filled with wonderful pictures and interesting factoids - and is just downright fun to read.

But be forewarned. Much of the information Calaprice has collected may be over your head, though it doesn't seem to dampen the pleasure you can take from this brief but jampacked book. Actually, you may come away understanding far more than you ever have before about the nature of time and space, as the author lays out these theories in some of the most comprehensible language I've ever run across. But if all the theorizing begins to bore you, you can easily skip it. And doubtless the fascination of Einstein's life, which Calaprice plumbs for all its wonders, will not fail to intrigue you.

The author, by the way, is well-qualified for the task of shrinking all of Einstein's still-expanding ideas and making them comprehensible to a nonscientific audience. She's written The Quotable Einstein (another of my favorite books) and Dear Prof. Einstein, as well as having served for 20 years as the Princeton University Press in-house editor for the series The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. She's also been the administrator of the Einstein Translation Project, which sounds even more impressive than her other credentials.

The 'Miracle Year'
Calaprice, like Overbye, has a field day with 1905, that annus mirabilis, or "miracle year," that set the course of Einstein's professional life and changed the world forever as mere mortals understood it. The papers he published that year - and Calaprice discusses a fifth - made him instantly the world's leading physicist. According to the author, in addition to these seminal works, Einstein also managed to find time to write 23 review articles for journals.

As Calaprice notes: "He accomplished all of this on his own time after coming home from the Patent Office, a remarkable achievement for someone not yet in the halls of academia [as a Jew, Einstein had had difficulty getting a university position]. Despite being outside the academic world, he had no trouble gaining prominence in the world of physics with his innovative and sometimes controversial contributions to the field. Many scholars think that it is precisely because Einstein was unencumbered by the trappings and long hours of academic life that he had the time to think and write clearly and creatively."

One of the interesting biographical asides that Calaprice pursues is whether or not Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, contributed to these early and stunning achievements. Some historians have conjectured as much, based on a letter the physicist wrote to his young bride in which he makes reference to "our work." But, notes Calaprice: "No hard evidence exists for this claim, however. It is known that Albert would run his ideas by her and that she would listen, make suggestions, and probably proofread his papers and point out inconsistencies. But when one evaluates her own background in Einstein's field of concentration, it seems unlikely that she was a creative force behind his work."

Calaprice also delves into the tragic and rather sordid story of the illegitimate daughter that Einstein had with Mileva before the two were officially married. Mileva herself was a fascinating figure. The author describes her as "a shy, bright, and intense young Serbian woman," who also happened to have a noticeable limp, wore an orthopedic boot and had a moody disposition. Einstein was smitten despite these drawbacks. Neither of their families approved of the match, however, muddying the waters between the two and, in the end, probably affecting the success of the marriage.

As is true of most almanacs, this one not only provides an assessment of its subject's life and work, but also tries to put it all in context. Calaprice tells readers just what was going on in the world year by year. So we learn that in 1905, as Einstein was shaking things up, Sigmund Freud was also shocking the world with his Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, what Calaprice calls "a landmark study examining sexual aberrations, infantile sexuality and the transformations of puberty. Three decades later, Freud and Einstein would have a lively exchange of letters and collaborate on writing a pamphlet, 'Why War?' Einstein wrote to a friend that Freud often had an 'exaggerated faith in his own ideas.' Once, when he was invited to undergo Adlerian psychotherapy, Einstein said that he preferred to remain 'in the darkness' and unanalyzed."

Calaprice keeps us abreast of what was happening in science and other disciplines in America and around the globe, and never fails to tell us who won the Nobel Prize that year and for what accomplishments. And each year ends with a brief review of the articles and major statements - scientific and otherwise - that Einstein penned during those 12 months.

There may only be 160 small pages of text to The Einstein Almanac, but this brief space manages to contain multitudes.


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