The philisopher's stone of energy
When Albert Einstein in 1905 postulates his formula E = mc² it joins René Descartes’ cognition: “I think, therefore I am,” or Euler’s Identity, which is regarded as one of the most beautiful mathematical formulas of all, in the world’s history books. But only E=mc² makes it into graffiti on rail track installations or restroom doors, is printed on postage stamps or converted into a fashion label. In 1999, Time Magazine names the scientist who has acquired cult status the most important person of the 20th century to whom, in commemoration of his “annus mirabilis” a hundred years ago and the 50th anniversary of his death in 2005, a commemorative year is dedicated.
1905 is Albert Einstein’s miracle year. The 26-year-old has been working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern for three years, a nine-to-five job. After hours, Einstein becomes an “inventor” himself, and a prolific one at that. No less than four pioneering papers he publishes in 1905, all of them representing incisive steps in advancing the science of physics.
His first paper reaches the editors of the “Annals of Physics” in Berlin, one of the world’s oldest scientific journals, on March 17, 1905. In it, Einstein claims that light consists of particles, so-called photons. With that, Einstein creates an important foundation for the theory of quantum mechanics.
On May 11, he ups the ante. In the second paper he sends to the German capital city, Einstein provides the first coherent explanation of Brownian motion and thus becomes a co-initiator of statistical mechanics.
Impish look: Einstein’s picture was taken so often that occasionally he’d say “model” when asked what his profession was
On June 30, the editors of the “Annals of Physics” receive mail from Bern again. Under the heading “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” Einstein postulates the Special Theory of Relativity, which refutes the existence of an ether pervading the entire universe, revolutionizes the idea of space and time, and defines the speed of light as the absolute maximum of speed.
In an addendum dated September 27, titled “Is the Inertia of a Body Dependent upon its Energy Content?” the formula that would subsequently acquire world fame is described for the first time – as a footnote. Einstein had previously submitted the paper as a dissertation at Zurich University.
Bam! A young family man, who had quit school at one time in his youth, now working as an “assistant examiner – level III” at the Patent Office in Bern and completely unknown to the scientific world to date, changes the world within the space of one year. The physicist, philosopher and peace researcher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker wrote in this context: “1905, an explosion of genius. Four publications on four different subjects, each of which, as one says today, would be worthy of winning the Nobel Prize.”
E = mc2 – although actually being a mere marginal note – is a special discovery: so simple, so clear, yet all-encompassing. Each of the three letters symbolizes a specific physical quantity. The lower case “c” stands for “celeritas,” the speed of light, the lower case “m” for mass, measured in kilograms. If the speed of light, “c,” is multiplied by itself and then with mass, “m,” the result is energy, “E.” The enormous magnitude of the speed of light traveling at 300,000 kilometers (approx. 186,282 miles) per second presages that the resulting energy has to be enormous.
Three thousandths of one gram (0.03 oz) of mass suffices to allow a 100-watt lightbulb to burn for a hundred years. According to the equation, a body or object is light or heat at the same time as well. This equivalence becomes tragically obvious to hundreds of thousands of people in 1945. When the two atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the splitting of atoms releases gigantic amounts of energy, destroying these two Japanese cities.
Driven by the concern that Nazi Germany might be able to seize world domination with an atomic bomb of its own, Einstein, who is of Jewish origin and has emigrated to the United States, writes a letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt as early as in 1939 that provides initial impetus to the American nuclear arms project – not an easy step for Einstein who is a professed pacifist. Later he refers to this letter as “the one great mistake in my life.”
Moving on from this dark chapter to something more enlightening that can be explained by E = mc2 as well. The warming rays of the Sun result from nuclear reactions during the fusion of hydrogen to form helium and other elements. Here, the Sun as a nuclear reactor transforms four million metric tons (4.4 million short tons) per second into radiation. The quest for technology enabling the generation of such amounts of energy on Earth for peaceful purposes and without harmful side effects is still being pursued.
How the physicist turned into a pop star
Why Einstein of all people is catapulted into a popularity orbit like no other scientist before him and – perhaps with the exception of Stephen Hawking – no other one after him, mystified Einstein himself. “Why is it that nobody understands me and everybody likes me,” Einstein asks himself again and again. And it’s not uncommon for him to express that this puts him on edge: “With me every peep becomes a trumpet solo.”
A spectacle of nature puts him in the limelight. During a total eclipse of the Sun on May 29, 1919, two expeditions led by the British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington take pictures of constellations that actually should not have been visible because they’re located behind the Sun. This provides proof of what Einstein predicted in his General Theory of Relativity published in 1915, i.e. that celestial bodies due to their mass and energy bend the space that surrounds them, like a heavy ball placed into a taught sheet. Rays of light that move through such bent space will follow the curvature as well. That’s why the hidden constellations can be photographed. While the scientific details escape many people at the time (just like today), they do realize that there’s someone among them who had predicted this spectacle and other wondrous phenomena: Albert Einstein. Suddenly, the whole world starts talking about him and his work. Einstein mania is particularly wide-spread in the United States, much to his chagrin: “Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct [...] Since the light deflection results became public, such a cult has been made out of me that I feel like a pagan idol.”
As popular as Einstein has suddenly become, his fame, as he says himself, has little effect on his personal life, which he describes as “amazingly uneventful.” The man who will go on to adjust the world’s view of physics is born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879. His parents, Hermann and Pauline Einstein, are middle-class citizens of the Jewish faith, not very observant, but rather free-spirited, well-read, liberal and forward-thinking people. Their son utters his first words only at the age of three, but immediately forming them into full sentences. Social interaction does not come easy to him either. But – throughout his life – he’s driven by a childlike curiosity, by an irresistible urge to “understand the secrets of nature,” as he’ll later put it himself. At the age of eleven, Albert Einstein strikes a friendship with Max Talmud, a medical student ten years his senior. Talmud: “The flight of his mathematical genius soon became so high that I was no longer able to follow it.”
But the highflyer sees his wings clipped by the military discipline of his high school in Munich. Albert quits school, applies to study at the Zurich Polytechnic but fails the entrance exam due to linguistic deficits. A detour via a cantonal school in Aarau ultimately paves his way to an enrolment at the Polytech. He has no interest in the gregarious lifestyle of his fellow students. Instead of spending his time in pubs, Einstein, with his thirst for knowledge, attends extracurricular lectures, but meets a woman nonetheless. Mileva Maric, to the chagrin of Einstein’s parents, is a bookworm just like their son. In spite of their disenchantment, he marries his “smart wench” in 1903. A year later, their son, Hans Albert, is born, followed by a second boy in 1910, Eduard. Correspondence discovered in 1987 hints at the birth of a premarital daughter in 1902, whose fate has remained obscure to this day. There has also been plenty of discussion to this day about the share his mathematically talented wife had in Einstein’s pioneering work. The fact that the plural “we” is not uncommonly found in his papers is fertile soil for this speculation.
In spite of the enthusiasm for science the spouses share, their marriage doesn’t last. When Einstein is awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, the two have long been divorced. One reason that put the end to their marriage was Einstein’s affair with his cousin, Elsa, whom he marries in 1919. In 1933, they emigrate to the United States where Elsa, in 1936, dies in Princeton that has become home to them. Although Einstein lovingly cares for his ill spouse, the preceding years of their marriage are difficult because the nerdy physicist – who’d have thought – feels attracted by the gravitational force of females in rather unchaste ways. In 1952, he’s offered the presidency of Israel. He declines, saying, among other things, that he lacked “natural aptitude and experience” to deal with people. Three years later, Einstein dies. His ashes are scattered. The involuntary pop star does not want a tombstone that might become a place of pilgrimage.