Friday, March 15, 2013

The Theory of Relativity

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” –Albert Einstein

On March 14, 1879 Albert Einstein was born into a middle class Jewish family. He had speech difficulties did not speak until the age of three and was interested in physics at an early age. An encounter with a compass at the age of five and trying to figure out the invisible forces acting upon the needle helped to spark his interest. He attended school at Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich where he excelled at his studies.

In 1889 the Einstein family invited polish medical student Max Talmud over for weekly dinners and he soon became Einstein’s “tutor” and introduced him to higher mathematics as well as philosophy. He shared a children’s science book with Albert that really peaked his interested and would ultimately lead to his first scientific paper at the age of sixteen – “Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields”. In the book, the author goes for a ride alongside electricity travelling down a telegraph wire. After reading this, Einstein started racking his brain as to what a beam of light looked like. If light were a wave then the beam should appear stationary, but since it was moving this could not be true. Also he began to question the speed of the light relative to a stationary observer. These questions were in the forefront of Einstein’s mind for the next ten years.

Albert’s father ran his own electrical company and when it failed to secure a huge electrical contract to power Munich, the family was forced to move to Milan, Italy. Albert was left behind to live in a boarding house and finish school. He was alone and miserable, and hoping to avoid entering the military, Albert obtained a doctor’s note and left to join his family in Italy. His parents were understanding but also concerned what sort of issues he may face as a dropout and draft dodger.

He then applied to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich; he lacked the equivalent of a high school diploma but scored exceptionally well on the math and physics portion of the entrance exam. He was admitted on the condition he had to complete his schooling first. In 1896 at the age of seventeen, Einstein graduated, renounced his German citizenship and enrolled in the Zurich school. It was at this school where he met his future wife, Mileva Maric. She was Serbian and this coupled with her Eastern Orthodox background made Einstein’s parent disapprove. His father ended up giving the couple his blessing before he died. The couple married in 1903 and had two sons shortly after.

Einstein’s father’s business went bankrupt and he was forced to find any job he could hold onto in hopes of being able to provide for his future bride. In 1902, a friend of his father’s tipped him off to an opening at the Swiss patent office. Einstein jumped on this opportunity as evaluated patent applications for various electromagnetic devices. He quickly mastered his job at the patent office, freeing up his mind to contemplate more complex issues like the transmission of electrical signals and electromagnetic synchronization.

He studied Maxwell’s electromagnetic theories on the nature of light and uncovered a previously unknown fact – the speed of light was constant. This was a violation of the Newtonian theory and ultimately led Einstein to formulate his theory of relativity.
The year 1905 is often thought of as Einstein’s miracle year and it was during this time he submitted a paper for his doctorate, along with publishing four papers in the Annalen der Physik – one on the photo electric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and one on the equivalence of matter and energy. These publications altered the course of modern physics and put him on the academic world’s radar.

In his paper on matter and energy, he introduced the equation we are all familiar with today – E=Mc2. This equation suggested tiny particles of matter could be converted into vast amounts of energy. His papers received little attention until they caught Max Planck’s eye. Planck’s comments and experiments confirmed Einstein’s theories and expedited his rise to the top in the academic world – leading to job offers at very prestigious universities.

His rise to fame played a toll on his personal life. His marriage to Mileva fell apart and the couple divorced in 1919; as a divorce settlement he agreed to pay Mileva money he for any potential Nobel Prize he may win.

He completed what he considered to be his masterpiece, his theory of general relativity, in November 1915. He was convinced of its mathematical beauty and how accurately it predicted the Mercury’s perihelion (point of orbit closest to the Sun). General relativity also predicted a measurable deflection of light around the Sun when a planet was near in its orbit. This prediction was first confirmed by British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington while observing a solar eclipse in 1919.

A few years later in 1921, Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize for physics – not for his theory of general relativity but for his findings on the photoelectric effect. He single-handedly launched the new science of cosmology. He used his cosmological constant combined with the theory of relativity to show that our universe was static. Soon after he realized this was incorrect, that the universe was actually expanding and called it his “biggest blunder”. It was realized later that his cosmological constant and theory of relativity was actually correct and the universe was expanding which Edwin Hubble confirmed.

Big changes were happening in Germany; as Einstein was rising to the top of the academic world, Hitler was rising to power in Germany. He had his own team of physicists working to dispel Einstein and his “Jewish physics”. At the time Jewish people were not allowed to hold any kind of official position and Einstein was actually on Hitler’s “hit list”. In 1932 Einstein said goodbye to Germany forever and moved to Princeton, NJ where he took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study. He spent the rest of his career here working to develop a unified field theory.

Several other European scientists fled Europe at this time and moved to the United States. It was rumored that Nazi Germany was trying to develop nuclear weapons, and a few of these scientists tried to warn the US government but were ignored. Finally in 1939, Einstein and another scientist, Leo Szilard, wrote a letter to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt to warn him about the proposed atomic weapon. They were able to grab his attention and Roosevelt met with Einstein and soon after the Manhattan Project was born.

Einstein was granted permanent residency in the US in 1935 but did not become a citizen until 1940. The Manhattan Project was moving forward and many of Einstein’s colleagues were asked to assist in creating the first atomic bomb, but it’s rumored J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI did not trust Einstein’s affiliation with peace organizations. While his colleagues worked on the atomic bomb, Einstein helped the Navy with weapon system design.

In 1945, Einstein heard the news that the US dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. Along with his friend Leo Szilard, they campaigned for the US to supply the United Nations with the nuclear weapons to be used as a deterrent only. Once the war was over, Einstein continued his work on relativity focusing on time travel, black holes, and the creation of the universe. The development of the atom bomb had resulted in huge discoveries in quantum theory.

In the latter part of his life, Einstein spent the majority of his time working on his unified field theory. Einstein was working on a speech to commemorate Israel’s 17th anniversary when we suffered and abdominal aortic aneurysm. On April 18, 1955 Einstein died in the hospital after refusing surgery. He believed he had lived his life and was ready to accept his fate. After his death, Thomas Stoltz Harvey removed and preserved Einstein’s brain without permission. Samples were taken and slides were made of his brain for future analysis. Recently Harvey’s slides have been digitized and you can see an example of one here . This slide is of the occipital lobe of Einstein’s brain.


Image Credit: Museum of Health Chicago

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