23 Nov 1905, Einstein’s ‘miracle year’ (JOHN HIGGS) | Part A’
If we had to choose one town as the birthplace of the twentieth century then our prime contender must be Zurich, an ancient city which straddles the River Limmat just north of the Swiss Alps.
In the year 1900 it was a thriving town of tree-lined streets and buildings which managed to be both imposing and pretty at the same time. It was here, at the Zurich Polytechnic, that twenty-one-year-old Albert Einstein and his girlfriend Mileva Marie were about to come bottom in their class. Einstein’s career did not then appear promising.
He was a rebellious and free-spirited young man who had already renounced both his Jewish religion and his German citizenship. Six months earlier, in July 1899, he clumsily caused an explosion in the physics lab which damaged his right hand and temporarily stopped him from playing his beloved violin. His Bohemian personality caused him to clash with the academic authorities and prevented him from gaining a job as a physicist when he finally graduated.
There was little sign that the world of science would take any notice of this stubborn, belligerent young man. There’s been some debate about the role of Marie, whom he married in 1903, in Einstein’s early achievements. Marie was not the sort of woman that early twentieth-century society approved of. She was one of the first women in Europe to study mathematics and physics. There was a good deal of prejudice about her Slavic background, and the fact that she suffered from a limp. Einstein, however, had no interest in the dull prejudices of his time. There was an intensity about her that entranced him. She was, as his many love letters make clear, his ‘little witch’ and his ‘wild street urchin’ and, for a few years at least, they were everything to each other.
Marie believed in Einstein. A muse can bring out the genius inside a scientist just as with an artist.
It took a rare and youthful arrogance to even consider attempting what Einstein was about to do. With the love of Mario validating his belief in himself, and the intellectual freedom he never would have had if he’d found an academic position, Albert Einstein rewrote our understanding of the universe.
`So what are you up to,’ Einstein wrote to his friend Conrad Habicht in May 1905, ‘you frozen whale, you smoked, dried piece of soul? Such a solemn air of silence has descended between us that I almost feel as if I am committing a sacrilege with some inconsequential babble . . .’
During the ‘inconsequential babble’ of the letter that followed Einstein casually described four papers that he was working on. Any one of them would have been a career-making achievement. That he produced all four in such a short space of time is almost unbelievable. Science historians have taken to referring to 1905 as Einstein’s ‘miracle year’. It is not often that historians of science reach for the word ‘miracle’.
Einstein’s work in 1905 recalls the achievements of Isaac Newton in 1666, when the plague closed Cambridge University and Newton returned to his mother’s home in rural Lincolnshire. He used the time to develop calculus, a theory of colour and the laws of gravity, immortalising himself as Britain’s greatest scientific genius as he did so. Einstein’s achievement is more impressive when you consider that he wasn’t idling about under apple trees but holding down a full-time job. He was then employed at the patent office in Bern, having failed to gain employment as a physicist. Incredibly, he wrote these four papers in his spare time.
`The first [of his proposed papers] deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and is very revolutionary,’ he wrote. This is no overstatement. In it he argued that light consists of discrete units, or what we now call photons, and that the aether doesn’t exist. As we shall see later, this paper inadvertently laid the groundwork for quantum physics and a model of the universe so strange and counterintuitive that Einstein himself would spend most of his life trying to deny the implications.
`The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms.’ This was the least controversial of the papers, being useful physics that did not overturn any established ideas. It gained Einstein his doctorate. His third paper used statistical analysis of the movement of visible particles in water to prove beyond doubt the existence of atoms, something that had been widely suspected but never conclusively proved.
Einstein’s most significant discovery came from pondering a seeming contradiction between two different laws of physics. ‘The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is an electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the theory of space and time,’ he wrote. This would become the Special Theory of Relativity. Together with the broader General Theory of Relativity he produced ten years later, it overturned the graceful, clockwork universe described by Newton.
Relativity showed that we lived in a stranger, more complex universe where space and time were no longer fixed, but could be stretched by mass and motion. This was a universe of black holes and warped space-time that seemed to have little in common with the everyday world in which we live. Relativity is often presented in ways that make it appear incomprehensible, but the core idea at its heart can be grasped surprisingly easily.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine