a coupla physicists sittin’ around talkin’

Jenlucpiquant1Oh, frabjous day! We have so much to celebrate this March 14th. It’s Pi Day, of course, and also the very first Talk Like a Physicist Day — we have been employing physics-speak off and on in honor of the occasion: see some suggestions here and here. And as an amuse-bouche of sorts to this post, we offer this classic scene from 3rd Rock from the Sun, the very first hit sitcom to feature a physics professor (John Lithgow, playing an alien in disguise) as the main character, in which he explains to his students his method of grading on a transient loop. And it’s also Albert Einstein‘s birthday. That’s why we picked March 14th for Talk Like a Physicist Day, in fact. Besides, holding these sorts of whimsical Internet "holidays" on the same day keeps the calendar just a wee bit tidier. Perhaps some other, more major holidays could be combined in the future.

Anyway, this post might have possibly more typos and wrong links than usual, because (a) I had to prepare my usual talk for this Friday’s KITP workshop — all about the Art of the Book Deal, audio and PowerPoint are posted here  — and (b) I’m getting sick again, having picked up some kind of virus while in New Orleans. This would be an excellent segue into a planned post on "designer viruses," the topic of an APS March Meeting session. But frankly, I’m not feeling up to it. Instead, this post will be a paean to all things Einstein, in honor of the venerable man’s entrance onto the great stage of life.

What does it take to make a singular genius like Einstein, or an Isaac Newton for that matter (beyond the usual biological processes)? Hard to say. Little Al was the sort of kid who, by age 5, could be enthralled by the movement of the needle in a magnetic compass — something he later said convinced him that there had to be "something behind things, something deeply hidden." I don’t know about you, but even though I could read by 5, and was highly verbal, I doubt I was capable of that kind of insight at such a young age. Mostly, I was concerned about when we got to have milk and cookies before naptime in my kindergarten class. Newtontalklikeaphysicist

So Einstein was a prodigy. Of sorts. He actually didn’t do that well in school. (There’s a nice little NPR bit from 2005 by David Kestenbaum, entitled "How Smart Was Einstein?") For years, his own parents thought he might be a bit "slow" because he spoke rather hesitantly, and didn’t have the top grades one would expect a bona fide prodigy to earn. But really, Einstein was just bored to tears by the rigidly structured teaching methods of his formal education — rote memorization and blind obedience weren’t really his style. He most preferred to study on his own, reading books on math, physics and philosophy, among other topics. One of my favorite quotes of Einstein about his early education, made many years later, is this: "It’s almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom."

Einstein even failed the entrance exam for the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and ended up attending a local school in Aarau instead. This turned out to be a very good thing, because that learning environment was much more suited to his temperament, and intellectual gifts. His teachers gave him the freedom and latitude to pursue his own ideas. This is where he first encountered James Clerk Maxwell’s theories of electromagnetism — Maxwell’s equations of light — something that wasn’t actually part of the standard curriculum at most schools at that time. (Nowadays, of course, it’s absolutely required of physics students.)

He eventually wound up at the Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he graduated with a distinct lack of honors. That’s how he ended up working as a patent clerk, doing theoretical physics on the side. He did assemble a small group of physicist pals, who called themselves the "Olympia Academy," and met periodically to discuss books, science and so forth. He wasn’t without intellectual stimulation. And in 1905, all that prep work came to fruition. As Einstein later described it, "A storm broke loose in my mind" — a storm on a par with, say, Hurricane Katrina. That was his so-called Annus Mirabilis (Miracle Year), in which he published not one, not two, not three, but FOUR seminal physics papers that influenced the field of physics of decades to come — in fact, they changed the field forever.

To commemorate these achievements in 2005 (the World Year of Physics, and the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s spectacular output), my pal James Riordon (a.k.a, blogger Buzz Skyline) wrote a charming poem about it, in the style of Dr. Seuss (illustrated by cartoonist Paul Dlugokencky, who also did the illustrations for The Physics of the Buffyverse). You can find it here, complete with hyperlinks for more information about the science. Here’s my favorite lines:

He thought and he thought and he thought a bit more,

He thought ’til the thoughts made his thinking parts sore.

With a little deduction and persistence galore,

He thought of an answer, not thought of before.

Clever, no? Read the whole thing. Cartoongif
The American Physical Society ended up publishing it as a little booklet, and also put together an award-winning 15-minute film on Einstein’s Miracle Year. And of course, a couple of years later NOVA weighed in with its own documentary. Actually, Einstein gets quite a bit of play, all the time. He’s probably the most instantly recognizable physicist in history, with his telltale mustache and wildly rumpled white hair.

Why the big deal over his 1905 papers? Not only were they seminal, offering novel solutions to problems physicists had been pondering for quite some time, but they ranged across a broad range of research areas. It’s not like he was specializing on one particular flavor of quark, for example. This was a different, less highly specialized era, and Einstein was definitely a bit of a "Renaissance Man" in that context.

He wrote his first paper on the photoelectric effect: first observed in 1887 by Heinrich Hertz, who noticed that that shining a beam of ultraviolet light onto a metal plate would cause it to shoot sparks. Einstein explained that this happens because light is a beam of energy-carrying particles (which we know call photons), and when that beam is directed at a metal, the photons collide. This was an extension of Max Planck’s work five years earlier proposing "quanta" and it’s the work for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. This paper was followed soon after by one contemplating Brownian motion (first postulated by a scientist/clergyman named Browne), concluding that if grains of pollen jiggled in a mud puddle, it wasn’t because they were "alive," but because of the presence of molecules bumping into each other. In September, Einstein published his seminal paper on special relativity, outlining the principles of time dilation and length contraction, among other Big Ideas. And finally, he published the work for which he is most famous: E=mc<2>, or the equivalence of mass and energy. That principle forms the basis for, among other things, nuclear energy, and the nuclear bomb.

We haven’t even mentioned General Relativity, which he developed subsequently, and which was confirmed to great fanfare in 1919. So I hope readers will join me in wishing Einstein a very happy birthday, wherever he may be. And, if they choose, they can also celebrate (as they see fit) Pi Day and Talk Like a Physicist Day as well. As for me, I’ve done my part. Now I’m going to go lie down. Look for more reports on the New Orleans meeting next week, when I’m feeling better.

1 thought on “a coupla physicists sittin’ around talkin’”

  1. Can’t resist posting this oldie but goodie:
    There was a young man who was bright
    Studied Einstein’s work with a might
    Then went out one day
    In a relative way
    And returned on the previous night!

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