This week the world’s leading physicists gathered at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, for a six-day celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein. Ten days later, many of the same distinguished scientists are convening in Jerusalem to honor the overarching genius of 20th-century science, who died in 1955. Many such meetings will occur this year to commemorate March 14,1879. For instance, Nobel Prize-winning physicist C.N. Yang of the State University of New York also plans to attend gatherings in Rome and Berne, Switzerland. Winnipeg native Jim Peebles, now a professor at Princeton, is scheduled for sessions in Washington, D.C. and Oklahoma, while Dr.
William Unruh of the University of British Columbia has already warmed up with Einstein festivities in Perth,
In addition to detailing his contributions to science, the plethora of seminars will all confront the same basic question: what was it about Einstein that captured the world’s imagination?
“The notions of time and space that Einstein dealt with really grabbed people,” says Peebles. “After all, space and time are things that everybody knows about and here was a scientist proposing some very radical ideas, some very counter-intuitive ideas about the way these things operated.”
The German-born Einstein’s cosmic revolution began in 1905, when, at 26, he published his special theory of relativi-
ty. His precedent-shattering ideas held that space and time were rfôt absolute and invariable but relative to the beholder. A further development of the special theory is the famous equation that will forever be linked with Einstein’s name, E=mc2—energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Years later, that equation provided the theoretical framework that led to splitting the atom and, much to Einstein’s distress, nuclear bombs. In 1915, Einstein presented more complex notions in his general theory of relativity. He maintained that space curls in response to gravitating objects, and, with this insight, he upset the gravitational laws of 17th-century physicist Sir Isaac Newton.
At the end of World War I, Sir Arthur Eddington’s photograph of a star during a solar eclipse proved, as Einstein had maintained, that the gravitational field of the sun bent light. “The world was tired of war and bloodshed. This was just the right moment for a new view of the universe,” says relativist Banesh Hoffmann, who worked with Einstein in the 1930s.
Einstein looked the part of the totally absorbed scientist: the long white hair massed above deep, Spaniel-like eyes, the baggy sweater and pants, the pipe and the sandals habitually worn without socks. Recalls former associate Peter G. Bergmann: “When I worked with him I was in my 20s and he was in his 50s. He wasn’t buddy buddy but he was equally courteous to janitor or scientist.”
For many who never understood Einstein’s physics, his willingness to speak out on a broad range of humanitarian concerns illuminates his memory. “We shouldn’t lose sight pf Einstein the man,” says Ottawa author Albert Shea, now working on a book about the scientist. “I’m going to emphasize his human qualities.”
Einstein’s mystique, however, grows from more than his scientific or humanitarian concerns. Everyone lives in Einstein’s universe whether or not they understand the geometric beauty of his theory of relativity. The nuclear age, in many ways the unwanted stepchild of his research, has forever altered the world’s geopolitical realities. Even our intergalactic fantasies are fuelled by Einstein’s cosmology. The enthralled viewer of Star Wars is captured by the popular repercussions of his space-time continuum.
The study of relativity has received added impulse from space research. With new data from satellites and probes, scientists such as Britain’s Stephen Hawking are using Einstein’s theories to explain such intriguing astronomical phenomena as black holes, collapsed stars of such enormous gravitational force that anything which entered their field of attraction would never escape. Although confined to a wheelchair, and suffering from a muscle-wasting form of sclerosis, Hawking’s indomitable enthusiasm for his subject has led some fellow scientists to dub him “the high priest of black holes.” According to Cambridge University’s Gary Gibbons, a close collaborator, Hawking can be described as a successor to Einstein “in the sense that he has probably made more contribution to the development of the theory of gravity than anyone else.”
Theoretical physicists are also actively pursuing the quest that unsuccessfully occupied the last 25 years of Einstein’s life, the search for a unified
field theory of physics. The requisite formulation would combine relativity with quantum mechanics—that branch of physics which concerns itself with the behavior of elementary particles such as electrons, protons, neutrons and quarks. “At the time Einstein worked on the problem, there simply wasn’t enough data to formulate the kind of equations he needed,” says C.N. Yang. Since 1967, professors Steven Weinberg of Harvard and Abdus Salam of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, have uncovered principles of unity among
some fundamental forces of nature.
Meanwhile, researchers are still working on a dissection of Einstein’s brain in an attempt to identify the origins of his genius. He is rare indeed. Of the seminal thinkers in the field of macroscopic—or large-scale—physics, more than 2,000 years separated the mechanics of the great Greek scientist Archimedes from Newton’s formulation of the laws of gravity. And 300 years divide Newton from Einstein’s reordering of his universe. Who knows when the world will see Einstein’s like again? Rita Christopher
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