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1905: Einsteins's Miraculous Year

06/07/2005 10:15 AM

We at CR4 are extremely privileged to present "1905: The Year Albert Einstein Rewrote History and the Laws of Physics", by Professor Abraham Michelen. The article celebrates and analyzes the five major papers Einstein published 100 years ago. Should you wish to have CR4 publish a paper of yours, see the note at the end of this work.

1905: The Year Albert Einstein Rewrote History and the Laws of Physics

Abraham Michelen
June 2005

One hundred years ago, in 1905, Albert Einstein, working as a full time clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, and as a part-time physicist, published five papers in the prestigious Annalen der Physik (one of these papers was his delayed Doctoral Dissertation), that changed our understanding of the universe for ever. These papers set the tone of discussion in physics and in the philosophy of science for the next one hundred years, and completely changed science and history in ways that probably we will never see again. A similar achievement happened in the years 1665-1667 when Newton set the foundations of physics and calculus with his discoveries of the nature of light, the nature of gravity, and defined most of the mathematical methods that lead to the establishment of calculus. In 1667 Newton wrote Philosophie Naturalis Principia Matematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. In 1667 Newton was a 24 year old young man. (Interestingly, the first of Einstein's papers of 1905 was submitted days before his 26th birthday.)...

(continued) The five papers answered fundamental questions in several areas of knowledge that were unsolved at the time. Einstein's incitement to work on these problems was the book "La Science et l'Hypothese" published in 1902 by Henri Poincaré, the great French mathematical physics scientist. (Poincaré is one of the main contributors to the theory of relativity. Should we call it the Einstein-Minkowski-Poincaré Relativity Theory? More about this some other time). In his book Poincaré presented three unsolved problems that have haunted the scientific community for years: (1) what causes the unending random movement of pollen particles in water? (Brownian motion), (2) Why are electrons ejected from metal surfaces when ultraviolet light impinge upon the metal? (Photoelectric effect), and (3) Why we have not been able to measure the movement of the earth through the ether? How can we do this? (Theory of special relativity).
Einstein read this book and between March and September of 1905, this man, working as a simple patent examiner in Bern, Switzerland, to support his new wife and his one-year old son, decided to tackle these problems. Some years before he had submitted a doctoral dissertation (unsolicited) to the University of Zurich that was rejected, and he decided to give up any idea of "belonging to the academic world". Poincaré's book awoke the genius in him, and the year 1905 was a time, as described by Einstein himself, where "… a storm broke loose in my mind…" Working alone, theoretically (experimental physics was not the trade mark of Einstein), apart from any scientific environment, with his brain as the sole tool, Einstein solved the three Poincaré's problems and some more. This 'storm' in his mind produced the following papers:

1. Photoelectric effect and light as quantum
On March 17, 1905 he submitted the paper "On a heuristic viewpoint concerning the production and transformation of light" . With this paper Einstein showed that, from the point of view of thermodynamics, light can be described as if it consists of discrete, independent particles (photons), each one carrying a fixed amount of energy ('quanta'). This idea was presented by Max Planck several years earlier. The contradiction to Maxwell electrodynamics theory is clear. He showed that Maxwell's theory could not explain why the energy of an electron ejected from a metallic surface by the action of ultraviolet light does not depend on the intensity of the incident light, but only (entirely) on its frequency.
This is a bold, simple and beautiful idea! Einstein simply proved that the ejection of electrons cannot be explained if the nature of light is wave-like. If the nature of light can be explained as also as a particle, then the photoelectric effect could be understood simply: a light particle ejects an electron from the metallic surface by transferring its momentum to the electron and this extra energy added causes the ejection action. Similar to the interaction of billiard balls. With this idea, Einstein introduced the concept of the duality of light: sometimes it behaves like a particle (photon), sometimes like a wave. With this simple insight classical physics changed forever. The photoelectric effect gave physicists of the era a new set of experiments that helped to establish quantum theory.
Einstein, however, never accepted the non-deterministic concepts embedded in quantum theory. For the great scientist, quantum mechanics does not reach the bottom of things. He never believed that it constitutes the true conception of nature. He believed that one can describe nature, and that its laws do not relate solely to possibilities and their changes (as in quantum theory), but to the temporal changes of an entity. This is the concept of causality at its best that was defended by Einstein during his entire life. For Einstein, quantum mechanics ceases to regard physical laws as laws of being (reality), and limits itself to relating these laws to some possibilities of being. When probabilities in a system are given, it calculates the probabilities for another value of time; then, all physical laws are related, according to quantum theory, to probabilities and not to an objective entity.
Heisenberg and other quantum theorists rejected the idea of causality defended by the classicist Einstein. "…Since all experiments," wrote Heisenberg, " are subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, the invalidity of the law of causality is definitely proved…". (What a sacrilege to the mind of Einstein!).
Einstein liked the "Heuristic" paper so much, that he called it 'revolutionary.' In 1921 Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this work, the photoelectric effect, and not for any of his theories of relativity. (When awarded the Prize, the Nobel committee formally asked Einstein not to mention relativity at any moment during his acceptance speech. The theory of relativity was not 'ripe' for the time.)

2. The accepted doctoral dissertation
On April 30, 1905 Einstein submitted to the Annalen der Physik a new doctoral dissertation (a dissertation that was accepted): "A new Determination of Molecular Dimensions" . In this dissertation, making use of the data available at the time of the diffusion of sugar in solution, he determined the size of the sugar molecules (so he proved that molecules, and atoms, were real entities), and also he showed how to determine Avogadro's number. His dissertation made a great contribution to the study of kinetic energy of heat by providing a realistic measure of the size of molecules.

3. Brownian motion
On May 11, 1905 the paper "On the motion of small particles suspended in liquid at rest required by the molecular-kinetic theory of heat" was submitted. In 1827 Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, noted that particles of pollen suspended in aqueous solution, when looked through the microscope, exhibited a standard, constant, zigzag movement. Knowing that the pollen particles were not live microorganisms, Brown concluded that these were physical and not biological phenomena. However, this movement could not be explained with the scientific tools available at the time, and the Brownian motion remained an unsolved problem until 1905. In this paper Einstein developed a mathematical theory that explains the phenomenon, using classical kinetic theory and hydrodynamics. The result was a scientific explanation of the Brownian motion and, at the same time, a definite proof of the existence of atoms. This theoretical result was experimentally proved some years later, establishing the existence of atoms.

4. The Special theory of relativity
On June 30, 1905 Einstein submitted the paper "On the electrodynamics of moving bodies" . In this paper he introduced the special theory of relativity. Einstein wanted to study a solution to the Poincaré problem posed in 1902 about the existence (or nonexistence) of the ether. By 1900 Poincaré wanted to solve, or understand, certain ambiguity in Maxwell's electromagnetic theory: at the end of the 19th century Maxwell stated (or suggested), in his monumental work on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, that " … electromagnetic waves always travel at the same speed… " (if this statement were not suggested by Maxwell in his work, who knows if Einstein, in 1905, would have pursued the idea that landed in the relativity theory.) This idea contradicted all the knowledge we inherited since the seventeenth century about Newton's laws of motion. These Newtonian laws of motion were solidly proved. They are always true in both stationary reference frames and in frames moving at a constant speed in a straight line ('inertial frames'). Because of this, it is possible to transform the laws of motion so that they did not depend on the frame of reference. Maxwell statement that the speed of light seems to be always constant, contradicts this "principle of relativity" (originally stated by Galileo. Einstein called it 'the principle of relativity in the restricted sense'). Either Maxwell was wrong or there must be a stationary reference (the ether) where light propagates (just like sound propagates in air), and if the ether does not exist then Newton is wrong.

Einstein solved this ambiguity simply by declaring that the ether does not exist (nobody has proved its existence, anyway) and after discarding the ether he developed a theory of physics that is based on two principles:
(i) The speed of light is constant for all observers no matter at what relative speed their frames of reference are moving. In other words, the speed of light is a universal constant. This is different from the concepts we find in our daily experience with objects that move at low speed compared with the speed of light. If am traveling at 65 mph respect to the road (the ether) and you are driving at 55 mph in the same direction as me, then your speed relative to me is only10 mph. If you are traveling opposite to me, then the relative speed is 125 mph. Now, if you and I, while traveling as indicated, see a third car (the electromagnetic wave that we call light) and we determine that the relative speed of this third car respect to me and respect to you is exactly the same, what is our conclusion? Very simple: the road (the ether) does not exist (or it is irrelevant). Therefore, concludes Einstein, the speed of light (the third car) must be constant for all observers. In his book " Relativity: The special and the General Theory " Einstein writes: "… At all events we know with great exactness that this velocity (the light's velocity) is the same for all colours, because if this were not the case, the minimum of emission would not be observed simultaneously for different colours during the eclipse of a fixed star by its dark neighbour…" He continued to say that the Dutch astronomer De Sitter "…was also able to show that the velocity of propagation of light cannot depend on the velocity of motion of the body emitting the light…" The second principle is
(ii) No matter what the inertial frame of reference the laws of physics are the same . This concept is more obvious than the previous one. The laws of nature must be independent of the inertial observer. We can state that the rules of physics do not depend on the particular situation we are in. The effect of a stone hitting us is the same on earth and on any planet independent of what is the cause of this event, even if gravity on earth and on the planet are different.
With these two postulates Einstein created a new theory of motion that encompasses the Newtonian laws of motion. Classical mechanics is an approximation of this new theory. Einstein called his theory "the electrodynamics of moving bodies". Some years later Max Plank called it "the special theory of relativity".

In order for these two postulates to be true Einstein found some other amazing facts of nature: (a) space and time are intimately related. Before the special theory was postulated time and space were thought as two separate entities. The idea of simultaneity, for example, was a concept related solely to time. With the special theory we cannot just say that two events are simultaneous without talking about the location of the observers and their motion. (b) moving clocks run slower respect to stationary clocks, and objects shorten when traveling at constant speed. These ideas were predicted by Lorentz and Fitzgerald before 1905. In the special relativity paper, without knowing, he proved these ideas using simple mathematics.

5. E = mc2
On September 27, 1905 Einstein submitted the paper " Does the inertia of a body depend on its energy content? " This three-page paper was meant to be an appendix to the special relativity paper. In it, Einstein showed that all energy (not just electromagnetic energy), E, has an inertia given by E/c2. This simple result is one of the most important discoveries in science. Energy and mass (inertia) are totally equivalents. It is said that Einstein found this formula while developing the special theory, but decided not to include it in the original paper of June 30, 1905 because he was worried that the publisher would not accept such a bizarre result. Three months later, he decided that it was important to include this result in the paper and asked the publisher to include this short result as an appendix to the original special relativity theory.

Each one of these five papers alone would have granted any scientist a Nobel prize. It is amazing to see that they all were developed by one person and in a very short period of time. The year 1905 is known as the annus mirabilis of science, and indeed it was miraculous year!

Bibliography

1. "Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness" by John S. Rigden, Harvard University Press, January 2005.
2. "Annus Mirabillis: 1905, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity" by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin, Penguin Group, April 2005.
3. "Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five papers that Changed the Face of Physics", by John J. Stachel (Editor), and Albert Einstein, Princeton University Press, March 2005.

Note: If you have a similar type of paper and wish to present it, we at CR4 will be happy to help you. Simply click here and submit it to us. We'll review your submission and publish it in a timely manner.

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The Engineer
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#1

Excellent Write-up

06/07/2005 4:13 PM

Thanks for doing such a terrific job on such a worthy subject. Are there any books you recommend on this subject?

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The Feature Creep

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#2

Clerks

06/08/2005 9:04 AM

The amazing thing is that people took him so seriously. He was working in a patent office when he wrote and submitted most of these. I don't think in this day and age many people would talk him as seriously if he tried to do the same thing, much to our detriment.

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The Engineer
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#3
In reply to #2

Re:Clerks

06/10/2005 1:13 AM

I disagree. The story above mentioned how his dissertation was rejected so he decided to work outside of academia. Also the story says: "It is said that Einstein found this formula while developing the special theory, but decided not to include it in the original paper of June 30, 1905 because he was worried that the publisher would not accept such a bizarre result." I think Einstein would run into the same diffulcties today that he did back then, but would still find success. Science and more so the scientific method is inherently skeptical, which can be annoyingly frustrating when it slows a good idea down but priceless for all the junk it blocks.

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The Feature Creep

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#4
In reply to #3

Re:Clerks

06/10/2005 7:52 AM

So what would you do to change the process?

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The Engineer
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#5
In reply to #4

Re:Clerks

06/10/2005 1:52 PM

I think the system is fairly good as is. There is no perfect system and I'd rather error on the side of refusing some good stuff than promoting junk.

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