Built on Facts

#2 – Albert Einstein


Einstein. When a person’s name and photograph are both literal synonyms for genius, it’s a pretty good sign they’re among the greatest of the greats. But even if Einstein had not become the popular legend which lives on to this day, he’d still tower above the science of physics.

In one year – his annus mirabilis of 1905 – he wrote four papers, any of which would have cemented his reputation in the canon of the great physicists.

The first was an analysis of Brownian motion. If you drop a pollen grain into a glass of water and look very closely with a microscope, you’ll notice that it doesn’t slow to a stop. Instead, it constantly drifts and jiggles around as though being constantly impacted by tiny particles too small to see even in a microscope. Individual atoms, you might guess. And indeed that’s not too great of a leap for us, but in 1905 it wasn’t even certain that atoms existed, much less how they behaved in the statistical aggregate. Poor Boltzmann despaired of getting science to accept his statistical mechanics which wasn’t a lot of use without the reality of atoms, and Einstein was his (unfortunately posthumous) vindication. Einstein developed a formal theory of Brownian motion which more or less put the case to rest.

Now look at your pocket calculator. It might have a little strip of solar cells which power the calculator even if its batteries are dead. This effect is not properly described by Maxwell’s equations alone and remained one of the important open mysteries of physics until Einstein developed the idea that light energy was quantized into discrete pieces called photons. This was one of the precursors leading directly to the development of the dominant idea in modern physics – quantum mechanics. The photon and related concepts have been extended into the entire vast reach of quantum field theory. It’s a little ironic, because Einstein was never really comfortable with quantum mechanics and indeterminism. Interestingly, it was this and not relativity that earned Einstein his Nobel Prize.

There’s two of four. Most famous today are the other two papers, concerning special relativity and mass-energy equivalence. E = mc2 is the one equation everyone knows even if they don’t know what it means, and Einstein first wrote it as part of his theory. It’s hard to overstate the impact of relativity on physics. Prior to Einstein, physics was viewed as taking place on sort of an abstract invisible absolute Cartesian grid. Naively most of us today still think this way. One of the main clues that there might be a problem was in Maxwell’s equations. They seemed to work regardless of the frame of reference you chose, and experiments in locating an aether for the light to modulate found nothing. Either there was a problem with Maxwell in some very strange and subtle way, or our notions of absolute time and space were wrong. Einstein hypothesized the latter and developed the theory by which transformations between reference frames are governed. The mathematical methodology is not entirely Einstein’s; some of the ground work had already been done by other scientists and mathematicians like Lorentz. This is no way detracts from Einstein’s achievements.

And Einstein was no mathematical slouch. Once he published the special theory of relativity, the race was on to figure out how to use relativity to describe the effects of gravity. Einstein’s main competitor was none other than the absolutely brilliant mathematician David Hilbert, whose own stature might well put him on my top 10 mathematicians list (if I ever write one). Einstein succeeded (with help from Hilbert – it’s a long and somewhat controversial story), and in 1915 presented his general theory of relativity. It represents the entirely of our knowledge of gravity, with further theories remaining entirely speculative and untested.

Einstein left his mark in numerous other less well known branches of physics, from the heat capacity of solids to the statistics of bosons.

I have here just given a brief overview of his scientific work and neglected his personal biography entirely. His life outside of science is also of great interest – a probably apocryphal statement attributed to him boasts of surviving “two wives, two wars, and Hitler”. He died in 1955 and his ashes were scattered.

If I were to suggest just two books about this great man, I think I’d recommend Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, and Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Einstein himself as a very lucid and nonmathematical layman’s explanation of his most famous theory.

The list so far (click the category name for links):
2. Einstein
3. Maxwell
4. Faraday
5. Feynman
6. Rutherford
7. Schrodinger
8. Dirac
9. Thomson
10. Pauli

Not-strictly-physicist honorable mentions:


  1. #1 Lucas
    December 15, 2008

    I can’t begin to imagine who the greatest physicist is. The suspense is palpable.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    December 15, 2008

    Einstein’s elevator is inescapable: Inertial and gravitational mass are fundamentally indistinguishable, mass and weight are interchangeable. To break it one would require a universal vacuum backround anisotropy inert to all subsequent obervations lab and astronomic, electromagnetic and compositional, to sub-parts-per-trillion relative. What in the universe is not electromagnetic or compositional and does not naturally occur in a resolved state?

    Do left and right shoes fall identically? Do chemically identical opposite geometic parity atomic mass distributions in a massed sector chiral pseudoscalar vacuum background falsify the Equivalence Principle? One can trivially grow left- and right-handed single crystals of quartz (light atoms) or cinnabar (heavy atoms; both in enantiomorphic space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21).

    All quantized gravitations assume the EP either explicitly or through BRST invariance uniting the effects of a massive body and an accelerated reference frame. Perhaps string theory fails for a weak founding postulate (as Euclid’s Fifth Postulate failed). Somebody should look.

  3. #3 Coriolis
    December 15, 2008

    Well I’m afraid picking Einstein for #2 leaves only Newton for the choice of #1. They are usually the top contenders for the 1st spot ;).

  4. #4 EJ
    December 15, 2008

    You need to put this in the Greatest Physicists category. You just have it in Physical Science.

    Done. -Matt

  5. #5 Tom Coward
    December 15, 2008

    Einstein may have been cremated, but his brain travelled on! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein's_brain

  6. #6 Anonymous
    December 15, 2008

    Has anyone read “The History of an Equation” by David Bodanis
    Its not about Einstein but the equation its self its a really good one.

  7. #7 Anonymous
    December 15, 2008

    sorry the book is “E=MC2 the biography of the worlds most famous equation” Its a really good book only a small amount is about Einstein him self

  8. #8 erik Remkus
    December 16, 2008

    Yeah, #1 is quite obviously Newton. Who else but the man that theorized non-contact forces, invented calculus (kinda), came up with the basic laws that guide classical physics, and made physics into something recognizable today. Maybe it shouldn’t be announced until his Birthday http://3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/2005/12/happy_newtons_d.html

  9. #9 Ian
    December 16, 2008

    So if Einstein’s not #1, it’s got to be Dr Brown from “Back to the Future”, right?

  10. #10 CCPhysicist
    December 16, 2008

    I’m glad you mentioned the importance of Maxwell’s equations to Einstein’s view of relativity. If you read Einstein’s autobiography, you will see he mentions thinking about what light would look like if you traveled next to it at the speed of light. (He thought about this at age 16.) The answer, of course, is you see something that grossly violates Maxwell’s equations.

    I think the key to all four of those papers is to think of Einstein as someone who completely bought into the “new physics”, regardless of what that #1 guy said (or was said in his name by contemporary physicists). The first two apply the Maxwell-Boltzman idea about statistical mechanics to particles (Brownian motion) and fields (photons). I’ve always thought his derivation of the photon based on a model treating electromagnetic waves as an ideal gas was a bit dodgy, but it was a really inspired idea.

    The second two adopt Maxwell’s electrodynamics as a correct physical theory and go about bringing Newton’s mechanics into accord with that concept. The flaw in what Lorentz did (with his absolute frame and contracting elliptical electron) was that he could not reject Newton’s view of the world. Ditto for another guy who saw that Maxwell’s equations were “Lorentz invariant” before Lorentz did, but had no idea of the significance of this result.

    By the way, I think his rejection of QM had as much to do with Bohr’s arguments in favor of “quantum jumps”, something that went away as soon as real QM was created by Born’s interpretation of the Schroedinger function, as it did with the results tested by the EPR argument. Read some of the Einstein-Bohr debates and see what you think.

  11. #11 ossicle
    December 17, 2008

    CCPhysicist (or anyone),

    I’d be interested to hear more about: “The answer, of course, is you see something that grossly violates Maxwell’s equations.”


  12. #12 It's all been a terrible mistake.
    December 18, 2008

    When Einstein gazed at the clock and imagined time frozen on the wavefront, little did he know he condemed physics to a 100 year red herring. Time you see is UNIVERSAL. Go back to #1 – Newton and start again.

  13. #13 CCPhysicist
    December 18, 2008

    I assume that #11 understands that you would see a stationary electromagnetic wave if you traveled next to it at the speed of light. This violates Maxwell’s equations because Maxwell predicts that a spatially varying B will produce at temporally varying E (an E with a non-zero derivative). Similarly, an E(x) will produce a B with a non-zero derivative, yet that is not what you see.

    Commenter #12 is under the misapprehension that anything Einstein said is in any way a contradiction of what Newton said about the laws of physics. Both agree that all of physics should be independent of the observer’s motion. If experiments with v closer to c had been possible in Newton’s time (or Galileo’s time), all of physics would have been Lorentz invariant from the start.

    If #12 claims that kinetic energy grows quadratically with v, that assertion is contradicted by experiments where both v and K are measured in the laboratory.

  14. #14 fatima louise
    March 4, 2010

    please visit my site about animals! http://www.luvem.tk i know it’s not related to physics but please do visit and comment on it! your comments would be really important… thanks!

  15. #15 Gill Bates
    March 15, 2010

    #1 – Newton.

  16. #16 Douglas Watts
    March 15, 2010

    Aside from all other metrics, Einstein’s greatness is cemented by the sheer number of internet cranks who try to say he was “wrong.” 55 years after his death, he still attracts wackos like moths to a porch light.

  17. #17 theOneWithoutASecond
    May 16, 2010

    Einstein sucks, he’s overrated, Poincare and Lorentz had parts of special relativity before Einstein. The only thing Einstein really independently came up with was general relativity, but Karl Schwarzschild was the one who found the non-trivial exact solution to the field equations

    Seriously, why is Einstein so famous, and why aren’t people like James Clerk Maxwell or Neils Bohr as famous or more famous?

    JC Maxwell definitely changed the world much much more than Einstein because all of our electrical technology is based off electromagnetism

    Neil Bohr’s Quantum Mechanics changed the way we look at things much more than relativity

  18. #18 Artemis Rafti
    October 20, 2010

    theOneWithoutASecond, by downplaying Einstein, you really doing a disservice to the physics community.

    There’s only a handful of equations that are so important, but none stand out more than F=ma and E=mc^2. E=mc^2 is such a profound equation in physics and for its application to modern day society. You’d have to be absolutely nuts to think otherwise.

    Photoelectric effect. The notion of the photon was Einstein’s and he showed it with this experiment in which he won a Nobel Prize for. Einstein is one of the people that caused a revolution in quantum mechanics along with Planck before him, and the Bohr-Heisenberg-Pauli trio after him. To say Einstein had no impact to the development of quantum mechanics is blatantly untrue.

    Special Relativity. Lorentz did come out with this equations that are used in special relativity, but he left physics in an even deeper mess. Einstein’s vision and imagination came from such a different angle that his formulation came out to be the same as the Lorentz equations, but the key is that Einstein had a very different interpretation for it. It is this interpretation, and interpretations are essential, that gave Einstein the credit that he got for special relativity.

    General Relativity. If you read Principia Mathematica by Newton, Newton admitted that he did not know what caused gravity, he could only describe its effects. Well, it took 200 years for a genius like Einstein to solve what Newton did not know. Just the fact that Einstein was Newton’s predecessor was huge enough.

    General Relativity most certainly ranks among some of the best intellectual accomplishments of all time…and it was the brain child of ONE man. General relativity was all Einstein. Sure, Schwarzchild fiddled with it, but it’s still Einstein’s theory. Kind of like what Lagrange did to Newton’s work.

    You need to wake up and see the real history of physics before Einstein. Maxwell, without a doubt, is a giant…and so is Newton. But both contradicted each other causing physics to become a mess in the late 1800s. Lorentz and Poincare come in, boast out some equations, but they made it even worse because even more questions arised. It took a genius like Einstein to start another revolution in physics. Stop downplaying Einstein. Go to any university physics professor and they will be disgusted with our opinion on Einstein. Go to visit Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Cum Vafa, Ed Witten…some of the top physicists in the world now, and they’ll tell you about Einstein’s enormous impact. Get your act together and pay respect to the man.

  19. #19 Artemis Rafti
    October 20, 2010

    Newton’s SUCCESSOR* ^^ my bad

  20. #20 the GREAT ONE VIDUSH
    April 20, 2012

    he is a great scientist & my idol also