As mentioned over the weekend, I gave a talk last week for UCALL, part of a series on "The Radical Early 20th Century." I talked about how relativity is often perceived as revolutionary, but isn't really, while Einstein's really revolutionary 1905 paper is often overlooked. And, having put the time into thinking about the subject, I turned the basic theme into a new blog post over at Forbes:
Albert Einstein is easily one of the most recognizable people in history, and everybody thinks they know why. He’s the guy who, in 1905, completely revolutionized physics, overthrowing the prior order with a stroke of a pen and ushering in the modern era.
Only, he’s not. At least, not in the way you think. Einstein’s best known for the Theory of Relativity, the first part of which was published in 1905, but this was not, in fact, all that revolutionary. His actual revolutionary contribution to physics in that year was his paper on the photoelectric effect. This is somewhat overlooked, though it’s the one thing specifically mentioned in his Nobel Prize citation, and it played an essential role in launching quantum mechanics.
The actual lecture last week included a good deal more science, specifically a more detailed discussion of relativity with spacetime diagrams leading up to an explanation of why FTL travel is impossible, and a more detailed explanation of how Planck's quantum hypothesis fixes the blackbody radiation problem. But I'm keeping things non-technical at Forbes; maybe I'll upload the slides to SlideShare and post them here tomorrow. First, though, I need to grade a giant pile of exams...
The Nobel prize was granted to Einstein in 1921 as a compromise. He had been nominated several times, for relativity theory, but the theory was viewed as being "jewish" and antisemitism was widespread. Granting the prize for the photoelectric effect seemed, at the time, to be less controversial. If anything, that goes against the idea that relativity was not Einstein's most revolutionary idea.
All knowledge contributes to revolution, it changes us and our environment for ever. We are revolutionary creatures, come what may of it and we are packing a bigger and bigger punch.
Fate has a habit of punching back and I dare say we have a serious contest on our hands. Originally the Catholic Church did its best to stem progress now other loud voices are trying to take control and at least guide our actions. Einstein had a great mind, great minds like great guns can be dangerous.