How Smart Is Einstein?

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There is a parlor game physics students play: Who was the greater genius? Galileo or Kepler? (Galileo) Maxwell or Bohr? (Maxwell, but it's closer than you might think). Hawking or Heisenberg? (A no-brainer, whatever the best-seller lists might say. It's Heisenberg). But there are two figures who are simply off the charts. Isaac Newton is one. The other is Albert Einstein. If pressed, physicists give Newton pride of place, but it is a photo finish -- and no one else is in the race.

Newton's claim is obvious. He created modern physics. His system described the behavior of the entire cosmos -- and while others before him had invented grand schemes, Newton's was different. His theories were mathematical, making specific predictions to be confirmed by experiments in the real world. Little wonder that those after Newton called him lucky -- "for there is only one universe to discover, and he discovered it. "

But what of Einstein? Well, Einstein felt compelled to apologize to Newton. "Newton, forgive me;" Einstein wrote in his Autobiographical Notes. "You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power." Forgive him? For what? For replacing Newton's system with his own -- and, like Newton, for putting his mark on virtually every branch of physics.

That's the difference. Young physicists who play the "who's smarter" game are really asking, "how will I measure up?" Is there a shot to match -- if not Maxwell, then perhaps Lorentz? But Einstein? Don't go there. Match this:

In 1905, Einstein is 26, a patent examiner, working on physics on his own. After hours, he creates the Special Theory of Relativity, in which he demonstrates that measurements of time and distance vary systematically as anything moves relative to anything else. Which means that Newton was wrong. Space and time are not absolute -- and the relativistic universe we inhabit is not the one Newton "discovered."

That's pretty good -- but one idea, however spectacular, does not make a demi-god. But now add the rest of what Einstein did in 1905:

In March, Einstein creates the quantum theory of light, the idea that light exists as tiny packets, or particles, that we now call photons. Alongside Max Planck's work on quanta of heat, and Niels Bohr's later work on quanta of matter, Einstein's work anchors the most shocking idea in twentieth century physics: we live in a quantum universe, one built out of tiny, discrete chunks of energy and matter.

Next, in April and May, Einstein publishes two papers. In one he invents a new method of counting and determining the size of the atoms or molecules in a given space and in the other he explains the phenomenon of Brownian motion. The net result is a proof that atoms actually exist -- still an issue at that time -- and the end to a millennia-old debate on the fundamental nature of the chemical elements.

And then, in June, Einstein completes special relativity -- which adds a twist to the story: Einstein's March paper treated light as particles, but special relativity sees light as a continuous field of waves. Alice's Red Queen can accept many impossible things before breakfast, but it takes a supremely confident mind to do so. Einstein, age 26, sees light as wave and particle, picking the attribute he needs to confront each problem in turn. Now that's tough.

And of course, Einstein isn't finished. Later in 1905 comes an extension of special relativity in which Einstein proves that energy and matter are linked in the most famous relationship in physics: E=mc2. (The energy content of a body is equal to the mass of the body times the speed of light squared). At first, even Einstein does not grasp the full implications of his formula, but even then he suggests that the heat produced by radium could mark the conversion of tiny amounts of the mass of the radium salts into energy.

In sum -- an amazing outburst: Einstein's 1905 still evokes awe....
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