Anniversary Post: Einstein’s Second Best Year

Albert EinsteinOn this day in 1905, Albert Einstein published an incredibly important physics paper. It was a very good year for him, but remarkably, not his best. In 1905, he published four papers — any one of which would have made him a huge figure in 20th century physics. He was 26 years old. And, as we know, working a day job. This is used by many people to claim that we don’t need to fund scientific research. Of course Einstein was working a government job. And the people who say that are idiots.

The first paper (9 June 1905) was, “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.” This was the photoelectric paper that posited that energy is quantized. It is the most important paper in quantum mechanics. Interestingly, Einstein never did accept quantum mechanics of the Heisenberg and Schrödinger variety. That’s where the quote “God does not play dice” comes from. Even more interesting is that Max Planck, who did so much to further Einstein’s career, thought that this paper was total junk. And if anyone has the claim to being the father of quantum mechanics, it is Max Planck.

The second paper (18 July 1905) was, “On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat.” It’s a classic of statistical mechanics. It explained Brownian motion as a random walk. I’ll be honest, I’ve never paid much attention to the paper because it seems too obvious to me. Statistical mechanics have always just made sense to me. But it was a huge finding at the time.

The third paper (26 September 1905) was, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” That’s Special Relativity. There was a year of my life when I was quite literally obsessed with it. It made no sense whatsoever to me. I finally realized that the problem was not my understand of Special Relativity but with my expectations. It isn’t a theory meant to explain the universe as I know it. It is meant to explain the motion of bodies moving very fast relative to each other. There is no “intuition” that we humans will ever have for it.

The fourth paper (21 November 1905 — 110 years ago today) is the most important of the papers, “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” This is also about relativity. It is where we get the famous equation: E = mc². But what’s really important is that it is the first step toward Einstein’s greatest achievement, the General Theory of Relativity. And that, will have to wait for another time.

18 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Einstein’s Second Best Year

        • To be honest, it pretty much always bothers me when scientists are presented in narrative form. They never get it right. They grab onto some superficial aspect of their personality and go with it. That’s especially easy with Einstein. For a long time, I was working on a play about Evariste Galois on the last night of his life. But I finally gave up because the truth is that I still find his mathematical reasoning difficult. His is a very romantic story where he knew he would die the next day in a duel, so he wrote a 60 page letter laying out pretty much the entirety of abstract algebra. That was almost 200 years ago, and yet it is still really hard. On the other hand, I would so like to be able to present to people what math really is, instead of the primitive views they have of addition and even equation solving. Galois wasn’t interesting is solving equations but about their underlying principles. It’s people like him who get closest to God.

          • Uh oh, does this mean you don’t hate common core?

            And I knew, even then, that Einstein was not like that in real life. However it presented a concept that is very difficult in a fun way that makes you curious to know more. Or maybe just me since none of my friends have asked to borrow my copy of Alexander Hamilton by Chernow despite all of them being gaga for the musical.

            • The interesting thing about Einstein is that I don’t think of him as being particularly brilliant. It took him ten years to work out general relativity because he wasn’t that good at the technical side of things. But he was like the human Mac: think different. There are some scientists who were clearly scary smart, like Maxwell. But mostly, they were just people who didn’t get struck in the rut of thinking the way you were supposed to. This is one of the reasons that I play down “intelligence.” It isn’t that useful. It’s far more important to be creative and open minded.

              Common core?! Well, I might be able to give you an opinion if I knew what it was. But it is so associated with other things — in particular, testing. I don’t believe in testing. Really: at all. I don’t think there is a need for it. I think we are totally screwed up in how we approach education. On the other hand, social cohesion is important, and that’s why I think everyone should be familiar with, for example, Shakespeare and the Bible. And I say that not being a big fan of either. I don’t actually care how we bind together as a culture, but we need to have something. I like the Greeks. I think in order to understand war, everyone should read the Iliad and Lysistrata. (Another really important — not Greek — one: Johnny Got His Gun. I think I read it when I was 16 or so and it affected me profoundly, which might be why Trumbo was blacklisted.)

              My understanding of the common core approach to math makes me think it is well intentioned. I want people to understand what math really is. But from what I’ve seen, they are making a mess of it. It is my theory that we have tons of teachers who don’t like math and so create tons of students who don’t like math. Making math fun is easy. Imagine if all our math teachers were like Martin Gardner! I also wonder about the developmental appropriateness of some of the stuff. I can teach calculus to second graders, but there are deeper issues (like abstract algebra) that the brain is just not capable of understanding at that age. A good way to think of it is to look at the development of the jokes that children make up as they get older. In my experience, math, music, and comedy are closely linked. And by the way: that’s why we need art and music and theater and all that “fluff” in our schools.

              • The point behind common core is to change the way we teach students. The problem with common core (one of them anyway) is that it does so in a country that likes to keep doing things despite knowing they don’t work. Taking homework as example-I pay attention to studies when it comes to education and many of them say there is little to no benefit of having homework. Yet, we still have it for multiples of reasons.

                So when you try to do something to fix the problems we have with education like common core, it does not help where it should. The schools with the poor outcomes are going to continue to have poor outcomes because the kids are poor and it is hard to think when you are hungry, tired or scared. The teacher exodus is going to continue because why on earth would you get a master’s degree and stay teaching for low pay, terrible treatment, over the top expectations for results with zero support, and zero respect from anyone.

                Then you have voters who all tell the focus groups “we care about education” then when you knock on their door they say this: “I’m for education but I feel like I pay enough taxes for it already. It’s just a bunch of Mexican kids. Most of them don’t even belong here legally. Why should I pay for them?” *is still horrified by this* So they vote for the Republican and the schools continue to decline except in the ritzy areas because the ritzy areas always have money to pay for what my friend’s son is going to have at his preschool soon: twice a month Spanish and yoga lessons with different international foods every Thursday to learn about different cultures.

                *siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiighs deeply*

                By the way the first part of my rant is why I got involved in politics. The second part is why I want to move.

                • Homework is a great example. Our students aren’t learning enough. More homework! Still not learning! Even more homework! I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn, who I think has written at least one book on how useless homework is.

                  The other thing about poor students is that they go to school in poor school districts. In California at least, public school funding is based on local property taxes. This is what we call “equality of opportunity”!

                  Even if all schools were equally funded with equivalent teachers and all that, we wouldn’t have anything close to equality of opportunity. But the fact that the rich do not want to change even this (look at the priorities of the Gates Foundation), shows just how off the charts they are. Why don’t we just set up an official aristocracy? At least it would be honest.

                  • Because Americans have self deception built in? I blame the Jamestown ethos for it instead of the normal Puritans. They were self deluded enough to think that having a community filled with makers would be sufficient instead of a community filled with farmers.

                    And now that I think about it, they went Galt without knowing they were going Galt. Mind opened up randomly.

                    Anyway, I went to a ghetto school. There never should be celebrations among the teachers that they managed to get almost half the student body to graduate much less whooping it up that two of their students made it to MIT. But as that example I posted showed, we are going to keep getting that because people say they want X but really vote Y.

                    • They came to America to keep their religion pure. Actually, that’s what Galt was all about. It was Rand’s ideological fantasy that the world would fall apart without the likes of him.

                      It seems to me that people have been fairly open to paying for education. But things get screwed up because there are lots of things that the government has to pay for. And so people get the “out” that the money is spent elsewhere. When California passed Prop 13, the claim was that the money would come from “fraud, abuse,” and so on. Of course, it didn’t. It’s savaged our public schools and made public colleges unaffordable. I just snuck in there. I think I paid $400 per semester to go to state college. It’s more than 10 times that much now. So I left college with no debt and then, of course, scientists get paid to go to grad school. But unlike far too many people, I am very aware of my great good fortune.

                    • Who, the idiots behind Jamestown? I was taught they came here solely to make bank which is why none of the people who showed up were women initially and who were all small craftsmen or servants so people who general make rather than take like those mooching farmers. Too bad Rand never heard of Jamestown because she would have…probably still written that nonsense she wrote.

                      They are open to paying for education when it is a direct tax for it. A few years ago there was a non-permanent sales tax assessed to pay for some seriously needed stuff for the school here locally. It passed because it was an off cycle time and the normal powers that oppose such a tax were guilted into keeping their mouths shut. But later, when the option to renew and make permanent came by, they went back to opposing it and it was defeated. So in this state at least, we talk the talk but vote otherwise.

                      I am not even going to mention how bad the bill is going to be for my student loans for me to just get a paralegal degree. At least if I make the minimum payment for 25 whole years! I get to apply to have it forgiven.

                    • Well, taking it back to Prop 13, even though the people were told it wouldn’t hurt education, it soon became apparent that it did. Howard Jarvis has been dead for almost 30 years and still we continue on. Because not being able to properly appraise houses (which is the bigger issue than the low rate) is far more important than educating our populace. So I agree with you. Maybe it is more correct to say that people want to see themselves as being in favor of education. But there isn’t much behind it.

                    • I think we agree on most things. AZ passed Prop 13 here but no one noticed since it made little to no change.

                    • Well I cannot say it has all been downhill from the “Thieving Thirteenth” but it certainly has been kind of difficult since the proposition requiring 2/3rds of both houses approval for tax increases in 1992.

                    • Oh, you have that too! That is the worse. As David Cay Johnston says, if you don’t want to pay taxes, you want the jungle — and the rich have the most to lose from that.

                    • Oh yes. From the time that people still wanted tax cuts because they had no idea what it means to not pay for what you need from government.

                      Democrats could weasel in a small tax increase on the middle class if they loudly demanded to raise taxes on the rich but they will never do it.

                    • I focus on the rich, because it is hard to justify raising taxes on the working classes when they have seen little or no economic improvement over the last 4 decades.

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