Albert Einstein

Genius Among Geniuses

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's 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.

Miracle year

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:

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

In sum, an amazing outburst: Einstein's 1905 still evokes awe. Historians call it the annus mirabilis, the miracle year. Einstein ranges from the smallest scale to the largest (for special relativity is embodied in all motion throughout the universe), through fundamental problems about the nature of energy, matter, motion, time, and space—all the while putting in 40 hours a week at the patent office.

Who’s smarter? No one since Newton comes close.

Further miracles

And that alone would have been enough to secure Einstein's reputation. But it is what comes next that is almost more remarkable. After 1905, Einstein achieves what no one since has equaled: a 20-year run at the cutting edge of physics. For all the miracles of his miracle year, his best work is still to come:

In sum, Einstein is famous for his distaste for modern quantum theory, largely because its probabilistic nature forbids a complete description of cause and effect. But still he recognizes many of the fundamental implications of the idea of the quantum long before the rest of the physics community does.

The miracle that eluded him

After the quantum mechanical revolution of 1925 through 1927, Einstein spends the bulk of his remaining scientific career searching for a deeper theory to subsume quantum mechanics and eliminate its probabilities and uncertainties. It is the end, as far as his contemporaries believe, of Einstein's active participation in science. He generates pages of equations, geometrical descriptions of fields extending through many dimensions that could unify all the known forces of nature. None of the theories works out. It is a waste of time—and yet:

Contemporary theoretical physics is dominated by what is known as "string theory." It is multidimensional. (Some versions include as many as 26 dimensions, with 15 or 16 curled up in a tiny ball.) It is geometrical: the interactions of one multidimensional shape with another produces the effects we call forces, just as the "force" of gravity in general relativity is what we feel as we move through the curves of four-dimensional space-time. And it unifies, no doubt about it: in the math, at least, all of nature from quantum mechanics to gravity emerges from the equations of string theory.

As it stands, string theory is unproved, and perhaps unprovable, as it involves interactions at energy levels far beyond any we can handle. But to those versed enough in the language of mathematics to follow it, it is beautiful. And in its beauty (and perhaps in its impenetrability), string theory is the heir to Einstein's primitive first attempts to produce a unified field theory.

Between 1905 and 1925, Einstein transformed humankind's understanding of nature on every scale, from the smallest to that of the cosmos as a whole. Now, a century after he began to make his mark, we are still exploring Einstein's universe. The problems he could not solve remain the ones that define the cutting edge, the most tantalizing and compelling.

You can't touch that. Who's smarter? No one since Newton comes close.

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