The Greatest Tragic Hero of Physics

Although widely admired and loved, in the end he died like so many who came to extremes of fame or fortune – estranged from family and separated from old friends. The only person to witness his death in exile was a nurse, incapable of understanding his last words which were uttered in a language foreign to her.

If his private life was a template for a telenovella, viewers would regard it as too over the top: As a teenager his parents leave him with relatives to complete school – they need to resettle to a foreign country. He rebels, his school teachers give up on him, he drops out. He travels across the Alps to reunite with his family. If it isn’t for the unwavering support of his mother he would probably never move on to obtain a higher education. She manages to find him a place with relatives in a country of his native language so that he can finally gain his diploma. The same year he renounces his old citizenship and also quits the religion of his parents.

He subsequently enrolls in a prestigious university, but ignores the career choice that his parents had in mind for him. He falls in love with a beautiful fellow student from a far away land. His parents are against the relationship, and so are hers. Against the will of their families they want to get married, but our hero struggles to find a job after graduation. He hopes to be hired as an assistant at his university, just like the rest of his peers, but he has once again fallen out with some of his teachers. Many of the other members of the faculty only notice him because he skips so many lectures – especially the purely mathematical ones. Still, he passes all the tests, relying on his friends’ lecture notes.

His future wife-to-be becomes pregnant out of wedlock, has to return to her family and gives birth to a little girl with Down syndrome. He never even gets to see the girl. This summer – two years after graduation – with the help of a friend, he finally lands his first steady job. Later that year his father dies, and shortly after that our man marries his beloved Mileva.

Meet the Einsteins:

Images of old Albert Einstein are so iconic that some people tend to forget that he wasn

Having settled down in Bern he now manages to find the discipline and inner calm for his subsequent groundbreaking works. I can not even begin to fathom how he musters the strength to do so, coping with a full time day job and a young family. Discussing his ideas with friends and colleagues certainly helps and surely he must discuss his research with Mileva as well (how much she influenced his work has been somewhat of a controversy). The following three years, even while working as a patent clerk, are the most fruitful of Albert Einstein’s life. His research culminates in four publications in the year 1905 that irreversibly change the very foundation of physics. His papers ….

  1. … describe  for the first time the theory of Special Relativity.
  2. … show the equivalence of mass and energy i.e. the most famous E=mc².
  3. … propose the idea of energy quanta (i.e. photons) to explain the photoelectric effect.
  4. … demonstrate that Brownian motion is a thermal phenomenon.

Without the realization that mass and energy are equivalent (2), there’d be no nuclear energy and weapons. Without Einstein’s energy quanta hypothesis (3), there’d be no quantum mechanics, and his work that explains the Brownian motion (4) settled, once and for all, the question if atoms were real.  At the same time, it provides the missing statistical underpinning for thermodynamics.

These were all amazing accomplishments in their own right, but nothing so resonated with the public as the consequences of Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity (1). This one was regarded as a direct affront to common sense and achieved such notoriety that it was later abused by Nazi propaganda to agitate against “Jewish physics”.

Already, at this time, physics was such a specialized trade that usually the man on the street would have no motivation to form an opinion on some physics paper. So what caused all this negative attention? Einstein’s trouble was that by taking Maxwell’s theory of Electrodynamics seriously he uncovered properties of something that everybody thought they intuitively understood. Any early 20th century equivalent to Joe the Plumber would have felt comfortable explaining how to measure the size of a space and how to measure time – they were understood as absolute immutable dimensions in which life played out. Only they cannot be if Maxwell’s equations were right, and the speed of light was a constant in all frames of reference. This fact was really hiding in plain sight, and you don’t need any mathematics to understand it – you only need the willingness to entertain the possibility that the unthinkable might be true.

In 1923 an elaborate movie was produced that tried to explain Special Relativity to a broad audience. It turned out to be a blockbuster, but still didn’t convince the skeptical public – watching it made me wonder if that is where so many misconceptions about Einstein’s theories started. It does not contain any falsehoods, but it spends way too much time on elaborating relativity, while the consequences of the invariability of light speed are mixed in with results from General Relativity, and neither are really explained. Apparently the creators of this old movie felt that they had to start with the most basic principles and couldn’t really expect their audience to follow some of Einstein’s arguments. Granted, this was before anybody even knew what our planet looked like from space, and the imagined astronaut of this flick is shot into space with a canon as the preferred mode of transportation – as, for instance, imagined by Jules Verne. Nowadays this task is much easier in comparison. You can expect a blog reader to be desensitized by decades of SciFi. Also, having a plethora of educational videos at your fingertips makes for a straightforward illustration of some of the immediate outcomes of accepting light speed to be constant in all frames of reference.

For a modern audience, a thought experiment containing two spaceships traveling in parallel with a setup that has a laser signal being transferred between them requires little explanation. All that is necessary to come to grips with, is what it means that this laser signal travels at the same speed in all frames of reference. For instance, this short video does an excellent job explaining that an observer passing by these spaceships will have to conclude that the clocks for the space pilots must go slower.

Nevertheless, even nowadays you still get publications like this one, where two Stanford professors of psychology perpetuate this popular falsehood in the very first sentence of their long monograph:

[Einstein] established the subjective nature of the physical phenomenon of time.

Of course he did no such thing.  He described how the flow of time and the temporal ordering of events transforms between different inertial reference frames as an objective physical reality.

Over a hundred years special relativity has withstood all experimental tests (including the recent faster than light neutrino dust-up).  Yet, public education has still not caught up to it.

This is the second installment of my irregular biographical physics series intended to answer the question of how physics became so strange. Given Einstein’s importance I will revisit his lasting legacy in a future post.

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