A relative century

Posted Jan 11, 2005 in Science.

Image of Albert Einstein, circa 1905

1905 was a good year for Albert Einstein. So good, in fact, that it is commonly referred to as his annus mirabilis. He wrote and submitted four papers to the physics journal Annalen der Physik, at least three of were worthy of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

It was March, and he submitted a paper for publication that argued that light waves behaved as if they were particles. He took the work on the quantum theory of energy that had first been done by Max Planck, and extended it to describe the photoelectric effect mathematically. This paper won him the Nobel Prize.

Just two months later, he completed an extensive paper on Brownian motion, in which he showed that atoms definitely exist. Moreover, he showed that heat comes from molecular motion.

During this time, Einstein conceived the idea of special relativity. He submitted a paper, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, in late June, but it was met with some ridicule due to certain contradictions and paradoxes in his work.

In August, Einstein submitted his thesis about determining the size of molecules. After a few revisions, the work was accepted and Einstein had his doctorate.

Einstein revisited special relativity the following month. He refined and extended his work by linking matter to energy. He demonstrated that the mass of a body is equal to its energy at rest divided by the speed of light squared. This could be more easily expressed as:

E = m c²

This relationship wasn't considered to be much more than a curiosity, and the full benefit of this work wasn't realized for another 30 years. The equation is particularly useful when working out how much energy is released during nuclear fission, where even small masses yield fantastic energies.

One hundred years later, we realize just what an important contribution Einstein made to our lives. He was certainly a remarkable man.


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