A Cataclysm of Thought

In 1905 Albert Einstein, a twenty-six-year-old clerk, published five epochal papers. One was later awarded a Nobel Prize. Reading them today, our reviewer is thrilled by their genius

Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics

I'VE often been struck by the fact that philosophy students read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, political-science majors read the U.S. Constitution, and literature classes read Shakespeare, but students of science rarely read the works of Mendeleev or Lavoisier or Einstein. The widely used college textbook from which I learned mechanics, the area of physics whose foundations were laid largely by Isaac Newton, contains a beautiful exposition of classical mechanics but only a handful of mentions of Newton, no excerpts from his Principia, and no pages at all on the history of the subject. From this one observation an intelligent creature from outer space could determine that there exists a profound difference between the disciplines we call natural science and those we call humanities or art or social science. Modern textbooks on science give no sense that scientific ideas come out of the minds of human beings. Instead science is portrayed as a set of current laws and results, inscribed like the Ten Commandments by some immediate but disembodied authority.
This absence of history is not entirely a bad thing. Science prides itself, with much justification, on its claim that the final equation or experimental result is far more important than the path taken to achieve that result or the views of the scientist in arriving there. The "objective" nature of scientific results, free from the fingerprints of their discoverers, helps great scientific ideas to attain their universality and staying power. Every day electrical engineers can successfully apply Ohm's law without knowing who Ohm was or that he struggled with messy piles of metallic disks and moist cardboard to reach his discovery. Moreover, new mathematical methods are brought to bear, and ideas and results are revised or recast as the subject advances. It would be a decided burden on students to relive much of the outmoded history. Over time science has proved itself to be a vertical subject, and most science students and their teachers want the latest, right off the top. The record of trial and error and the dusty original papers can always be attended to by historians.

So, twenty-five years after my days and nights as a physics major, I have on my desk a small book containing five papers published by Albert Einstein in 1905 -- on the sizes of atoms, relativity, and quantum theory. And I find myself thrilled by these papers. Why? Because through the original choice of words and arguments, through the simple but profound ideas and thought processes, even through the errors (yes, Einstein sometimes published errors), I have been able to gaze into the mind of this great scientist in a way that no distillation or restatement or commentary would allow. In these papers one can see an enormously gifted human being grappling with the nature of the world. The physics and mathematics are too technical for all but professional physicists, and the level of genius is practically incomprehensible. But in the discussion of ideas and in the deep questioning and hesitations one recognizes a fellow thinker at work.

draws its material from the second volume of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, a mammoth collaboration of the Einstein Papers Project at Boston University, Princeton University Press, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The plan is to publish all of Einstein's scientific papers and political writings and much of his available correspondence -- more than twenty-five volumes' worth -- both in original form and in English translation. The papers here first appeared in the prestigious German physics journal Annalen der Physik, all within a single year.

In 1905 Einstein was a poor twenty-six-year-old clerk in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. He and his wife, Mileva Maric, had in 1903 given away a daughter named Lierserl, who was born before their marriage; they now lived with their infant son, Hans Albert, in a two-room rented apartment on 49 Kramgasse that could be reached only by a steep staircase. At this time the brilliant young physicist felt estranged from the world. He had renounced his German citizenship at the age of sixteen, out of contempt for the authoritarian German military and his impending draft. In addition he suffered under his parents' disdain for his wife, who was Serbian and was four years older than Albert. (His mother once said to him, "She is a book like you -- but you ought to have a wife.... When you'll be 30, she'll be an old witch.") And since graduating from the Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, in 1900, he had repeatedly been refused jobs in Europe's academic establishment, many of whose eminences he considered self-satisfied men far below him in scientific ability. The young Einstein was an embattled loner. Yet although he was unemployed much of the time in the years immediately following his graduation, he managed to publish several scientific papers. Then, in 1905, still working in obscurity, he produced five articles that changed physics for all time. Any of these papers would have brought him lasting recognition. One earned him the Nobel Prize. Two provided definitive new evidence for the existence and sizes of atoms and molecules; two proposed a radical new conception of time and space (the special theory of relativity) and tossed out as a by-product the famous formula E=mc2; and the fifth gave the first theoretical evidence that light flows in discrete packets of energy, like water droplets, rather than in a continuous stream. Surprising to me, it was only this last paper that Einstein himself referred to as "revolutionary."

AT the end of the nineteenth century, physics basked in the glow of extraordinary achievement. Newton's laws of mechanics, which described how particles respond to forces, together with his law of gravity had been successfully applied to a huge range of terrestrial and cosmic phenomena, from the bouncing of balls to the orbits of planets. The theory of heat, called thermodynamics, had reached its climax with the melancholy but deep second law of thermodynamics: any isolated system moves inexorably and irreversibly to a state of greater disorder. Or, alternatively, every machine inevitably runs down. All electrical and magnetic phenomena had been unified by a single set of equations, called Maxwell's equations after James Clerk Maxwell, the nineteenth-century Scottish physicist who completed them. Among other things, the equations demonstrated that light, that fundamental natural phenomenon, is a wave of electromagnetic energy, traveling through space at 186,000 miles per second. The new areas of physics known as statistical physics and kinetic theory had shown that the behavior of gases and fluids can be understood on the basis of collisions between large numbers of tiny objects, assumed to be the long-hypothesized but invisible atoms and molecules.

This detailed knowledge enjoyed by late-nineteenth-century physicists was accompanied by a world view, much of which was so obvious as to be left to the unconscious. First and most important, the physical cosmos was subject to rational laws, and those laws could be discovered by humankind. (Volumes could be written on this.) Next, all substance was composed of energy and matter. Energy, like light, came in a continuous form; it could be subdivided indefinitely into smaller and smaller amounts. Matter, however, such as rocks, came in particulate form and consisted of a limited number of indivisible objects -- atoms. A piece of matter could be subdivided only until individual atoms were reached and no further.

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