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The Miracle Year

Albert Einstein is one of history’s most formidable geniuses. What is the most astonishing is that many of his seminal, scientific-revolution inspiring work was published in ONE YEAR (1905 — a year that many now call Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis, or “Miracle Year”).

And did he do this while working at a premier research institute? Working with the best and brightest minds? No. He did this while working as an inept examiner at the Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland working more or less alone. In that one year, he published on:

  1. Photoelectric Effect – The only work of his own that Einstein has ever pronounced “revolutionary”, it used Max Planck’s theoretical work which had, at the time as a purely theoretical manipulation, postulated that energy can only exist at discrete points (ie. 1 and 2 and 3, but not 1.1 or 1.3) to explain an experimental phenomena (blackbody radiation) which scientists could not otherwise explain. Einstein took this work and used it to explain another problem which scientists had been baffled by and postulated the wave-particle duality of light. Interestingly, Max Planck himself wasn’t a fan of his own quantized energy assumption — which became the underpinnings of Quantum Theory — but at a meeting between the two, Einstein was finally able to convince him of its merits. This was a truly seminal work and netted Einstein his only Nobel Prize.
  2. Brownian Motion and Atomic Theory – Although the existence of atoms had been postulated by the Greeks and more formally by the grand chemists of the 18th and 19th centuries, many scientists still considered the idea of the atom to be just a useful theoretical manipulation. Despite Planck’s (reluctant) use of it in his analysis of Blackbody radiation, it was Einstein who was able to finally prove the value of statistical mechanics — the idea of applying quantum theory on huge numbers of atoms to make conclusions about physical phenomena — by showing how Brownian motion, the phenomena where small objects can be seen to “dance” around under a microscope (because they are colliding with too-small-to-see atoms and molecules) could be understood through statistical mechanics. Einstein was thus able to arrive at an actual numerical figure for the Boltzmann Constant (and, as a result, Avogadro’s Number) and provide a real empirical basis for molecular/atomic theory.
  3. Special Relativity – With a single hypothesis that light had to move at a constant speed no matter your perspective, Einstein was able to provide a framework which unified classical mechanics with Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetic phenomena. Amazingly radical at the time, it was met with quite a great deal of skepticism (after all it postulated some very counter-intuitive consequences) but has been supported by so many experimental observations that it’s now generally accepted as valid today.
  4. E=mc2 – Yet another seminal paper producing what is possibly the most famous equation in all of physics, Einstein proposed the radical idea that energy and mass are interconvertible, thus explaining the basis for nuclear energy and weaponry.

History is full of many brilliant people — but to publish four revolutionary papers in ONE YEAR is incredibly awe-inspiring and indicative of just how brilliant Einstein was!

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