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The Miracle Year

Everyone knows Einstein is one of history’s most formidable geniuses. But, and this is something I just discovered, almost all of his seminal, scientific-revolution inspiring work was published in ONE YEAR (1905, today considered to be the Annus Mirabilis or the “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 fact, most of his papers were considered oddities or impossibilities until several years later…

What did Einstein do?

  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 to make a derivation easier, 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 which scientists could not understand. Einstein took this work and used it to explain another problem which scientists were baffled by and postulated the wave-particle duality of light. Max Planck himself wasn’t a fan of his quantized energy assumption or even of Einstein’s work, although apparently at a meeting between the two Einstein was finally able to convince him (one can only imagine what that conservation was like). Regardless, this was a seminal piece of work in the burgeoning field of Quantum Physics 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 big chemists of the 18th and 19th centuries, many scientists still considered the idea of the atom to be just a useful theoretical manipulation and the logical consequence of atomic theory, statistical mechanics, to not have any “deep” meaning. 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 and, fundamentally, the existence of the atom by showing how Brownian motion, the phenomena where small objects can be seen to “dance” around under a microscope, which was not understood by scientists could be understood through statistical mechanics. Einstein was thus able to arrive at an actual numerical figure for the Boltzmann Constant (and hence Avogadro’s Number) and hence provide a real empirical basis for molecular/atomic theory.
  3. Special Relativity – With a single, very interesting hypothesis that light had a constant speed in all frames of reference, Einstein was able to provide a framework which tried to unify classical mechanics with Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetic phenomena. Amazingly radical at the time, it was met with quite a great deal of skepticism (and who wouldn’t be skeptical, after all it poses some bizarre and counter-intuitive ideas) but has been supported by so many experimental observations that it’s now accepted simply as validated today (with the extension by Einstein later to General Relativity which considers gravity).
  4. E=mc^2 – 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 and even a tiny amount of mass can be converted into an enormous amount of an energy which stands as the basis for the destructive power of nuclear weapons.

History is indeed full of many brilliant people (Gibbs, Gauss, Boltzmann, and Feynman immediately come to mind as just a few of the other crazily brilliant people) — but to publish four revolutionary papers in ONE YEAR — makes me kinda give up on the whole big-name scientist thing…

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