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Published: 1/10/2005

Einstein's best year


When Albert Einstein was just 26, he was a patent clerk in Switzerland, where he had plenty of time to think about ... well, time.

In the span of one year he published his theory of special relativity, as well as papers explaining the nature of light and proving the existence of atoms and molecules.

Who knows if anyone else will ever match the concentrated genius Einstein displayed in 1905, which is one reason scientists across the globe are celebrating the 100th anniversary of what is known as Einstein's "miracle year." In his honor, they've dubbed 2005 - which also is the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death - World Year in Physics.

"He basically revolutionized all of physics in one year," said James Riordon, head of media relations for the American Physical Society in Maryland.

Think about it: At a time when people weren't sure if molecules actually existed or were simply a useful construct, Einstein proved they were there. When most people thought light was a continuous wave, Einstein contended it was made up of individual packets or particles, later called photons - an idea that won him a Nobel Prize.

And, of course, there's the whole E=mc2 thing and the idea that time is relative - you know, the reason why an astronaut who made a rocket trip at near the speed of light would age only a few years in the time that his twin on Earth passed maybe 40 or 50 years.

Einstein did all of this in one year - seven months, really. (Maybe it's time to think again about your goals for 2005.)

It may have been the most creative year in history, according to Edmund Blair Bolles, a 1960 St. Francis de Sales High School graduate who wrote last year's book Einstein Defiant: Genius Versus Genius in the Quantum Revolution (Joseph Henry Press).

The only other period that comes close, he said, is the 18 months in the 17th century during which Isaac Newton invented calculus, constructed a theory of optics, explained how gravity works, and discovered his laws of motion.

"Almost everything in physics today is in one way or another descendant of an idea that Einstein had," Mr. Bolles said.

So whether it's transistors or lasers or nuclear energy, thank Einstein.

Fortunately for curious minds everywhere, he didn't quite figure out everything in that creative burst 100 years ago. There's plenty more left to discover, and part of the World Year of Physics is to encourage more people to get in on the action.

That could mean attending a lecture, participating in a contest, or even donating time on your home PC to help search space for gravitational waves from things like colliding black holes that have eluded scientists for nearly a century.

"It's potentially possible that somebody's machine in 2005 will detect the wave that will be this Nobel Prize-winning work," Mr. Riordon said.

Links to this project and others can be found at www.physics2005.org.

At the University of Toledo, faculty will offer a special course on Einstein as well as public lectures, including one April 21 by John Rigden, whose book Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness (Harvard University Press) comes out this month.

Larry Curtis, UT distinguished university professor of physics and astronomy, said a series of summer workshops targeting local students, parents, and teachers will focus on aspects of Einstein's miracle year as well.

Bowling Green State University has not finalized its plans but expects to offer public presentations and demonstrations related to physics. It also might partner with the Wood County Public Library to hold a special event for younger children with hands-on activities, according to Stephen Van Hook, assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

Organizers would be ecstatic if they could generate some more societal excitement about physics again, the kind of curiosity that seized the public years ago concerning Einstein's work.

"The whole point of this is to rekindle some of that," said Ted Richardson, a science teacher at the Toledo Technology Academy. "That's why we have all the wonderful things that we have today. If we're going to improve and get better [technology], we need to cultivate interest in physics."

With this in mind, students at the academy are slated to take part in a number of activities in conjunction with the World Year of Physics, including the national physics talent search in which they earn points for completing certain physics-related activities.

Some of them, like senior Isaac Weintraub, don't need a special occasion to think about physics or wonder about traditional notions of time.

The 17-year-old from West Toledo who has applied to college at MIT said he loves debating theories with friends. He said, "The big one I'm always arguing over with some of my peers and even my teacher is 'negative time,' " which to hear him explain it sounds something like hitting the rewind button on your VCR.

Even though there aren't as many students studying physics nationally as there once were, Joe Dixon, another senior at the academy, said he thinks attitudes about physics are changing for the better.

"Generally I think it's becoming less and less nerdy," he said. "Computers are becoming more common, technology is becoming more of a necessity. I think kids are starting to accept physics as known fact and applicable to what we do."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.

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