[Paleopsych] NYT: The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome
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Fri Apr 15 14:02:38 UTC 2005
The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome
[An Agenda for Another Einstein appended.]
By DENNIS OVERBYE
He didn't look like much at first. He was too fat and his head was so
big his mother feared it was misshapen or damaged. He didn't speak
until he was well past 2, and even then with a strange echolalia that
reinforced his parents' fears. He threw a small bowling ball at his
little sister and chased his first violin teacher from the house by
throwing a chair at her.
There was in short, no sign, other than the patience to build card
houses 14 stories high, that little Albert Einstein would grow up to
be "the new Copernicus," proclaiming a new theory of nature, in which
matter and energy swapped faces, light beams bent, the stars danced
and space and time were as flexible and elastic as bubblegum. No clue
to suggest that he would help send humanity lurching down the road to
the atomic age, with all its promise and dread, with the stroke of his
pen on a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, certainly
no reason to suspect that his image would be on T- shirts, coffee
mugs, posters and dolls.
Einstein's modest beginnings are a perennial source of comfort to
parents who would like to hope, against the odds, that their little
cutie can grow up to be a world beater. But they haunt people like me
who hanker for a ringside seat for the Next Great Thing and wonder
whether somewhere in the big haystack of the world there could be a
new Einstein, biding his or her time running gels in a biology lab,
writing video game software or wiring a giant detector in the bowels
of a particle accelerator while putting the finishing touches on a
revolution in our perception of reality.
"Einstein changed the way physicists thought about the universe in a
way the public could appreciate," said Dr. Michael Turner, a
cosmologist from the University of Chicago and the director of math
and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation.
Could it happen again? "Who or where is the next Einstein?"
No question is more likely to infuriate or simply leave a scientist
nonplussed. And nothing, of course, would be more distracting,
daunting and ultimately demoralizing than for some young researcher to
be tagged "the new Einstein," so don't expect to hear any names here.
"It's probably always a stupid question," said Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a
cosmologist at Case Western Reserve University, who nevertheless said
he had yet to read a profile of a young scientist that does not
include, at some level, some comparison to Einstein.
Dr. Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist and best-selling author,
who is often so mentioned, has said that such comparisons have less to
do with his own achievements than the media's need for heroes.
A Rare Confluence
To ask the question whether there can be a new Einstein is to ask, as
well, about the role of the individual in modern science. Part of the
confusion is a disconnect between what constitutes public and
Einstein's iconic status resulted from a unique concurrence of
scientific genius, historical circumstance and personal charisma,
historians and scientists say, that is unlikely to be duplicated.
Dr. David Gross, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics last year,
said, "Of course there is no next Einstein; one of the great things
about meeting the best and the brightest in physics is the realization
that each is different and special."
Physics, many scientists like Dr. Gross say, is simply too vast and
sprawling for one person to dominate the way Einstein did a century
ago. Technology is the unsung hero in scientific progress, they say,
the computers and chips that have made it possible to absorb and count
every photon from a distant quasar, or the miles of wire and tons of
sensors wrapping the collision points of speed-of-light subatomic
particles. A high-energy physics paper reporting the results from some
accelerator experiment can have 500 authors.
"Einstein solved problems that people weren't even asking or
appreciating were problems," said Dr. Edward Witten of the Institute
for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Einstein's stomping grounds for
the last 32 years of his life. "It could be there are big questions
nobody is asking, but there are so many more people in physics it's
less likely big questions could go unasked."
But you never know.
"One thing about Einstein is he was a surprise," said Dr. Witten,
"Who am I to say that somebody couldn't come along with a whole
completely new way of thinking?"
In fact, physicists admit, waxing romantic in spite of themselves,
science is full of vexing and fundamental questions, like the nature
of the dark energy that is pushing the universe apart, or the meaning
of string theory, the elegant but dense attempt to unify all the
forces of nature by thinking of elementary particles as wiggling
"We can frame an Einsteinian question. As you know, asking the
question is the key," said Dr. Leon Lederman, a Nobelist and former
director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He likes to
think, he added, that it will be solved by "a Brazilian kid in a dirt
Dr. Turner said he hoped and expected that there would continue to be
Einsteins. One way to measure their impact, he suggested, was by how
long it took society to digest their discoveries and move on.
By this metric, he said, Isaac Newton beats out Einstein as the
greatest of all time (or at least since science was invented).
Newton's world lasted more than 200 years before Einstein overthrew
"Einstein has lasted 100 years," he said. "The smart money says that
something is going to happen; general relativity won't last another
Looking the Part
Would that make someone a candidate for a T-shirt, or an Einstein? It
depends on what you mean by "Einstein."
Do we mean the dark-haired young firebrand at the patent office, who
yanked the rug out from under Newton and 19th-century physics in 1905
when he invented relativity, supplied a convincing proof for the
existence of atoms and shocked just about everyone by arguing that
light could be composed of particles as well as waves?
Is it the seer who gazed serenely out at the world in 1919 from
beneath headlines announcing that astronomers had measured the bending
of light rays from stars during an eclipse, confirming Einstein's
general theory of relativity, which described gravity as the warping
of space-time geometry?
Einstein had spent 10 years racking his brain and borrowing the
mathematical talents of his friends trying to extend relativity to the
realm of gravity. When this "great adventure in thought," as the
philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called it, safely reached shore,
Einstein caught a wave that lifted him high above physics and science
The world was exhausted morally, mentally and economically from the
Great War, which had shattered the pretensions of Enlightenment
Europe. People were ready for something new and Einstein gave them a
whole new universe.
Moreover, the mark of this new universe - "lights all askew in the
heavens," as this newspaper put it - was something everybody could
understand. The stars, the most ancient of embodiments of cosmic
order, had moved.
With Whitehead as his publicist, Einstein was on the road to becoming
the Elvis of science, the frizzy-headed sage of Princeton, the world's
most famous Jew and humanity's atomic conscience.
It helped that he wore his fame lightly, with humor and a cute accent.
"He was a caricature of the scientist," said Dr. Krauss. "He looked
right. He sounded right."
When physicists are asked, what they often find distinctive about
Einstein are his high standards, an almost biological need to find
order and logical consistency in science and in nature, the ability to
ferret out and question the hidden assumptions underlying the
mainstream consensus about reality.
Dr. Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in
Ontario describes it as moral quality. "He simply cared far more than
most of his colleagues that the laws of physics should explain
everything in nature coherently and consistently," he wrote last year
It was that drive that led him to general relativity, regarded as his
greatest achievement. The other discoveries, in 1905, physicists and
historians say, would have been made whether Einstein did them or not.
"They were in the air," said Dr. Martin Rees, a cosmologist at
Cambridge University and Britain's astronomer royal.
The quest for general relativity, on the other hand, was the result of
"pure thought," Dr. Rees said.
Dr. Peter L. Galison, professor of the history of science and of
physics at Harvard, described Einstein as "somebody who had a
transformative effect on the world because of his relentless pursuit
of what the right principles should be."
Others said they were impressed that he never swerved, despite a
tempestuous personal and political life, from science as his main
devotion. "He fixed his concentration on important problems, he was
unvarying in that," Dr. Krauss said.
Another attraction of Einstein as an icon is his perceived
irreverence, and the legend of his origin as an outsider, working in
the patent office while he pursued the breakthroughs of 1905. (Not
that he was necessarily humble because of that; letters from his early
years show him pestering well-known scientists and spoiling for a
fight so much that his girlfriend and future wife, Mileva Maric, was
always counseling him to keep a cool head.)
"Part of the appeal is that he comes from nowhere and turns things
upside down," Dr. Galison said. "That's the fantasy," he explained,
saying that science has always represented the possibility that
someone without a privileged background could intervene and triumph
through sheer ability and brainpower.
There is no lack of inventive, brilliant physicists today, but none of
them are T-shirt material, yet. In the cozy turn of the century, Dr.
Galison said, Einstein was able to be a philosopher as well as a
physicist, addressing deep questions like the meaning of simultaneity
and often starting his papers by posing some philosophical quandary.
But philosophy and physics have long since gone their separate ways.
Physics has become separated from the humanities. "Everything tells us
science has nothing to do with the ideas of ordinary life," Dr.
Galison said. "Whether that is good or bad, I don't know."
As a result no one has inherited Einstein's mantle as a natural
philosopher, said Dr. Galison.
We might have to settle for a kind of Einstein by committee. The
string theorists have donned the mantle of Einstein's quest for a
unified theory of all the forces of nature.
In the last half-century various manifestations of modern science have
made their way into popular culture, including chaos theory and the
representation of information in bits and bytes, as pioneered by Dr.
Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs engineer.
The discovery of the double helix of DNA, the hereditary molecule,
which laid the basis for the modern genetics, is probably the most
charismatic result of modern biology. But the world is not awash in
action figures based on James Watson and Francis Crick, the molecule's
Meanwhile Einstein's role of symbolizing the hope that you could
understand the universe has at least been partly filled by Dr.
Hawking, whose books "A Brief History of Time" and "The Universe in a
Nutshell" have sold millions, and who has even appeared on "Star Trek"
and "The Simpsons."
"People know him," said Dr. Krauss, and his work on black holes has
had a significant impact on the study of gravity and the cosmos, but
he has not reinvented the universe.
The Next Big Idea
One reason nobody stands out is that physics has been kind of stuck
for the last half-century.
During that time, Dr. Witten said, physicists have made significant
progress toward a unified theory of nature, not by blazing new paths,
but by following established principles, like the concept of symmetry
- first used by Einstein in his relativity paper in 1905 - and
extending them from electromagnetism to the weak and strong nuclear
"It was not necessary to invent quantum field theory," said Dr.
Witten, "just to improve it." That, he explains, is collective work.
But new ideas are surely needed.
Part of Einstein's legacy was an abyssal gap in the foundations of
reality as conceived by science. On one side of the divide was general
relativity, which describes stars and the universe itself. On the
other side is quantum mechanics, which describes the paradoxical
behavior of subatomic particles and forces.
In the former, nature is continuous and deterministic, cause follows
effect; in the latter nature is discrete, like sand grains on the
beach, and subject to statistical uncertainties.
Einstein to his dying day rejected quantum mechanics as ultimate
truth, saying in a letter to Max Born in 1924, "The theory yields much
but it hardly brings us closer to the Old One's secrets. I, in any
case, am convinced that he does not play dice."
Science will not have a real theory of the world until these two
warring notions are merged into a theory of quantum gravity, one that
can explain what happens when the matter in a star goes smoosh into a
dense microscopic dot at the center of a black hole, or when the
universe appears out of nothing in a big bang.
String theory is one, as yet unproven, attempt at such a quantum
gravity theory, and it has attracted an army of theorists and
But, Dr. Witten speculated, there could be an Einsteinian moment in
another direction. Quantum gravity presumes, he explained, that
general relativity breaks down at short distances. But what, he asked,
if relativity also needed correction at long distances as a way of
explaining, for example, the acceleration of the universe?
"Relativity field theory could be cracked at long distances," Dr.
Witten said, adding that he saw no evidence for it. But when Einstein
came along, there was no clear evidence that Newtonian physics was
wrong, either. "I would think that's an opportunity for an Einstein,"
Another Einsteinian opportunity, Dr. Witten later added in an e-mail
message, is the possibility that Einstein's old bugaboo quantum
mechanics needs correcting, saying that while he saw no need himself,
it was a mystery what quantum mechanics meant when applied to the
universe as a whole.
Dr. Smolin of the Perimeter Institute said it should give physicists
pause that their leader and idol had rejected quantum mechanics, and
yet what everybody is trying to do now is to apply quantum mechanics
to Einstein's theory of gravity.
"What if he were right?" asked Dr. Smolin, who said he also worried
that the present organization of science, with its pressures for
tenure and publications, mitigates against the appearance of outsiders
like Einstein, who need to follow their own star for a few lonely
years or decades.
But as Dr. Krauss said, it only takes one good idea to change our
picture of reality.
Dr. Smolin said, "When somebody has a correct idea, it doesn't take
long to have an impact."
"It's not about identifying the person who is about to be the new
Einstein," he went on. "When there is someone who does something with
the impact of Einstein, we'll all know."
The New York Times > Science > An Agenda for Another Einstein
Albert Einstein achieved scientific fame by asking questions and
solving problems that nobody else had realized were problems. The next
big revolution will probably also come from an unexpected direction,
but here are some of the Big Questions that are haunting physicists
Did God have a choice? Are all the features of the universe, like the
number of dimensions and the masses of elementary particles,
predictable and inevitable according to some unknown law, or are some
of them environmental accidents, meaning we simply live where
conditions are favorable to life the way fish live in the sea?
What is the dark energy that seems to be accelerating the expansion of
the universe and pushing the galaxies apart faster and faster?
Why do we live at a time when this energy is just beginning to
dominate over the gravity of matter in determining the course of
cosmic evolution? Will this push continue forever, sucking all the
energy and life out of the universe? And what is the dark matter, the
mysterious gravitational glue that holds galaxies and clusters of
Are four dimensions enough? Or are there additional hidden dimensions
to the universe, so small we don't notice them?
What happened before the Big Bang? How do space and time emerge from
Is quantum mechanics the ultimate description of reality? Or will the
paradoxical laws that bedeviled Einstein have to be modified?
Is relativity forever? In 1905 Einstein postulated that the laws of
physics are the same regardless of how fast you are going or in what
direction, but some measurements of cosmic rays suggest this stricture
might be violated in some high-energy situations.
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