[Paleopsych] NYT: Brace Yourself! Here Comes Einstein's Year
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Tue Jan 25 14:53:49 UTC 2005
Brace Yourself! Here Comes Einstein's Year
NYT January 25, 2005
By DENNIS OVERBYE
"What are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried,
canned piece of soul?"
So did Albert Einstein, then a 26-year-old patent clerk in
Bern, Switzerland, begin a letter to his pal Conrad Habicht
in the spring of 1905.
Whatever Habicht, a math teacher in Schaffhausen, had been
up to was not much compared to his irreverent friend, who
had been altering the foundations of physics during the few
free hours left to a young father, husband and government
worker. As he related to Habicht, Einstein had just
finished writing three major physics papers.
One showed how the existence of atoms, still a debatable
proposition, could be verified by measuring the jigglingof
microscopic particles in a glass of water, a process known
as Brownian motion; in another, his doctoral dissertation
for the University of Zurich, he deduced the size of
molecules. In still another, which he described as "very
revolutionary," Einstein argued that light behaved as if it
were composed of particles, rather than the waves that most
That paper, which won him the 1921 Nobel Prize, helped lay
the foundation for quantum theory, a paradoxical
statistical description of nature on the smallest subatomic
scales that he himself later rejected, saying that God did
not play dice with the universe.
But he wasn't done. There was a fourth paper, he told
Habicht, still just a rough draft that employed "a
modification of the theory of space and time."
That, of course, was relativity, the theory that set the
speed of light as the universal speed limit and loosened
space and time from their Newtonian rigidity, allowing them
to breathe, expand, contract and bend, and led to the
expanding universe and the apocalyptic marriage of energy
and mass in the famous equation E=mc2.
Any of those papers would have made a young man's
reputation, or even a career. Taken together they amounted
to an "annus mirabilis" or miracle year for the young
physicist, a remaking of physics at the beginning of the
Einstein has been dead for 50 years this April, but he is
still the scientist most likely to have his picture on the
front page of the newspaper, perhaps famously sticking out
his tongue. It is still Einstein's universe, and in honor
of his "miracle year" in 1905, physicists, universities and
governmental organizations have laid on a gantlet of
celebrations, conferences, books, concerts, contests, Web
sites, lectures, games and a controversial intercontinental
As Dr. Gerald Holton, a professor of physics and the
history of science at Harvard who is the dean of Einstein
scholars, put it, "There's a typhoon headed our way" before
heading off to Berlin to give the keynote address at a
conference last week called "Einstein for the 21st Century"
- the first of many stops on his itinerary this year.
The International Year of Physics, as the United Nations
has officially designated 2005, has already had its zany
moments of physics fun, with more to come. This month, Ben
Wallace, 18, a professional stunt cyclist, flew off a ramp
in the London Science Museum and did a back flip 12 feet in
the air while folding his bicycle sideways - a maneuver
designed by a Cambridge physicist who said she was inspired
by a tale that the 26-year-old Einstein had invented his
theory of relativity while riding a bicycle.
Never mind that there is no evidence that Einstein even had
a bicycle as a young man. Never mind that the "Einstein
flip" itself, as complicated and carefully plotted as it
was, relies strictly on the old-fashioned laws of Isaac
If bicycle stunts aren't your cup of tea, perhaps you would
take in "Constant Speed," a ballet inspired by relativity,
which the Rambert Dance Company will perform in London
starting May 24. Maybe you would like to download the rap
song "Einstein (Not Enough Time)" by DJ Vader, adopted by
Britain's Institute of Physics for an educational computer
game, or the Einstein at Home screen saver, which will allow
your computer to process signals from the cosmos for the
twitches and vibrations of space-time known as
Or maybe you would like to try the Pirelli Group's contest
for the best five-minute multimedia explanation of
relativity. (The prize is 25,000 euros, or about $32,500.)
The point of all this, physicists freely admit, is not to
glorify Einstein, who hardly needs it, but to promote
physics and impress its importance and relevance to young
people who have been drifting off into other pursuits even
as physics becomes more and more essential to grapple with
problems like climate change, nuclear proliferation, a
looming energy crisis and missile defense.
"The great contributions of physics to the development of
science and technology and its impact on our society might
still be evident to us physicists, but no longer to
everybody," Dr. Martial Ducloy, a physicist at the
University of Paris and the chairman of the physics year
steering committee, said in an e-mail message. He noted
that the number of physics students had declined
The party has actually been going for a while.
exhibition organized by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
repository of Einstein's papers and artifacts; the American
Museum of Natural History; and the Skirball Cultural Center
in Los Angeles has been touring the world since 2002. In
August the Aspen Institute summoned academics, thinkers and
writers like the Caltech Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann and the
author E. L. Doctorow to the Rockies for a three-day
exploration of Einstein and his legacy, from physics and
arms control to morality and spirituality and even modern
Festivities kicked into higher gear this month with Mr.
Wallace's safe landing and a conference titled "Physics for
Tomorrow" at the Paris headquarters of Unesco.
It continued in Berlin, where last week Chancellor Gerhard
Schröder pronounced 2005 "Einstein Year" in Germany, a nice
twist of fate, since, although Einstein was born in
Germany, he had been chased out by the Nazis in 1933. The
party will move on to London, Tenerife, Tel Aviv, Munich,
Vienna, Bern and Durban, South Africa, among other places.
Much of the action, however, will happen on a smaller
scale, at universities and schools and museums.
"We're reaching out to the 10-year-olds and 14-year-olds
who don't know what physics is," said Helen Czerski, the
Cambridge physics graduate student (and springboard diver)
who designed the Einstein flip.
On April 18, the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death,
Princeton, N.J., where he lived for his last 22 years, will
unveil a new statue of him by the sculptor Robert Berks. (A
listing of events, country by country, can be found at
The Einstein year is also likely to mean a surge in sales
of T-shirts, mugs, calendars, action figures and the like,
to the benefit of Hebrew University. Einstein left his
papers and his copyright to the university, which he helped
found, and which licenses the use of Einstein's image
through the Roger Richman Agency of Beverly Hills, Calif.,
famous for representing dead celebrities.
Dr. Menachem Magidor, president of the university, said
that Einstein royalties had brought in more than $10
million to the university over the years.
Presumably the amount could have been even greater, but the
university is mindful of Einstein's image and so, for
example, recently turned down a proposal for an Einstein
vodka, Dr. Magidor said.
Einstein's miracle year was only the beginning of his
legend. Einstein topped himself in 1915 when he extended
relativity to gravity in his general theory of relativity,
which predicted the expansion of the universe and black
holes (somewhat to his befuddlement).
When the theory was supported by observations of light
bending during a solar eclipse in 1919, he became an
By then, Einstein, who was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879,
was living in Berlin, but he fled Hitler in 1933 and took a
post at the new Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton
where he wandered the streets, a sockless living legend and
reminder of cosmic mystery.
A lifelong pacifist, he lent his prestige to the
development of an atomic bomb only to see it dropped on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to his lasting dismay. He spent
much of his later years campaigning for nuclear disarmament
and civil liberties. By the time he died in 1955, he had
gone from being the human face of mystery and science to
being the human face of humanity.
This year's festivities are the biggest planned since the
centennial of his birth, and since then much has been
learned about Einstein, the man and the physicist, partly
as a result of a vast effort by Hebrew University and
Princeton University Press to collect and publish
Einstein's 50,000 pieces of correspondence and other
The first of a projected 30 volumes, which was published in
1987, contained newly discovered love letters that the
young Einstein had written during his college years to his
classmate, sweetheart and future wife, Mileva Maric,
disclosing, among other things, the existence of an
illegitimate daughter, Lieserl, now lost to history.
The letters showed scholars a side of Einstein they hadn't
seen before, as a passionate and energetic young man, a
flirt and a poet.
"We hadn't thought of Einstein as a gorgeous sort of fellow
in that sense," Dr. Holton said.
The result has been a wave of new biographies in recent
years (including one by this writer).
Dr. Ducloy said he had proposed making 2005 the World Year
of Physics back in 2000, when he was elected president of
the European Physical Society. The proposal was formally
approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations last
As with the Einstein flip, however, success has its price.
Take, for example, the Einstein light relay. The idea, as
developed by Dr. Max Lippitsch and Dr. Sonja Draxler of
Karl-Franzens University Graz in Austria, is an illuminated
version of the wave made familiar by sports fans.
On the night of April 18, the 50th anniversary of
Einstein's death, lights are to go on in Princeton and then
in a sequence, like the bulbs on a Christmas tree, all the
way across the United States.
The lights will then the leap the Pacific to Japan and
China and follow a pair of tracks, north and south, across
Asia, reconnecting in Austria, crossing Europe and then
jumping across the ocean to arrive in back in Princeton 24
hours after it left: a sort of cosmic cheer for the memory
The proposal was opposed, however, by astronomical groups
like the International Dark Sky Association, dedicated to
fighting light pollution that can ruin deep space
observations. While harmless in itself, the light relay
would set a bad precedent, they say.
"We think it is a bad thing for people to splash light
around without considering the consequences," said Dr.
Robert Kirshner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics and president of the American
In response the light relay has been modified. The new
rules specify that participants turn off the lights 10
minutes before the light arrives so that a "flash of
darkness" accompanies the flash of light, and to make sure
they point their lights along the path of the relay and not
into the sky.
Dr. Lippitsch said he thought emotions had calmed.
the U.S.A., the number of registered participants is rather
low so far," he admitted in an e-mail message, "but we are
confident that a project designed to overcome the vastness
of Siberia or the deserts of Iran will not break down in
the country with the best infrastructure and the highest
number of physicists."
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