Thoughts on Einstein

Sublte is the Lord After many years of putting it off, I’ve finally started a biograpy of Einstein that has been on my shelf: Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein.  I will confess, this book is well beyond my mental capabilities at this point in my life.  Maybe 11 years ago I could have followed the equations; these days they all sound vaguely familiar but I find myself skimming through the tough parts.

I’m only about a third through the book, but I wanted to put down some things I’ve learned along the way.  I’ll keep adding to this list as I make my way through the book.

  • With his work in statistical physics, Einstein helped (with others) confirm the existence of atoms and molecules.  At the time there were doubts in the fields of physics and chemistry about the physical existence of atoms and their role in chemical reactions or phenomena like Brownian Motion.  Einstein’s work provided direct evidence of their existence and helped tie together the fields of physics and chemistry by showing that the same particles (atoms) were at play in both fields.  The equations he developed also provided several new methods for accurately calculating Avogadro’s Number.
  • Much of his early work was done without access to scientific publications.  A common theme is that Einstein would independently discover equations that were published years earlier.  In my opinion this is further confirmation of his genius.
  • In his younger days he would meet with friends to discuss Hume and Poincare.  This is what he would do for fun.  What hope do the rest of us have, with our US Weekly and Grey’s Anatomy?  Again, the guy was a genius.
  • I’m always amazed at how popular the man is and yet how completely inaccessible his work is to 99.9% of people.  Ask almost anyone about the impact of Einstein and they can probably offer up E=mc^2 (with no idea what that means), something about the space-time continuum, bending of space by gravity (the bowling ball-on-a-mattress analogy) and maybe describe length or time contractions as you approach the speed of light (twins paradox).  I’m certainly no better – I consider myself firmly in this camp.   All of the analogies and thought experiments that are used to explain Einstein’s work only seem to scratch the surface of what are truly revolutionary ideas about physics.   I doubt he spent much time thinking about novel ways of explaining these very diffcult concepts.

That’s all for now, more to come as I wade through this book.