I take the article below from 100 Years of General Relativity, the Special Issue of Scientific American for September, 2015. The writer is Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, who researches superstring theory. He is author of many books including:
In Brief Einstein’s first major achievements came in 1905, when he published four groundbreaking papers, including his completion of special relativity.
Ten years later he expanded that theory to include gravity, creating general relativity. The idea toppled Isaac Newton’s physics and redefined our notion of space and time. It launched new strands of research that scientists are still pursuing and made its creator a star.
Over the past century Einstein’s ideas have intermingled with culture and art and shaped our world in infinite, indelible ways.
Albert Einstein once said that there are only two things that might be infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And, he confessed, he wasn’t sure about the universe.
When we hear that, we chuckle. Or at least we smile. We do not take offense. The reason is that the name “Einstein” conjures an image of a warm-hearted, avuncular sage of an earlier era. We see the good-natured, wild-haired scientific genius whose iconic portraits—riding a bike, sticking out his tongue, staring at us with those penetrating eyes—are emblazoned in our collective cultural memory. Einstein has come to symbolize the purity and power of intellectual exploration.
Einstein shot to fame within the scientific community in 1905, a year christened as his annus mirabilis. While working eight hours days, six days a week at the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four papers in his spare time that changed the course of physics. In March of that year he argued that light, long described as a wave, is actually composed of particles, called photons, an observation that launched quantum mechanics. Two months later, in May, Einstein’s calculations provided testable predictions of the atomic hypothesis, later confirmed experimentally, cinching the case that matter is made of atoms. In June he completed the special theory of relativity, revealing that space and time behave in astonishing ways no one had ever anticipated—in short, that distances, speeds and durations are all relative depending on the observer. And to cap it off, in September 1905 Einstein derived a consequence of special relativity, an equation that would become the world’s most famous: E = mc2.
Science usually progresses incrementally. Few and far between are contributions that sound the scientific alert that a radical upheaval is at hand. But here one man in one year rang the bell four times, an astonishing outpouring of creative insight. Almost immediately, the scientific establishment could sense that reverberations of Einstein’s work were shifting the bedrock understanding of reality. For the wider public, however, Einstein had not yet become Einstein.
Continue reading How Einstein Changed the World: The fruits of one mind shaped civilization more than seems possible