The Coin of Discovery
The year 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s field equations on the General Theory of Relativity. There are celebrations across the globe to mark this centennial event. Science is cooler these days than it has been for a while. Like Einstein, many bright and curious people don’t have complicated laboratories to work in. And, I believe there are many people who are like Einstein in another crucial way. Their questions don’t get answered by existing knowledge.
Frustration is part of life. Einstein had the personality and family that allowed him freedom to continue asking questions without being a threat. He came from a family of entrepreneurs who valued education. Einstein’s uncle Jakob, an engineer, played mathematical games with the young Einstein children. Hermann Einstein and uncle Jakob had a business installing electric light powered by gas motors to drive electric dynamos. These systems provided electric lights for the first time to communities in Germany in the 1850s. The Einstein brothers, who had over 200 employees, were providing a good living for their families until they lost a competition to a rival company Siemens. Siemans still exists today. While the financial set back meant his family had to move to Italy, Albert stayed in Munich to finish his schooling. Thereby he was able to enjoy a relationship with his uncle who continued in the electrical industry. Walter Isaacson reports in his book on Einstein, that in 1895, young Albert helped solve a problem on a new machine Jakob was building. Practical use of his mathematics did come in handy once Einstein finally landed a job in the Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland.
Young Einstein attended good schools and was allowed to focus on his interests in math and science. By the time he was fifteen he said he’d mastered differential and integral calculus. I have known students who have done the same thing who graduated from high schools here in Las Cruces. What do these students and Einstein have in common? My experience with the students, not Einstein, has led me to believe, nurturing student discomfort is necessary. It’s ok to get frustrated. It’s part of being curious, and certainly part of learning. Persistence and frustration are two sides of the coin of discovery.
Einstein had many setbacks in his early life, and it was during this time he began to understand how scientific reasoning and discovery brought him excitement, joy and fulfillment. He also began to understand he was not interested in a life in neither industry nor engineering. He trusted his mind to guide his vocation. He thought he would be a teacher, and even applied for a job teaching science in a high school. He was turned down.
The mind is our most powerful tool. Einstein accomplished most of his discoveries using thought experiments, which he asked scientists and engineers to experimentally prove. He had heroes including Isaac Newton. Einstein felt it was his mission to carry on Newton’s work in classical Physics. By the time he was 35 years old, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity would change Newton’s Classical Laws of Physics. For the rest of his life, Einstein would experience varying degrees of discomfort about his discoveries and what they meant to the laws of Physics.
Newton’s Particle Theory of Light stood the test of time until 1850 when an experiment measured the speed of light in water and Newton’s theory fell apart. What replaced it was wave theory. Einstein essentially determined light is made up of packets of energy. He called them quanta, they are now known as photons. A group of students and faculty here at NMSU just submitted a proposal to NASA through the Space Grant program, to develop a telescope to measure more precisely the principle source of radiation of the Van Allen belt’s photons. Matter behaves very differently at the atomic level and this behavior is not well understood to this day.
Matter behaves differently at the atomic level. This behavior is still not well understood. Einstein disavowed Quantum theory, which emerged as part of General Relativity. The struggle was embedded in the concept that quantum events seem to be random. Einstein trusted his theoretical predictions, yet did not believe in randomness in the universe. He went to his grave disavowing Quantum mechanics, to the dismay of many of his colleagues. But that is the legacy of many of the mysteries of the cosmos.
We still don’t know what comprises 90% of the mass of the universe. Someone likely will theorize how this mass can be characterized and eventually scientists and engineers will detect dark matter using sensors that will be built to measure what the theory predicts. What will these discoveries mean for mankind?
The space industry may not have a World Series or Super Bowl. Yet, because of scientists and engineers you can watch the World Series and so can people in China and Japan. We also know how to calculate the time differences exactly to enable satellites to carry the signal to these countries. Their televisions’ millions of transistors carry light impulses to homes across the globe so families can watch the games in real time. It might be fun, for just a minute to look at the website for the Einstein Conference http://www.einsteinconference2015.org/ and see what they will be celebrating. There are many billionaires benefiting from this one scientist’s coin of discovery and thought experiments. And happily, there are many more growing up now. We’ve got some right here in our town.