Einstein’s Miracle Year
In 1905, at only 26 years old and working as a civil servant in a patent office in Bern, Albert Einstein would publish 5 groundbreaking papers in the scientific journal, Annalen der Physik, reinventing the ways in which we view our universe and the phenomena occurring around us, including interactions concerning space, time, mass, and energy.
This year, now commonly referred to as his Annus Mirabilis, or miracle year would see a substantial advance in and transformation of the foundations of modern physics. Although his collaborations remained few (almost only exchanged with his colleague and best friend Michele Besso) and his access to thorough and established scientific research and material limited, Einstein was able to cover almost the full scope of unresolved scientific questions of the time in the field of physics and his theories, if not self-standing, worked as solid foundations for further extensions developed by future physicists.
This first paper, entitled “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light” and published during the month of March, would eventually owe Einstein the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921 for what became established as the law of the photoelectric effect. In his paper, Einstein introduced the idea that not only could light behave as a wave (proved by Charles Huygens in the course of the 17th century) but also as matter. Einstein explored the notion that light was made up of quanta as he referred to them or today better known as photons.
This idea came to contradict the accepted Maxwell equations which described light purely in matters of electromagnetic behavior but according to Einstein, in order to solve the problem of black body radiation, it was key that light is described in terms of discrete and quantifiable packets or amounts. However, this theory came with great controversy which some physicists and schools of thought were still disputing after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for it.
Eventually, two years later, physicist Arthur H. Compton conducted an experiment that confirmed the validity of Einstein’s theory and this concept of the wave-particle duality of light gradually became acclaimed as one of the fundamental principles of quantum physics.
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Only a month later was Einstein’s second revolutionary paper published and provided a new insight “On the movement of small particles suspended in a stationary liquid, as required by the molecular-kinetic theory of heat”, answering the question whether atoms really exist?
In this paper, he introduced a method of studying the Brownian motion, the random motion of particles suspended in a medium, which accounted for empirical evidence of the existence of atoms as well as a statistical quantification of their behavior derived from the kinetic theory of gases. Although this paper was considered to be his least influential paper a posteriori, Einstein’s findings swayed many remaining atomic skeptics into believing in the firm existence of atoms.
Often considered to be Einstein’s most influential paper, the theory of special relativity which he published in June under the title of “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” and tackled the relativity conundrum, the inconsistency between Galileo’s principle of relativity stating that absolute motion cannot be defined and the electromagnetic theory claiming that absolute motion does indeed exist.
Einstein put forth two primordial rules. The first one being the principle that all laws of physics remained unchanged in any inertial reference was applicable to the laws of electrodynamics, optics, and mechanics. And the second one stating that the speed of light is the same for every observer, a constant throughout all reference frames.
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As such, it followed that everything else, including mass, time, and distance, is relative. A considerable step away from classical Newtonian that mechanics could not account for such phenomena. Not only did bring about groundbreaking changes to the field of physics and shifted the angle from which we viewed our universe, but it also paved the way for revolutionary technological innovations such as particle accelerators at CERN or Fermilab and the now widely used Global Positioning System (GPS).
Derived from his paper on special relativity, Einstein, in an attempt to answer the question “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?”, introduced in the last of the four papers, published on the 21st of November, the notion that energy and mass were equivalent and proposed the widely known equation: E=mc2. This relationship helped understand the physics of nuclear reactions in which huge amounts of energy were consumed and/or released.
However, for years after his miracle moments, Einstein remained in the shadows and only became acclaimed as a celebrity after his theory of general relativity was experimentally confirmed in 1919 by measuring the bending of a star’s light during a solar eclipse.
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