Einstein’s Genius

Posted March 29, 2015 By admin

It goes without saying that as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the formulation of The General Theory of relativity by Albert Einstein in November 1915, we are likely to be treated to a whole range of programs, pieces and pontifications on the Theory, the man and his achievement.

One of the first out of the blocks is ‘What made Einstein a genius?’ a program hosted by 92Y as part of its “7 days of Genius Festival”. The program runs for nearly an hour and a half and features contributions from physicist Brian Greene, author Thomas Levenson and neurologist Frederick E. Lepore.

The main question posed is whether Einstein’s genius was a product of his time, his brain, or a mixture of both. Rather predictably it provides no clear answer, plumping for the latter, which is, of course, a rather obvious way out of answering the question. However, on the way it provides some enjoyable explanations of his life and contributions and the fundamental effect of his theories on our world and the way in which we live. Some of the information from Lepore about the different architecture of Einstein’s brain was particularly enjoyable, and for me, quite new.

I recommend you watch the program. It is easy to follow and a good introduction to many aspects of Einstein, his work and legacy.

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Einstein’s time and our death

Posted February 28, 2015 By admin

Albert Einstein thought deeply about time, its meaning and its consequences and his theories had a profound effect on the way in which time is thought about. To most of us outside a theoretical understanding of his work, time is still thought of, and indeed experienced as linear, a concept with a past, present and future; the so called arrow of time. However, that is not how he thought of time.

For Einstein the consequences of the equations about time meant that there is no past, present or future – that all of time is present all the time. In other words, there is no flow of time, no river moving forward moment to moment, even though that may be our experience, but rather it is a series of moments that do not flow and that therefore all of time is present all of the time.

So what happens when we die? Apart from discussions about the afterlife, what does this idea of time contribute to our understanding of mortality? Well, in a sense it means our existence remains as part of the fabric of the universe. This does not mean we live forever, but the moments of time that we lived remain because those moments are always there.

If we could step outside our universe, we could observe the whole of time,  the time that has been, the time that is current at the moment of our observation and all the time of the future. Embedded in that view would be the period of time (or those moments, like a package) when we lived. So in a physical sense we do not end with death (the destination of our spirit is another matter), we remain imprinted in that part of time for which we existed. Perhaps we should think of time as a cosmic Facebook, where our presence remains embedded even though we have gone.

It may therefore be of some comfort to imagine that thanks to Einstein we face death in the knowledge that we live on in time.

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Einstein’s 2015 Centenary

Posted January 9, 2015 By admin

This year marks the centenary of the first presentation of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
This blog will be running a series of posts recreating 1915 and Einstein’s formulation of his great work. It will also help to highlight sources information about the theory. There is bound to be much published on how Einstein came to the theory, what it means and the future of the theory.
The World Science Festival is a great site for science and I would recommend it to all readers. This year it will be running a number of programs to celebrate this milestone.
To commence the year, the site has put together some of the highlights of previous programs on Einstein.
My personal favorite is the piece by Brian Greene on the impact of Einstein’s work on science. Here is the transcript:
“Albert Einstein, of course, everybody knows the name, everybody knows what he looks like, but as a physicist, to me, he’s the greatest, most insightful intellect that our species has ever produced. This was a man who came into the world when understanding was one way and when he left, the World’s understanding was a different way. He completely revolutionized our understanding of space and time, he completely revolutionized our understanding of gravity, he revolutionized our understanding of energy. These are critical features of our universe that for thousands of years we looked at one way and then a man comes along, lives a life and when he’s gone, we look at it completely differently.”
This year will be bumper year for Einstein and his work and will help to celebrate how his amazing work created the World in which we live.
Enjoy the celebrations.

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Einstein on Humanities Cosmic tombstone

Posted October 25, 2014 By admin

At a recent evening for “the unbelievers”, organized by The Sceptic Magazine, Richard Dawkins, in conversation with Lawrence Krauss suggested that we should create a “cosmic tombstone” that is beamed into space and which contains humanities greatest achievements.

This is what he said:

I sometimes think that even now actually we should be sending out what you could call a ‘cosmic tombstone’ because eventually the human species is going to go extinct and it would be nice to think that Shakespeare and Bach and Darwin and Einstein – the achievements of the great humans of history – would not die with us. And so sending out a cosmic tombstone in the vague, faint, infinitesimal hope that it might one day be picked up, it really is infinitesimal by the way, I think that might well be a good idea.”.  

Interesting that Dawkins chose Einstein instead of Newton. I wonder if this has more to do with Dawkins own thoughts about religions and the religious, knowing Newton’s own sense of God’s importance. However, taken at face value it again illuminates the influence Einstein has as a flag bearer of what is best about us.

Dawkins’ words remind me of a quote in the introductory essay by Richard Price to the book – The Future of Spacetime – when talking about Einstein’s relativity revolution.

It was the enormity of the conceptual leap, not the complexity of its contents that spoke of Einstein’s genius. Other jumps forward had required revolutionary changes in a view of the world: the sun, not earth, was the center of the solar system. But in these changes we were replacing knowledge that had been learned. Einstein’s revolution required us to abandon what our eyes, heads, and hearts knew to be true.”

Marcus Chown in – Quantum Theory cannot hurt you – summed up Einstein’s contribution beautifully: “…the “general” theory of relativity, arguably the greatest contribution to science by a single human mind”.

Both of these quotes are confined to his contributions to science through relativity and don’t even take account of his work in Quantum theory, the forgotten aspect of Einstein’s work and which has had such a profound effect on the way we live our lives (through the technologies that rely on quantum theory such as computing and lasers) and our view of the universe.

Perhaps Dawkins may have thrown out the addition of Einstein to his list on a whim, but often we say the most important when we don’t sit back and think about them. For me Einstein would be the first on a list of humanities greatest achievements that we want the universe to celebrate.  

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Einstein’s Quantum Contribution

Posted August 30, 2014 By admin

There is standard potted story about Albert Einstein and Quantum Theory. It goes something like this. Einstein is famous for his theory of relativity, but he had a lot to do with the discovery of quantum theory and in fact he actually won his Nobel Prize in 1921 for his photoelectric theory of 1905. However, as the theory developed he abandoned his work in it and came to oppose the theory, which was summed up in his quote “God does not play dice”. The quote is one of his most famous.

However, this oversimplified story fails to realistically reflect Einstein’s view on the theory and this standard bland representation fails to recognize his contribution to the Quantum revolution.

Why is it important?

For me it helps us to appreciate how important Einstein is and how he fundamentally influences the world in which we live because Quantum theory underpins our modern technology. As Margaret Wertheim says in Pythagoras’ Trousers “No theory in the history of science has been more empirically successful than quantum mechanics. On the strength of quantum mechanics, humanity has built the microchip industry, and hence the computer industry. An understanding of the quantum realm has also given us the laser, and hence fiber-optic communications. CD players, bar code readers, laser surgery, laser guided weapons, and in the future probably also optical computing.”

Einstein’s contribution to quantum theory is discussed in a new book ‘Einstein and the Quantum’, by A. Douglas Stone. In a wonderful summary of the creation of the theory he sets out how Einstein made the fundamental contributions to the conceptual pillars of Quantum theory. Those contributions were:

  • Quantization of energy
  • Force carrying particles (photons)
  • Wave-particle duality
  • Intrinsic randomness in physical processes and stimulated transitions (the basis of the laser)
  • Indistinguishability of quantum particles
  • Wave fields as probability densities

What stands out in the book is the breadth and depth of Einstein’s contributions to the Quantum theory and though it is contributions to our modern world, which is to a great degree built on the success of the theory.

In contrast to the simplified story at the beginning of the article, where Einstein is painted as the opponent of the theory, in truth his contribution to Quantum theory was deep, rich and fundamental. He did oppose its intrinsic randomness, but that crude tale should not be allowed to detract from what he achieved in the field.

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