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LIGHT YEAR

What Einstein Did in 1905

12:00 AM, Oct 5, 1998 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Young men and women start out believing in giants -- not make-believe giants, mind you, but real, hulking gargantuans who only rarely notice the mortals flitting about them. For someone just starting out on adult life, the world seems full of actual giants, legendary figures who have lived lives and filled careers far beyond any normal person's capacity.


Then one day, with a dull thump, we realize that our heroes weren't all that different from other human beings. They remain admirable -- smarter or faster than we are, stronger or harder working -- but they no longer seem the incomparable, inhuman figures of our youth.


What we sometimes forget, however, as our heroes shrink back down to human dimensions, is that there are a thimbleful of people who really were giants, who will not ever shrink. Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, and Isaac Newton were not real people any more than Atlas was. And among this select cadre -- maybe a few hundred of the ten billion people who have ever lived -- only one has walked among us in the last hundred years: Albert Einstein.


Einstein was simply not made of the same material as everyone else. One way to be convinced of his unearthly genius is to read Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics, a slim volume edited by the scholar John Stachel. Stachel reproduces Einstein's five famous papers from 1905 and gives a brief, intelligent explanation of each. The result is an over-powering testament to Einstein's greatness.


The intellectual paparazzi have done their best in the last ten years to diminish Einstein. After his death in 1955, his friend Otto Nathan and secretary Helen Dukas kept most of Einstein's personal papers out of public reach. But in 1987, after a protracted legal battle, the Einstein archives were opened, and the result was biographies like Denis Brian's Einstein: A Life, a cheap expose that sensationalized his relations with women and alleges an illegitimate daughter.


The important details of Einstein's life are well known. Born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, the young Einstein was thought by some to be slow. He struggled in school subjects that didn't interest him, like Greek, and dropped out of high school in order to avoid Germany's year of compulsory military service. He was rejected from Zurich Polytechnic after failing the French, biology, and chemistry sections of the entrance exam.


But the signs of his true abilities were evident from the beginning. When he was a child he asked his parents what the world would look like if he were riding away from it on a beam of light (the answer, as he would be the first to determine, is that everything would look exactly as it had when you began moving because you would be traveling at the same speed as all of those images). At twelve he was so taken with Euclidean geometry that he called it "holy." At sixteen he wrote an essay that contained the seeds of his theory of special relativity.


And then, in 1905, at the age of twenty-six, Einstein had his annus mirabilis, the greatest year in science since the "Year of Wonders," 1666, when a twenty-four-year-old Isaac Newton codified all of classical physics. In this one year, Einstein wrote five papers, each of which could have been the culmination of a life's work for any mortal scientist.


His first paper, "A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions," proposed a method for determining molecular size. At the time, the existence of atoms and molecules was in itself in some dispute, and the only way to find the physical size of molecules was by using the kinetic theory of gases. But what about molecules that couldn't be found in gaseous form? Einstein proved that by dissolving a substance in a liquid and measuring the varying viscosity of the resulting solutions, atomic size could be very closely approximated.


In his second paper, "On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in Liquids at Rest Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat," Einstein addressed the problem of determining the sizes of molecules that could be neither made gaseous nor dissolved. After suspending these materials in a liquid and observing the Brownian Motion of the suspended particles, one could determine their size by measuring the mean-square displacement.