|It was a small pocket compass that changed our concepts of the universe. A young boy watched how his father’s compass needle always po|
inted north, and was profoundly affected by the realisation that objects could be influenced by invisible fo
|The young patent officer in 1905
Credit: Leo Baeck Institute, New York
rces. He grew up to develop theories of invisible interactions that revolutionised physics, and became the most famous scientist of all time. The boy was Albert Einstein.
|Einstein is often portrayed as the stereotypical absent-minded professor
Or so the story goes. Recalling the incident in later years, Einstein seemed unsure whether it had really made such a deep impression on him at the time, or whether this was something he had ‘remembered’ later; but this has been no barrier to the tale becoming part of the Einstein legend
Einstein is often portrayed as the stereotypical absent-minded professor, lost in his theoretical world of equations and out of touch with practicalities. But he had a great interest in technical gadgets; possibly inspired by the electrical company his family ran during his childhood. This must have helped him to get a job with the Swiss Patent Office as a ‘Technical Expert, Third Class’ in 1902.The day job gave Einstein fina
ncial security, but his real interest lay in exploring fundamental problems in physics. At the turn of the century, elecromagnetic theories, in which forces arose from the interaction between electric and magnetic fields, were successfully explaining significant areas of physics. But it was proving difficult to tie them in with the long-held cornerstone of physics, Newtonian mechanics, which described gravity’s workings. The challenge for physicists was to develop theories that could explain the mechanism by which electromagnetic forces were carried, and properly describe gravitational interactions.
|Volume 17 of Annalen der Physik contains three of Einstein’s papers
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Einstein’s spare-time search for a worldview that would describe all of physics reached its high point in 1905. He finally earned his physics doctorate, but this work was surpassed by four papers, concerning several physics problems, published that year in the journal Annalen der Physik. In March he submitted a paper arguing that light consists of packets of energy called quanta, work which would later earn him the Nobel Prize. A paper sent in May described the motion of small particles suspended in a liquid and hence proved the existence of molecules. In June, Einstein submitted a paper hypothesising that light always travels at the same speed for all observers, which today we call the ‘special theory of relativity'. And in September he described how mass and energy are linked, which led to the famous equation E=mc2.
Any one of these papers was worthy of elevating the 26-year-old Einstein from lowly patent officer to fully-fledged academic, and his career as a physicist was assured. But his fame was to spread far beyond the scientific community.