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05/16/2007

Einstein Ironies

By my count, this is my 400th column for StocksandNews and
the 8th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Bortrum. Last week, I
noted that our Editor, Brian Trumbore, had given me the book
“Einstein. His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson. The book
is number 1 this week on the New York Times nonfiction best
seller list. With all my unread journals and magazines piled up, I
thought it would be months before I got around to reading the
book. I also thought that I was fairly well versed concerning
Einstein’s life and his scientific achievements. However, after
posting last week’s column, I picked up the book, couldn’t put it
down and have just finished reading it from cover to cover.
Isaacson has done a masterful job weaving a tapestry of Einstein,
the brilliant scientist, the rebel and the conservative, the pacifist
and his role in promoting the atomic bomb, a gentle man who
formed lifelong friendships but a less than admirable family man.

What kept me engrossed in the book were the details of the
interactions of Einstein with other superstars in the world of
physics. Einstein being my scientific idol, I’ll devote this 400th
column to a few of the more or less ironic stories based on these
interactions. Take, for example, the work for which he won the
Nobel Prize, his explanation of the photoelectric effect published
in his “miracle year” of 1905. In the photoelectric effect, when
a metal surface is illuminated by light, electrons are emitted.

Two individuals played key roles in Einstein’s photoelectric
work. In 1900, Max Planck solved the problem of how a hot
body radiates heat. Instead of emitting heat continuously, Planck
concluded that the radiation from the hot metal occurs in bursts,
or “quanta”, of energy. In one of physics’ simplest, most
important equations, he found the energy in one of these quanta
to be E = hν, where the Greek symbol nu is the frequency of the
radiation and h is a constant known as Planck’s constant. Planck
considered these bursts or quanta to be a feature of the emission
of light/heat from the hot body, not a feature of light itself.
Planck was rewarded for this work in 1918 with a Nobel Prize.

The second individual was another German scientist, Philipp
Lenard. In 1902, he published a definitive paper on the
photoelectric effect and found that electrons were being emitted
in unexpected ways. Lenard was also interested in other forms
of radiation such as cosmic rays and cathode rays and received
the 1905 Nobel Prize in physics. That same year, Einstein took
Lenard’s photoelectric results and Planck’s quanta and put them
together in a leap forward that won for Einstein his Nobel Prize
in 1921.

Einstein said that the light that hit the metal was in the form of
quanta that behaved like a particle and that the energy in the
quanta got transferred to the electron, popping it off the surface
of the metal. Einstein said essentially that Planck’s quanta
should be taken seriously and that light behaves both as a particle
and as a wave. It wasn’t until 1926 that Planck’s “quanta” would
be called “photons”. Planck himself thought Einstein’s idea was
a stretch and insisted that his quanta only referred to bursts
formed during emission or absorption of the light. Ironically,
Planck had in essence invented quantum mechanics but it was
Einstein who insisted that these quanta were light itself, not just a
feature of light’s generation or demise.

Einstein, in his paper, had suitably referenced the work of Lenard
on the photoelectric effect. But Lenard himself was a real piece
of work. He was very disturbed about the implications of
Einstein’s papers on the photoelectric effect and also his other
papers of 1905 that included the special theory of relativity,
which upset the world of physics established by Isaac Newton.
Einstein’s work did away with the “ether”, which was believed to
pervade space and provide the medium for propagation of light
waves, just as water and air provide the media for ocean and
sound waves. Lenard was also quite anti-semitic and he railed
against “Jewish” science. When Einstein finally got his Nobel
Prize in 1921 for the photoelectric work, Lenard sent a letter of
protest to the Nobel committee. In 1933, Adolf Hitler made
Lenard the chief of Aryan science, a post Lenard held until the
end of World War II.

The end of World War I, in 1918, found the world numb from
the horrendous casualties suffered in that conflict. People
desperately needed something to uplift their spirits. Although
Einstein had by that time had revolutionized the world of
physics, he was still relatively unknown to the general public.
Then came the solar eclipse of 1919 and the British astronomers
Frank Dyson and Arthur Eddington. They showed that light
from a star was bent by the gravity of a star, our Sun. This
confirmed a prediction of Einstein’s theory of gravity and
suddenly Einstein was the equivalent of a rock star. He began to
travel extensively and drew large crowds of admirers everywhere
he went. People without the foggiest idea of what he was talking
about would come to hear him lecturing on relativity.

After one of these lectures in Prague, a young fellow approached
Einstein with a manuscript. The fellow told Einstein that he had
calculated that, based on Einstein’s E = mc squared, it should be
possible to use the energy released to make a “frightening
explosive”. Einstein responded by calling the idea “foolish”.
Ironically, in 1922, Einstein went to Japan and actually passed
through the city of Hiroshima, the city that would be devastated
by that “foolish” idea!

Einstein was wrong about another thing his relativity theories
predicted. In 1916, the director of the Potsdam Observatory,
Karl Schwarzschild, was with the German army on the Russian
front directing artillery shells. While not shelling, he read some
of Einstein’s papers and made some calculations of what
Einstein’s theories predicted if the mass of a star was compressed
into a very small space. He found that if the mass was
compressed into a small enough space, nothing within what
would later be called the Scharzschild radius could escape, not
even light. He wrote Einstein about his calculations but Einstein
didn’t believe that anything real could be involved. Scharzschild
died at the front at age 42 from an autoimmune disease
contracted there just a few weeks after the letter to Einstein. He,
and Einstein, never got to know that black holes are quite real
and we have one in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.

A running theme throughout the book by Isaacson is that
Einstein owed much of his success to his rebellious nature in that
he did not hesitate to question authority. Later in his life,
Einstein said, “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate
has made me an authority myself.” As he would continue to
argue with Max Planck about light behaving as a both a particle
and a wave, the quantum mechanics they had both spawned drew
in a younger crowd of rebels. Quantum mechanics increasingly
talked about probabilities, not certainties. We can’t follow an
electron in its orbit around a nucleus – we can only sort of smear
it out in a manner that tells us the probability that it will be in a
certain place. Einstein was not at all happy and spent his later
years trying to come up with a theory to unite his tidy world of
the universe with the uncertain world of the tiny and quantum
mechanics. His famous remark about God not playing dice
would be answered by Niels Bohr, “Don’t tell God what to do!”

Einstein died of a burst aneurysm in 1955 at age 76. The night
he died he was still writing down complex equations trying to
succeed in his futile quest.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-05/16/2007-      
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Dr. Bortrum

05/16/2007

Einstein Ironies

By my count, this is my 400th column for StocksandNews and
the 8th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Bortrum. Last week, I
noted that our Editor, Brian Trumbore, had given me the book
“Einstein. His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson. The book
is number 1 this week on the New York Times nonfiction best
seller list. With all my unread journals and magazines piled up, I
thought it would be months before I got around to reading the
book. I also thought that I was fairly well versed concerning
Einstein’s life and his scientific achievements. However, after
posting last week’s column, I picked up the book, couldn’t put it
down and have just finished reading it from cover to cover.
Isaacson has done a masterful job weaving a tapestry of Einstein,
the brilliant scientist, the rebel and the conservative, the pacifist
and his role in promoting the atomic bomb, a gentle man who
formed lifelong friendships but a less than admirable family man.

What kept me engrossed in the book were the details of the
interactions of Einstein with other superstars in the world of
physics. Einstein being my scientific idol, I’ll devote this 400th
column to a few of the more or less ironic stories based on these
interactions. Take, for example, the work for which he won the
Nobel Prize, his explanation of the photoelectric effect published
in his “miracle year” of 1905. In the photoelectric effect, when
a metal surface is illuminated by light, electrons are emitted.

Two individuals played key roles in Einstein’s photoelectric
work. In 1900, Max Planck solved the problem of how a hot
body radiates heat. Instead of emitting heat continuously, Planck
concluded that the radiation from the hot metal occurs in bursts,
or “quanta”, of energy. In one of physics’ simplest, most
important equations, he found the energy in one of these quanta
to be E = hν, where the Greek symbol nu is the frequency of the
radiation and h is a constant known as Planck’s constant. Planck
considered these bursts or quanta to be a feature of the emission
of light/heat from the hot body, not a feature of light itself.
Planck was rewarded for this work in 1918 with a Nobel Prize.

The second individual was another German scientist, Philipp
Lenard. In 1902, he published a definitive paper on the
photoelectric effect and found that electrons were being emitted
in unexpected ways. Lenard was also interested in other forms
of radiation such as cosmic rays and cathode rays and received
the 1905 Nobel Prize in physics. That same year, Einstein took
Lenard’s photoelectric results and Planck’s quanta and put them
together in a leap forward that won for Einstein his Nobel Prize
in 1921.

Einstein said that the light that hit the metal was in the form of
quanta that behaved like a particle and that the energy in the
quanta got transferred to the electron, popping it off the surface
of the metal. Einstein said essentially that Planck’s quanta
should be taken seriously and that light behaves both as a particle
and as a wave. It wasn’t until 1926 that Planck’s “quanta” would
be called “photons”. Planck himself thought Einstein’s idea was
a stretch and insisted that his quanta only referred to bursts
formed during emission or absorption of the light. Ironically,
Planck had in essence invented quantum mechanics but it was
Einstein who insisted that these quanta were light itself, not just a
feature of light’s generation or demise.

Einstein, in his paper, had suitably referenced the work of Lenard
on the photoelectric effect. But Lenard himself was a real piece
of work. He was very disturbed about the implications of
Einstein’s papers on the photoelectric effect and also his other
papers of 1905 that included the special theory of relativity,
which upset the world of physics established by Isaac Newton.
Einstein’s work did away with the “ether”, which was believed to
pervade space and provide the medium for propagation of light
waves, just as water and air provide the media for ocean and
sound waves. Lenard was also quite anti-semitic and he railed
against “Jewish” science. When Einstein finally got his Nobel
Prize in 1921 for the photoelectric work, Lenard sent a letter of
protest to the Nobel committee. In 1933, Adolf Hitler made
Lenard the chief of Aryan science, a post Lenard held until the
end of World War II.

The end of World War I, in 1918, found the world numb from
the horrendous casualties suffered in that conflict. People
desperately needed something to uplift their spirits. Although
Einstein had by that time had revolutionized the world of
physics, he was still relatively unknown to the general public.
Then came the solar eclipse of 1919 and the British astronomers
Frank Dyson and Arthur Eddington. They showed that light
from a star was bent by the gravity of a star, our Sun. This
confirmed a prediction of Einstein’s theory of gravity and
suddenly Einstein was the equivalent of a rock star. He began to
travel extensively and drew large crowds of admirers everywhere
he went. People without the foggiest idea of what he was talking
about would come to hear him lecturing on relativity.

After one of these lectures in Prague, a young fellow approached
Einstein with a manuscript. The fellow told Einstein that he had
calculated that, based on Einstein’s E = mc squared, it should be
possible to use the energy released to make a “frightening
explosive”. Einstein responded by calling the idea “foolish”.
Ironically, in 1922, Einstein went to Japan and actually passed
through the city of Hiroshima, the city that would be devastated
by that “foolish” idea!

Einstein was wrong about another thing his relativity theories
predicted. In 1916, the director of the Potsdam Observatory,
Karl Schwarzschild, was with the German army on the Russian
front directing artillery shells. While not shelling, he read some
of Einstein’s papers and made some calculations of what
Einstein’s theories predicted if the mass of a star was compressed
into a very small space. He found that if the mass was
compressed into a small enough space, nothing within what
would later be called the Scharzschild radius could escape, not
even light. He wrote Einstein about his calculations but Einstein
didn’t believe that anything real could be involved. Scharzschild
died at the front at age 42 from an autoimmune disease
contracted there just a few weeks after the letter to Einstein. He,
and Einstein, never got to know that black holes are quite real
and we have one in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.

A running theme throughout the book by Isaacson is that
Einstein owed much of his success to his rebellious nature in that
he did not hesitate to question authority. Later in his life,
Einstein said, “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate
has made me an authority myself.” As he would continue to
argue with Max Planck about light behaving as a both a particle
and a wave, the quantum mechanics they had both spawned drew
in a younger crowd of rebels. Quantum mechanics increasingly
talked about probabilities, not certainties. We can’t follow an
electron in its orbit around a nucleus – we can only sort of smear
it out in a manner that tells us the probability that it will be in a
certain place. Einstein was not at all happy and spent his later
years trying to come up with a theory to unite his tidy world of
the universe with the uncertain world of the tiny and quantum
mechanics. His famous remark about God not playing dice
would be answered by Niels Bohr, “Don’t tell God what to do!”

Einstein died of a burst aneurysm in 1955 at age 76. The night
he died he was still writing down complex equations trying to
succeed in his futile quest.

Allen F. Bortrum