June 1, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
A century later, Einstein's first ideas still hold power
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regardless of the speed of the observer. The same beam of light will appear to be a different color to two observers moving at different speeds, but the beam will still be moving at the same speed compared with either of them.
One consequence of this theory is that there is no single universal clock ticking in lockstep across the entire universe. Rather, time passes differently for different clocks moving at different speeds.
In September, Einstein submitted a follow-up paper that introduced another notion: Mass and energy are equivalent, and a change in a particle's mass is associated with a change in its energy. The paper didn't include the famed equation E=mc2, but it laid the groundwork, Stachel said.
It wasn't until 1932, Stachel said, that physicists observed that a tiny amount of mass disappeared in radioactive decay--mass that was converted into the energy of emitted gamma rays or beta particles. A more notable illustration came at the end of World War II, when the mass lost from fissioning atoms became the energy of the explosions over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Einstein's relativity work wasn't done with the debut of special relativity in 1905. A decade later, the broader general relativity theory emerged, complete with its predictions that gravity could bend the path of light through an effect astronomers now call gravitational lensing.
Where Einstein's rubber hits the road
Einstein's work remade science, but most of its effects on today's technology industry have been indirect.
"It's a stretch to talk about Einstein's contributions to computing," said Tom Theis, director of physical sciences for IBM's research group. But Einstein's work has been relevant to the field, and more need to follow in his footsteps, Theis said: "Continued support of basic research is necessary to lay the foundations for tomorrow's technology."
Robert Chau, director of transistor research and nanotechnology at Intel, deals with Einstein's legacy daily as he tries to create ever-smaller transistors, the on-off switches at the heart of microprocessors.
"It laid down the foundation for modern physics, for what we do today for nanodevice study," Chau said. Quantum mechanical constraints arrived in microprocessor design in about 1990, when electron behavior called "tunneling" began affecting the thinnest transistor components. This quantum mechanical effect leads to wasted power and heating problems and now is a dominant concern.
Einstein's 1905 papers did have some direct connections to today's engineering work. One widely cited example is the Global Positioning System, the navigation technology based on satellite signals with precise timing information. The GPS satellites move fast enough compared with the Earth's surface that relativistic time changes must be taken into effect.
The photoelectric effect also is employed in a technology called X-ray photoemission spectroscopy, which underlies diagnostic tools in the microprocessor industry. "It lets you characterize the interfaces between materials," for example how electrons move between metals and semiconductors in chips, said Rice's Natelson.
Einstein's theories were connected to experimental reality, and physicists taking inspiration should follow that strategy--especially proponents of today's string theory--said Philip Anderson, a Princeton University physics professor whose essay on Einstein appears in Robinson's book.
"In the half a century since his death, the mystique surrounding Einstein has created a cult that in my view starts clever physics students by the thousand off in the entirely wrong direction," Anderson wrote. "The cult makes Einstein into the embodiment of a 'pure' theorist, a genius so brilliant that he snatches his ideas from thin air and achieves revolutionary advances solely by the exercise of mathematical reasoning."
Experiments to prove Einstein's theories are still active. Today, physicists involved with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) project are trying to verify the existence of gravity waves, which physicists agree is a consequence of Einstein's general relativity theory. Einstein himself became skeptical of the prediction and even tried to disprove it, Stachel said.
It's a measure of the scientist that his ideas are still at the forefront of physics. "In my opinion, he was a true genius," Chau said, "well ahead of his time and, in many aspects, beyond modern days."
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