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Albert Einstein

On This Day: Einstein Publishes Theory of Special Relativity

June 30, 2011 05:00 AM
by Jordan Termine
On June 30, 1905, Swiss patent clerk Albert Einstein published “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” introducing his relativity theory and launching a new era in physics.

Einstein Has an Epiphany

For a decade, Einstein, a doctoral student in physics at Zurich's Federal Polytechnic School, had been troubled by the fact that “Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's equations, the two pillars of physics, were incompatible,” according to Michio Kaku, writing for PBS' Nova.

One night, he tried to analyze the problem with his friend Michele Besso, but after repeatedly going over the issue, he became exhausted. “Einstein announced that he was defeated and would give up the entire quest,” Kaku wrote. “It was no use; he had failed.”

When he arrived home that night, he continued to consider the dilemma. His epiphany occurred as he imagined a car driving away from the town clock tower at the speed of light. If the car moved at the speed of light, the tower's clock would appear fixed to someone in the car. The clock's light could not catch up to the streetcar, but the car's clock would beat normally to the person inside.

“A storm broke loose in my mind,” Einstein said, according to PBS. He returned to Besso's home the next day and stated: “Thank you, I've completely solved the problem.” This concept would later become known as special relativity.

Einstein Online explains that special relativity illustrates that “time and length are not as absolute as everyday experience would suggest: Moving clocks run slower, and moving objects are shorter.”

For the next six weeks, he worked out every detail of his theory. The resulting paper, titled "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," would fundamentally alter modern physics.

Within three months, Einstein pushed the idea of special relativity to E = mc2, his famous equation establishing that energy and mass are interchangeable.

Video: Theory of Special Relativity Explained

PBS’ NOVA had 10 of the world's top physicists explain the equation E = mc2 to nonphysicists. “E = mc2 is a very fundamental statement about the idea of what mass is and that mass can be equivalent to energy, and we can actually convert mass into energy,” says Janet Conrad, an experimental physicist at Columbia University.

Background: Einstein’s Life and Work

“At the start of his scientific work, Einstein realized the inadequacies of Newtonian mechanics and his special theory of relativity stemmed from an attempt to reconcile the laws of mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field,” The Nobel Foundation explains.

Born in Germany, Einstein moved to Switzerland, where he studied at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich to become a teacher in physics and mathematics. In 1905, while working as a technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office, he obtained his doctorate degree and published his paper on special relativity.

The American Insitute of Physics has an online exhibit entitled “Einstein: Image and Imprint” that explores the life of Albert Einstein, including his philosophies and thoughts on nuclear energy.

“A long-time friend, Leo Szilard, and other physicists realized that uranium might be used for enormously devastating bombs,” the Institute writes. “They had reason to fear that Nazi Germany might construct such weapons. Einstein, reacting to the danger from Hitler's aggression, had already abandoned his strict pacifism.”

Reference: Einstein’s Writing

Einstein Archives Online provides access to more than 3,000 images of Einstein's manuscripts, divided into three sections: Scientific Writings, Non-Scientific Writings and Travel Diaries.

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