The sublimity of Einstein’s work has long since been co-opted by a popular culture more susceptible to brushstrokes than pointillism. Its meaning lost in the celebrity of its rumpled messenger. Some of this is understandable because the mathematics underpinning his theories aren’t exactly self evident. Especially to those who balance a checkbook with the phrase, “That seems about right.” But the beauty of Einstein’s underlying message – that everything is derived from one source – is exemplified in the search for this Holy Grail in his unified field theory.
That gravity and electromagnetism both possess infinite range and that their strength is inversely proportional to the square of their distance is inherently understood by all. Alright most. OK few. Alright nobody really understands it, but it’s so cool imagining time standing still you can’t help but love this guy. He’s reminded us that all is not as it seems. Not this moment. Not any moment. Einstein is limning E=mc² from the fringes of the cosmos thereby formalizing the equivalency of mass and energy, while the rest of us go about our lives feeling smug eating our farmer’s market sustainable vegetables, because we locavores are too sophisticated for trucked in asparagus.
A Random Walk through Bavaria
Many felt he was in his own orbit, but one can only wonder what it would be like to travel along side him at the speed of Einstein. He’d slow down you’d slow down. He’d speed up, you’d speed up. And even if you were to achieve the speed of Einstein you’d be traveling at only about 4 mph; unless you were in his hometown of Munich, where you’d be traveling at about 6 kilometers per hour. And there’s the paradox. Even though you were traveling at 2 different speeds you’d still be moving through space at the same rate causing any stationary observer to conclude; “Why is that guy always following Einstein?” And that my friend, in a nutshell, is the Special Theory of Relativity. Having dispatched that issue, we’ll soon move on to General Relativity.
Sometimes it required extreme mental gymnastics simply to communicate with Professor Einstein. For example, a colleague wrote asking him to “define certain numbers.” He immediately responded, “The answer is ‘dentists’.” The colleague was dissatisfied and visited him to question his mathematical analysis. Einstein wearily listened and then explained; “You asked me to ‘define certain numbers’, which I did – ‘dentists’. I answered the question operating under the assumption the ‘b” in numbers was silent. Therefore, according to my frame of reference, ‘dentists’ is the definitive answer.” And that my friend, in a nutshell, is the General Theory of Relativity. We’ll soon move on to Cinnabon Rolls because those sinful rolls mean the same thing in everyone’s frame of reference. Remember, hate the sin, and love the Cinnabon.
For these kinds of gifted insights Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Prize for Theoretical Physics and I won the 2012 National Writer’s Guild Award for Organized Typing. We’re two intellectual peas in a pod, separated by a few light years and about 100 points of IQ. I thought I’d made important discoveries while writing this piece until I realized the farther afield I got in my analysis of Einstein, the farther my analysis was diminished by the square of the inverse of that distance (physics just lends itself to humor). Einstein is in the very idiom of America expression whereby the term Einstein has eclipsed Sherlock in its application. For example “Nice job Einstein” has replaced “No sh*t Sherlock” in humorously branding someone as inept. In many ways Einstein is the discoverer of the universe’s operating system. He’s kind of like Bill Gates except Einstein’s operating system doesn’t crash.
Just the mention of Einstein’s name denotes unassailable multi-dimensional genius for unclenching the fist of human ignorance and prying loose its closely held secrets. We don’t even call Time Magazine’s Man of the Century Mr. Einstein or Albert Einstein. He’s become the common noun Einstein, like Jesus or Oprah. If you think about it, Einstein is a lot like Shaft –he’s a complicated man. Talkin’ bout Al.
Einstein’s Timelines – Two Views
1. Einstein’s Newtonian Linear Timeline
1879 – Born in Ulm, Germany in the region of Swabia, to industrious and loving parents. Father is a pioneering though unsuccessful electrical engineer
1880 – Family moves to Munich
1884 – Receives a compass and is entranced by its magical properties
1886 – Begins playing the violin
1888 – Passes entrance exam and attends Luitpold Gymnasium (School)
1895 – Fails entrance exam for Zurich Polytechnic School despite excellent grades in math, attends a lesser, but intellectually curious Aurau School
1896 – Enters Zurich Polytechnic School where he excels, but complains of stultifying atmosphere
1900 – Graduates, fails to get a professorship, and becomes a Swiss citizen
1902 – Marries Polytechnic coed Mileva Maric and son Hans Albert is born 5 months later.
1903 – Finally receives government post as Swiss patent clerk
1905 – The Magical Year. Publishes 4 seminal papers understood by few, redefining man’s conception of reality including Special Relativity E=mc².
1915 – Publishes a paper redefining General Relativity: How gravity warps and bends space
1922 – Wins Nobel Prize primarily for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect (light is a wave and contains particles).
1933 – When Nazis assume power abandons Germany and renounces German citizenship. A militant pacifist his entire life, he now espouses Western European prepare to meet Hitler’s aggression. Begins teaching at Princeton.
1939 – In a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt warns of the creation of an atomic weapon and advises the United States build it first.
1940 – Becomes a US citizen.
1944 – For the WWII war effort, a handwritten copy of his special relativity paper is auctioned for $6 million.
1952 – Offered the Presidency of Israel, but declines.
1955 – April 18th. Albert Einstein’s body dies of previously diagnosed abdominal aneurysm.
2. Einstein’s Curved Spacetime Line: As Perceived by Someone Traveling in a Rocket Ship near the Speed of Light
1878 – A Prussian serf dies of state oppression. His soul slithers through a wormhole, accepts trade off of bad hair gene for the brilliance gene and emerges in the body of baby Albert Einstein in 1879.
1879 – Not exactly an infant prodigy. His first year is marked by crying tantrums and food throwing which, coincidentally, also marks his 1st year of marriage.
1886 – Einstein family moves into Edvard Munch’s house. But with all the screaming going on they quickly move out.
1888 – Passes entrance exam to Luitpold Gymnasium (School) and is allowed in as far as the entrance.
1895 – Fails entrance exam for Zurich Polytechnic School and must remain on stoop
1905 – Oh BTW, penetrates vault of heaven, touches the face of God and publishes 4 seminal papers redefining man’s conception of reality. God asks him to withhold 5th paper dealing with methods of soul travel stating, “If people ever discover soul travel they’ll never return to their bodies and then my little game is up.”
1915 – Publishes a paper redefining General Relativity: How gravity warps and bends space and also how it is beginning to warp and bend young Adolf Hitler
1922 – Wins Nobel Prize for Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa with mini-marshmallows
1933 – Becomes depressed during the Depression. Copes by discovering formula proving a picture is actually worth 638 words.
1951 – The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant.
1955 – April 18th. Decides to permanently leave body. As predicted, its mass is converted into energy and a tree grows in Brooklyn.
The Death of Absolute Space and Absolute Time
The luminous Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) visited differential calculus, the field of optics and universal gravitation upon the Age of Enlightenment when life whizzed by at 3 feet per decade. Newton along with Kepler and Galileo (heretics in their day) are the forbears of modern science and enablers of student loans. Implicit in Newton’s once revolutionary assertions was that one o’clock on Earth was equivalent to one o’clock on Mars or one o’clock on Alpha Centauri. Time was abundantly and manifestly consistent – everywhere, always. We could rest easy in this knowledge; or at least rest in similarly measured intervals (Physics jokes are everywhere). This was a dark time when pots were watched and nothing boiled. Space was also defined as constant and consistent. No kinks, no bends and operating more efficiently than the East India Trading Company. Anyone who wasn’t a street urchin could satisfyingly hrrmmmpf and accept the button down construct inherent in Newton’s Euclidean paradise. I know I did. It all made perfect sense to a human mind which appreciates tidy closure on ambiguous issues and deprecates messy stabs at fearful complexities. This ends the purple prose portion of our story.
Over time we were all comforted and cowed by the commanding laws handed down by one Sir Isaac Newton. We bowed down to his straight and narrow on the assumption that God made our cosmological sand box just complicated enough to keep it running and certainly not grandiose enough to require critical thinking. This was a God we could relate to – Master of all he surveyed and surprisingly economical by building things on the cheap. This was a God who kept score. And in the medieval mentality we all like to slip into, Newton’s explanations provided a happy blend of observable satisfaction and English sensibility. We were in under our heads and we liked it.
And this is the way things went for over 200 years until Albert Einstein, the Swabian genius and applecart upsetter extraordinaire, came along to (purple prose alert) dimensionalize and bend our linear Newtonian sand box into a confounding arabesque of curvy equivalencies thereby prying loose the relativistic truth from absolute space and time’s cold dead hands. This God had better things to do than to build a better mousetrap. This was a God we couldn’t relate to – fearfully complex and surprisingly non-interventionist. He devised a system of cause and effect and then vacated the premises to let a stand-in population of Homo sapiens operate it. This was a God who had other interests. And in the moral relativism we all like to slip into, Einstein’s explanations provided an eerie blend of infinite mystery and breathless wonderment. We were in over our heads and we had to accept it.
The Author Enters the Story
Words, words, words. Just as painted cakes do not satisfy hunger, choice phrases and clever descriptions cannot satisfy curiosity. Only experience or ignorance can do that, but in the absence of vacationing with light quanta, my plow horse mind and furrowed brow seeks to fertilize the moment with rich deposits of verbosity. This story will be dung before you know it. This is an author we tried to relate to – boyishly sincere and in over his head. And in the shared experience I like to call joy, my explanations provide seismic waves of questions and microwaves of answers. We were in it knee deep and we couldn’t stop reading.
Since I can’t legitimately sit at the table with Newton and Einstein, all I can do is inject myself into their story kinda like Murray the K did as the 5th Beatle. You see how relevant he has remained. And I can’t in good scholarship criticize any of Newton’s work which was revolutionary in its day. I do so only by way of contrast to see where we’ve been and where we may be going. And I do all this, by the way, in the bracing knowledge that what my high school physics meets Wikipedia approach lacks in intellectual rigor, it makes up for in verbal vigor – go figor. I mean I know I could easily travel at the supposedly unattainable speed of light. I could. If I were being chased by a lion doing 99% the speed of light. Motivation is the key to everything in this world. Just ask our 10th President John Tyler who fathered 15 children.
My brushstroke pointillism describing the discoveries of Einstein quietly serves to highlight another facet of scientific endeavor – the many unknown scientists that contributed to his discoveries. Einstein is a retail celebrity genius, but without the wholesale efforts of those behind the camera, he may have remained an uncelebrated patent clerk. Without these unheralded enablers where would we be? So, to the forgotten contributors to everything from the flat screen TV to the push up bra, from anesthesia to Red Bull, I salute you.
Transcripts of the Imaginary Conversation
In the unbounded literary world where I occasionally reside, quantum leaps are commonplace and even required in order to advance a story. And it is in that spirit of ideas etching a warm drama I present a conversation I held with Albert Einstein while he was dreaming. Why he was dreaming about me in 1953 eight years before my birth I’ll never know. I mean it’s Einstein’s universe, we just live in it.
The conversation took place upstairs in the study of his house on 110 Mercer Street in Princeton NJ, and while strolling the nearby campus. And in the presumptive realities that only dreams allow, I’m visiting him as a door to door Fuller Brush salesman pitching him my complete line of Fuller Brushes. My presentation however quickly gives way to Abbot & Costello.
DH: And you can easily see how beautifully these thick, dare I say fuller brushes, groom hair Einstein.
AE: Did you say hair Einstein or Herr Einstein
DH: Yes. That’s exactly what I said.
AE: No. Watt’s the guy who invented the steam engine.
DH: Who is?
AE: No. WHO is the World Health Organization.
DH: I don’t know who. I give up. I thought who’s the guy on first. Anyway Mister Einstein, is there anything you don’t understand?
AE: Absolutely. I just don’t understand how in 1941 Ted Williams hits .406…406! and still doesn’t win the American League MVP award. How does that happen? Some people are just very lucky in this world. Do you realize my friend Dr. Heimlich was simply making love to his wife Gertrude when he realized the same maneuver could save someone from choking? Let’s walk over to Nassau Hall. I want to show you some Revolutionary War history.
He grabs his pipe as we leave the house and stroll over to the Princeton campus. I don’t know if it’s me projecting onto him, but he seems like such a visitor on earth and not really an inhabitant.
AE: David, I’ve always abjured the scourge of judgment. It affords us so little and yet lets us believe we’ve solved something. Perhaps it is necessary now that we have so much information to process what with the atomic menace, Edward R Murrow and these moving pictures.
Did you see that new Martin & Lewis moving picture? Very funny.
DH: What? You go to the movies?
AE: Of course I do. Boolean algebra is only so entertaining. Whereas Jerry Lewis’s random spasticity is reminiscent of Poincaré’s Chaos Theory. Don’t you agree?
We enter historic Nassau Hall and Einstein describes a possibly apocryphal story on how during the British occupation an American cannon ball fired with precise, but lucky telemetry, crashed through the wall and obliterated the head of a painting of King George III.
DH: I see you view everything through the prism of physics. Tell me, did you have girlfriends in your youth?
AE: I’ve always had girlfriends. As I’ve stated, gravity plays its role, but from where I stand it’s women who really make the world go round. So yes. Of course I had girlfriends. In fact as a teenager I had a very talented girlfriend named Frieda Stoltz who possessed telekinetic powers.
DH: How’s that? (I said sounding like Dragnet’s Jack Webb)
AE: Well, she could just look into my eyes, and my pants would begin to mysteriously move. She was no Madame Curie, but she did radiate charm. In the words of Mr. Lewis; “Hey Dean. Oh Dean. I ate too much radium and now I don’t feel so good a lot.” He’s brilliant you know and the French love him.
DH: Enough about Jerry Lewis. What can you tell me about your black sheep brother? I understand his name was Frank Einstein.
AE: Well yes, mother always said he was a little monster. The poor boy. He shared my interest in astrophysics but never got it quite right. For example he always maintained the most distant object in the universe was our father. Too bad. Mama said he had the asparagus gene.
We arise and walk past the football field and chapel, finally wending our way back to his house where he is thoughtful enough to purchase a moustache comb (“For my wife,” he jokes.) and we part ways, but not before he says:
You need no soliloquy from me. Life is the same whether we observe it or not. And while experiencing the most searing pain or the most euphoric pleasure either will generally require a pharmaceutical.
I awaken in a state of Iowa (not an easy thing to do), realize I won’t be born for another eight years and carry on with my duties.
While it’s true Einstein experienced 15 minutes of fame, from his bodily perspective it went by like 50 years. Similarly to the Beatles, Einstein’s burst onto the scene at a time when the world was ready to have their imagination captured by something they couldn’t explain. His reality-defying pronouncements were awaited with great anticipation by a pre-Jazz Age public eager to focus on something other than Kaiser Wilhelm II or the influenza pandemic. He simultaneously transformed both scientific theory and popular imagination, but because he had disproved the principle of simultaneity, all a stationary observer can accurately say is that the transformation happened at about the same time (I’m killing myself with these jokes).
In 1921 when Einstein invaded New York City with his chart topping theories and rumpled good looks, America was gaga over this other little tramp who silently moved our focus. The uneducated masses recognized his genius as something greater than themselves. He was treated like a rock star by relativistic groupies who cut up his hotel bed sheets and then ionized them. And although he wasn’t on the Ed Sullivan Show, he was treated to a Broadway ticker tape parade. “E=mc² “ became the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” of 1921 and has been on the charts even longer than Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Einsteinmania detonated mostly through the newspapers and word of mouth. America swooned when the disheveled, absent-minded professor began issuing hit singles dealing with everything from atomic motion to time travel. And when he toured the country you could barely hear his measured cadences above the adenoidal shrieks of note taking coeds. Einstein monopolized the charts for years until 1927 when Warner Bros released the first talkie with Al Jolson called “The Jazz Singer.” Only then was Einstein finally knocked out of the #1 position in the public’s imagination. Quite a run for someone who stayed in his room all day thinking.
After having a fingernail crudely clipped by a crazed employee while reaching for a slice of blueberry pie at a Horn and Hardart Automat, he begins limiting his public outings. By the time the 1930’s hit he had stopped touring altogether and did most of his work in the studio with some fellow physicists and an adolescent George Martin overseeing the production.
How He Different, Why He Special
1905 was known as Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis or “Miracle Year.” This was a time when simple equations and complex theories intersected in that miraculous year when Einstein published 4 papers revolutionizing Physics and by extension our perception of reality. In this case the use of the over used word “revolutionary” provides the superb example from which all the other uses are mere hyperbole. His papers submitted to the leading German scientific publication Annalen der Physik were stunning in their scope, brevity and lack of citation. That is; his theories were so revolutionary few previous works leading to his theories could be referenced.
Einstein’s 1905 Papers – a Poor Man’s Primer
- The Photoelectric Effect – That light is a wave as well as a particle containing discrete energy packets or light quanta and that it is, depending on its frequency, capable of causing electrons to be emitted (exciting them) from a black body (something the light hits, like a metal surface).
- Brownian Motion – Provided empirical evidence on the existence of heretofore theorized atoms along with a statistical analysis for predicting their positions.
- Special Theory of Relativity – Only a fool would explain it in one sentence and I’m certainly not going to say the Special Theory of Relativity recognizes the speed of light (c) is identical for all observers in an inertial frame of reference and that time slows down and the length of objects contract as one approaches c; completely obliterating the constructs of Galileo and Newton. He knocked this paper off on June 30, 1905 – after tackling Brownian Motion, but before dispatching the equivalency of mass and energy. He also attended a soccer match and bought socks in Bremerhaven.
- E=mc² – The energy inherent in an object (kinetic, potential and nuclear binding) is equivalent to its mass (# of atoms) multiplied by the speed of light (186,000 per second) squared. When one squares the speed of light, one can readily apprehend why nuclear explosions are insensibly powerful. This simple 5 glyph equation is an erotically elegant descriptor of mankind’s universe and, at one level, connects and equates us all.
Once You’ve Read the Story, it’s Converted into Energy
Sometimes I stand in awe and marvel at Einstein’s august discoveries, and other times I simply need to do laundry. Life is funny that way. Researching this piece has inspired me to pursue what I call the next big thing – namely, creating a genome-like map of human consciousness and determining the source of this animating expression of man. However, that pursuit is for another time because right now I’ve got like no clean shirts.
Perhaps someday even Einstein’s startling theories will be nothing more than quaint approximations of a universe that has completely surpassed his stodgy paradigms. In fact many latter day scientists thought Einstein’s later work rather parochial, but that’s like criticizing Christ for not shaving. Grand accomplishments do tend to fade away. I mean there was a time no one believed Mitzi Gaynor would replace Al Jolson as the world’s greatest entertainer or that gas guzzlers would be replaced by Priuses or Prii or whatever the damn plural is for Prius. I bow deeply in gratitude to what Einstein’s consciousness bestowed upon our world. He brilliantly solved some of the most daunting metaphysical mysteries known to mankind. For all the other mysteries (depending on your frame of reference), have a little faith.
By David Hardiman of Livermore
Bonus Section – Just as DVDs have outtakes, deleted scenes and inserted material; take a behind the scenes look at some of the many edits, bits and notions excised from this piece. Click Here
 The Inverse Square Law states that the strength of some physical quantity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance. In essence as you get farther away from a source it becomes really weak in a hurry. For example a light 3 miles away is 9Xs less luminous than a similar light 1 mile away.