The Other 1905 Revolution

Joshua Foer reviews two books about Einstein, in The Nation:

In his 1902 book Science and Hypothesis, the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré surveyed the landscape of modern physics and found three fundamental conundrums bedeviling his field: the chaotic zigzagging of small particles suspended in liquid, known as Brownian motion; the curious fact that metals emit electrons when exposed to ultraviolet light, known as the photoelectric effect; and science’s failure to detect the ether, the invisible medium through which light waves were thought to propagate. In 1904 a 25-year-old Bern patent clerk named Albert Einstein read Poincaré’s book. Nothing the young physicist had done with his life until that point foreshadowed the cerebral explosion he was about to unleash. A year later, he had solved all three of Poincaré’s problems.

“A storm broke loose in my mind,” Einstein would later say of 1905, the annus mirabilis, which John S. Rigden calls “the most productive six months any scientist ever enjoyed.” Between March and September, he published five seminal papers, each of which transformed physics. Three were Nobel Prize material; another, his thesis dissertation, remains one of the most cited scientific papers ever; and the fifth, a three-page afterthought, derived the only mathematical equation you’re likely to find on a pair of boxer shorts, E = mc2.

More here.