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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Thank the Year 1905: Big Ideas That Have Changed the World

It is so easy to rail against, to decry, to be a Cassandra that one can diminish the importance of the good and great on the planet. So many humans are inferior in so many ways that they can seem to be all humans, if one does not keep context. So, here is a reminder of just how good man can be and how good man can make life and has made life for us. Enjoy the sunlight from man's mind.

Article published Oct 19, 2005
Big ideas that have changed the world

Thank the year 1905 for:
The laser. Solar cells. Computer chips. Optical switches.

And don't forget The Bomb and nuclear energy.

An unparalleled flurry of scientific thought marks 1905 as a year of monumental discovery. Five brainy papers that revolutionized physics and other natural sciences were published that year.

Had it been one paper each by five scientists, it still would have been a remarkable feat. But that all five were written by one 26-year-old is next to incomprehensible - about as easy to grasp as E=mc€.

"Any one of them could have won him the Nobel Prize," University of Florida physics professor Jack Sabin said of the genius Albert Einstein. "1905 was the greatest year for physics since (Isaac) Newton."

Recognizing that, UF's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the department of physics sponsored a symposium Tuesday commemorating "Einstein's Miracle Year." Sabin, associate dean of the college, said Dean Neil Sullivan said "we couldn't let 2005 go by without some type of event marking what a fantastic year 1905 was."

Several speakers recounted Einstein's life and work before an audience of more than 60 people crowded into Dauer Hall. Among them were students, faculty and members of the general public.

Fred Gregory of UF's history department, who specializes in the history of science, talked about the early influences that led Einstein into natural science.

One of his earliest influences was a compass he was given at about age 5. Later influences were the political climate of late 19th century Germany and a couple of books questioning science and conventional religion that he read in early adolescence.

"He was not a favorite of teachers," Gregory said. "He had an anti-authoritarian streak and (the books) were right down his alley."

In his miracle year, Einstein wasn't even a full-time researcher; he was working in a patent office in Bern, Germany. But his prolific writings of 1905 began with his doctoral dissertation that proposed a new theory of molecular dimensions.

In other published papers that year he also proved the existence of atoms, devised his theory of relativity - which he followed up a few weeks later with his famous equation on energy, E=mc€ - and laid the foundation for quantum physics.

The excitement Einstein created with his theories a century ago was reflected in Arthur Hebard's voice as he spoke about another 1905 milestone, "the photoelectric effect." That complex study on the relationship of electrons and electromagnetic radiation, he said, led to today's laser and solar-cell technology, among other things.

"His genius really spread across the map," said Hebard, a UF professor of physics who conducted an experiment with ultraviolet light to help explain the photoelectric effect. "It's his different ways of looking at space and time."

He said Einstein's equation E=hf-W - which explains the photoelectric effect - "is just as important as E=mc€."

Before the seminar, Sabin said Einstein's work of 1905 was not instantly recognized or accepted.

"In my opinion, the theory of relativity was the most revolutionary of those discoveries, and it took a long time for it to get accepted," Sabin said. "In fact, it was normally thought that he should have won the Nobel Prize for that, but the old Swedes on the committee thought it was wrong."

It was 16 years later, in 1921, that Einstein won the Nobel Prize for physics - for the photoelectric effect, not his theory of relativity.

Einstein's general theory of relativity, Sabin said, holds that light is attracted by gravity just as mass is. That means that you should be able to see the bending of light rays close to the sun, he said. And just as Einstein thought, you can.

Gregory said Einstein's work "remains with us because it forces us to confront what we normally do not think about - that our lives on spaceship Earth are part of a vastly larger drama.

"We occasionally catch glimpses of its mystery - in Einstein's results, for example - and these snatches of the whole remind us of how much there is yet to discover," he said.

Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 352-374-5042 or



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