A century later,it’s still all relative

While there are currently geniuses working among us, none seems to parallel Einstein.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death – in 1955, the world lost one of the 20th century’s truly remarkable thinkers. Fifty years before that, in 1905, Einstein proved his genius with four scientific papers that changed the face of physics.

What was truly amazing about Einstein wasn’t just his ability to produce revolutionary ideas and concepts but that his papers actually contradicted themselves – so much that Einstein himself was convinced he was incorrect about quantum mechanics.

Einstein’s famous general and special theories of relativity laid the foundation for making precise predictions in astronomy as well as provided the basis for nuclear energy and nuclear bombs. While relativity was an upgrade to Sir Isaac Newton’s basic laws, it still held that given certain information, precise, accurate predictions could be derived about future events.

But his paper dealing with photons, which described light in an entirely new way from the wave theory in practice at the time, became the basis of quantum mechanics – the gist of which is that nothing in physics is certain, only more probable than any other given outcome.

Resolving these conflicting theories became Einstein’s life’s work, and although he never succeeded in deriving the elusive “unified theory,” many acclaimed physicists have picked up where he left off. Notably, Stephen Hawking has spent much of his professional career searching for a Grand Unified Theory, the Holy Grail of theoretical physicists.

Einstein’s papers were, of course, ridiculously advanced for their time, and even today, intelligent students struggle with the concepts they explore. But their implications have been far-reaching, on the grand scale of astrophysics and astronomy as well as molecular physics and biology.

As we look back at 100 years of revolutionary physics and the technological advances made possible by Einstein’s work, we must appreciate the theoretical scientists searching for answers to the great questions of the 21st century: How do the pieces of the unified theory fit together? What are the applications for such knowledge? And, perhaps most importantly, will humans be wise and humble enough to use them appropriately?