A century later, Einstein's first ideas still hold power

Quantum revelations underlie today's nanotech work in chip design and are a fact of life for GPS satellites.

It's rare that a person gets a chance to overturn humanity's conception of the universe.

But with five scientific papers submitted in 1905, Albert Einstein managed to do that three times: proving the existence of atoms, uncloaking the bizarre realm of quantum mechanics and overturning views of space and time.

Einstein overhauled much of physics at age 26 during a seven-year stint as a Swiss patent clerk, newly married to his first wife and with a 1-year-old son. This year, physicists, authors, cooperative computing projects and even choreographers are commemorating his achievement.

Einstein is best known to the general public for his theory of relativity, the opening salvo of which came in a paper submitted in June 1905. That theory ultimately created a new conception of space, time and gravity. But the Nobel Prize came for his first work of 1905, which helped lay the foundation for quantum physics by suggesting that light behaves both like a wave and as a particle.


What's old is new:
A century after Albert Einstein submitted five revolutionary physics papers, his ideas still have resonance for scientists and high-tech researchers.

Bottom line:
Einstein's quantum revelations underlie today's nanotech work in areas such as chip design and are a fact of life for GPS satellites.

More stories on physics and technology innovation

"Relativity stretched our notions of space and time, but we still had space and time. Quantum physics destroys our everyday notions," said Richard Wolfson, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, in a lecture marking the 100th anniversary of Einstein's annus mirabilis.

And the shock waves spread widely: Decades later, the quantum revolution Einstein helped begin has become a fact of life in microprocessor design.

Einstein's papers that year are neatly packaged resolutions to the physics problems of the day. He launched them without the support--or hindrances--associated with being a typical young university researcher.

"It's unlikely he could have come up with relativity and quantum theory as a junior lecturer in a well-established physics department, where such ideas would probably have been suppressed as cranky coming from a man with no reputation," said Andrew Robinson, a scholar at Eton College and the author and editor of "Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity," to be published by Harry N. Abrams later this year.

To a certain extent, Einstein was in the right field at the right time. Experiments to test new theories were more affordable, and the field of physics was young enough to accommodate generalists such as Einstein.

"The outstanding problems in physics now are in some respects harder than the outstanding problems in physics 100 years ago," said Rice University physics professor Doug Natelson. That doesn't mean Einstein had it easy, though. If Einstein hadn't existed, he said, "I doubt it would have been one individual who would have figured out all these things in such a short space of time."

Quantum physics
Einstein's first paper, submitted in March, concerned quantum physics, the peculiar realm of the ultra-tiny in which certainties are replaced by fuzzy clouds of probability. Max Planck started the quantum physics ball rolling in 1900, but Einstein gave it major impetus when he showed that 19th-century physicists' view of light as electromagnetic wave was incomplete.

The word "quantum" refers to discrete packets of light--particles now

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