Thursday, August 18, 2005

Einstein's Cosmos

A few months ago, I had the good fortune of laying my hands upon Brian Greene's wonderful book, Fabric of the Cosmos. The book fascinated me enough to write a review of sort on my puny little corner of the web world. It turns out that this book had really woken up a dormant physicist somewhere inside me and I have been itching to know more about this wonderful pet subject of physicists called the Universe. A name which is synonymous with physics is that of Albert Einstein, the iconoclastic genius, arguably the most influential scientist of all times. Brian Greene had spurred me enough to know more about Albert Einstein and his revolutionary theories. So, I headed to Fulton County public library to pick up whatever I could find on the Man of the Millenium according to Time magazine. Two books lay there, side by side, both remarkably similar in their outer appearance, similar cover, similar titles and almost the same number of pages. The similarity did not end there, both are written by scientists, one by Barry Parker other by Michio Kaku both physicists, and aspire to fill a gap in the vast popular literature on Einstein by focusing more on his life as a physicist rather than being run of the mill biographies. The book by Barry Parker, though self contained, is part of a trilogy on Albert Einstein and the one by Kaku is not, that probably is the only difference between the two. So reading one book was as good as reading both.

I decided to start out with the book by Michio Kaku, Einstein's cosmos, for no other reason than that his is a name I had heard before. The book is divided into three parts, corresponding to three pictures which Einstein came up with in his quest to understad the Universe. The first picture, that of racing a light beam, inspired him to come up with Special Relativity. The second one , on the equivalence of acceleration & gravity, gave mankind General Relativity and the third one was his unfinished quest for a unified theory combining Quantum Theory with General Relativity. The book is very well written and gives a basic grasp of Einstein's ideas and true magnitude of his genius. Einstein's contribution to science , and consequently to humanity, is unfathomably deep and far reaching. His theories have opened up vistas unknown before his time and so fundamentally shaken the roots of science that modern science would have been decades , if not centuries, behind if not for him. Kaku is successful in his attempt to provide basic insights into Einstein's work and also the thought process Einstein may have gone through during the course of his discoveries.

Equally interestingly, Kaku gives a fairly detailed description of Einstein's personal and public life well enough for this book to qualify as a semi-biography. The anecdotes from Einstein's life are quite informative and entertaining. The book is full of famous quotes from Einstein who incidentally was quite a genius at making a smart quip as well. To sample some of those, when Einstein was troubled by the inherent randomness in nature implied by quantum theory, he quipped "God does not play dice." When asked to describe relativity for a lay person, he replied "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity." Writing about the importance of time, he remarked, "The only reason for time to exist is so that everything doesn't happen at once." Emphasising simplicity in the matters of science Einstein said, "Things should be as simple as possible, but not simpler." There were many many more which will need a couple of more posts if I desire to dwelve into them.

One thing which came off as something of a great surprise to me was Einstein's disdain for pure mathematics. Einstein was no slouch in mathematics but his skills apparently were a far cry from the likes of Newton, the scientist & mathematician who alone can qualify as Einstein's equal.To Einstein, abstract mathematics was "superfluous erudition", and the physical picture was the king. After his discovery of Special Relativity, a theory which came in for a lot of attention of mathematicians because of its inherent "beauty", he famously remarked "Since the mathematicians have started to tackle Special Relativity, I myself do not understand it." Einstein was the kind of genius who never thought in terms of mathematics. He always thought in terms of vivid physical pictures , mathematics to him was merely a book-keeping device invoked only when he needed to work out tedious details. It was quite a contrary to his contemporaries who got so lost in intricate mathematics and the intellectual entertainment it provided that they forgot what they were dealing with are physical objects not mathematical constructs.

Another surprising fact is regarding his Nobel Prize. Einstein had done enough work to get 4-5 nobel prizes in his lifetime and his theories are still generating nobel prizes for other scientists. Interestingly enough, Einstein did not get his Nobel for General Relativity, the work he is best known for. His Nobel came for his explanation of Photoelectric effect, a relatively minor work in his long & distinguished career. According to the book, the Nobel committee could not understand General Relativity and did not want to award a Nobel Prize in something they themselves did not understand. In his acceptance speech, Einstein completely ignored photoelectric effect, and talked about his most cherished creation General Relativity instead.

After finishing up the book, I could not help but get philosophical again. The Universe is trillions of light years vast, billions of years old and full of exotic things like stars, planets, black holes, atoms, quarks, electrons and what not. However, inspite of all its apparent complexity , there is a strange order , an order which unbelievably can be described by few mathematical expressions. Isn't it incredible that one man sitting in a quiet room on an incredibly small & insignificant planet can figure out that order underlying the Universe. Not only he can discover an order in a mind numbingly chaotic world, he can make predictions which fly on the face of common experience but are still startingly accurate. To me this is simply exhilirating.

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