Worlds Greatest Brains: Albert Einstein

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Black board einstein

“Yes, we have to divide up our time like that, between our politics and our equations. But to me our equations are far more important, for politics are only a matter of present concern. A mathematical equation stands forever.”

 

This philosophy was embedded in Einstein’s life. He spent most of his time as a physicist reveling in thought experiments and solving new and prevailing problems in physics, hoping that his solutions will be imprinted into the eternal rulebook of reality. At many moments of his life however, his political and moral nature took hold of him and he would fight for freedom, pacifism and the protection of the world from Hitler through the Atomic bomb. He was one of the key figures who signed Bertrand Russell’s petition for nuclear disarmament. Einstein was an ecstatic genius who was adept in applied mathematics, physics and philosophy, without this German born patent officer our science today would look very different. Not even different… just plain wrong.

As a child Einstein was a slow learner. Many pin this down to a form of dyslexia or shyness, it might be neither. This slow learning did not impede his education, it enriched it:

“I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.”

Were you ever given a physics, math or biology homework which made you think about it longer even if you had already solved it? This is what Einstein did. His brain was such that, he contemplated and inquired into the fundamental nature of phenomena and he questioned what he was taught. This determination to find the true answer that was driven by his restless curiosity stayed with him until his death. Even the physicist himself said:

“I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.”

An interesting neuroscience research project would be to theorize from MRI scans, what brain structure or amount of grey matter causes a large curiosity. The need to understand and accumulate systematic facts. One day maybe.

At the age of twelve Einstein met his long life friend, mathematics. He was an exceptional mathematician. Many say that he flunked his maths entrance exam… this is nonsense. Einstein scored very highly in maths and physics but failed the liberal arts section.

Through his teenage years he developed his intellect and education through building mechanical devices and reading books given to him by his two uncles. He read the works of the philosopher Kant and later read the papers written by the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

 

 

Einstein finally graduated from the polytechnic university of Zurich with a degree in physics. He wanted to obtain a teaching position at the university but as a student he was lazy, rude and eccentric which pissed off most of his professors. He couldn’t get a position.

Though the young Albert was in luck. His friend recommended him to a Swiss patent-office where he would spend a year or so as a patent clerk. Einstein had to assess the inventions going through the office and this required his physics knowledge.

What is so unique and quite frankly odd is that whilst Bertie over there -> was working in the office he wrote three of his most important and ground-breaking papers. He published a paper on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect and the special theory of relativity.

What exactly is Brownian motion?  Well… Brownian motion (named after the botanist Robert Brown) is the random movement of particles suspended in air. It can be observed by placing a smoke particle in a test tube and using a lens and microscope one can observe its apparent random motion. Einstein formulated this physical principle and reasoned that the smoke particle is being bombarded by air molecules that are in motion.

The photoelectric effect (might as well explain the other two) is where a photon (a quantum of light or em radiation) collides with and electron and the electron escapes the surface. This can only occur if the energy of the photon is at or above a minimum value. E (energy of photon) = h (planks constant) times by (f the frequency of the photon). This energy must equal the work function of the surface.

Special relativity is the daddy of all daddies. It states that the measured motion, length and time of other objects is ultimately relative to your own state of motion. If I was on a bike and you were standing still eating an ice cream than you will be moving relative to me as I perceive you moving towards me. This sounds absurd but it is physically true. The theory of relativity also states that in any inertial reference frame (state of motion) the speed of light is constant and that all particles cannot accelerate to this speed. Though modern quantum research shows that particles such as tachyons can travel at the speed of light at all times assuming that it has never been at rest.

Phew… a lot to take in. These papers were outstandingly important in physics, maths and chemistry. It paved the way for a new cosmology where space and time become one… a fabric which mass curves at its will.

Einstein contributed massively to other areas of physics. One small one was the Einstein-Szilard refrigerator which uses thermodynamics to cool the refrigerator with no moving parts only with heat coming in (with other gases).

For his paper on the photoelectric effect he earned the Nobel prize in physics in 1921.

This effect paved the way towards quantum physics which is an area of physics which uses statistical mechanics to explain the subatomic world. Einstein later became a hater of this scary un-deterministic physics:

“God does not play dice with the universe” says Einstein.  Bohr swiftly replies; “Stop telling God what to do”

 

Einstein carried on with his physics trying to unify electromagnetism and relativity… with no success. He died trying.

Bohr and other physicists carried on with the successful quantum mechanics.

 

Despite this Einstein is still seen as one of the greatest brains in history. To me, his ways of thinking and of living are inspirational and rational, it is also a playful and fun way to observe the universe.

If Einstein wanted you to learn one thing, it wouldn’t be his theories which might become false someday… but this:

“If A is success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play;
and z is keeping your mouth shut.”

 

Studying Physics at Swansea University and may interests lay in quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and neuroscience. I enjoy rowing, sport and politcal banter.

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