Sunday, January 01, 2006

Will There be Another Einstein?

The World Year of Physics has ended. The year 2005 was the 100th anniversary of the year that Einstein wrote five groundbreaking papers in quantum mechanics, relativity, and thermodynamics. This was a remarkable performance and is certainly the reason that Einstein is revered by physicists, but John Horgan in an essay in the New York Times points out that Einstein is the most well known and perhaps respected scientist of all time, because of he was also concerned with the moral and philosophical implications of science.

John Stachel, a physicist and editor of "Einstein's Miraculous Year," a reissue of Einstein's seminal 1905 papers, rejects the notion that no scientist will ever again evoke our awe and admiration the way Einstein did. "I hope and believe that the combination of technical, philosophical and, yes, moral concerns and talents, although extremely rare, will not prove to be unique," Stachel told me recently. The budding scientists and engineers I encounter in my job give me hope that science has a bright future. But I suspect that we will never see Einstein's like again, because he was the product of a unique convergence of time and temperament. Besides, Einstein didn't think he lived up to his own reputation either. "I am no Einstein," he once said. Of course, such modesty only makes us admire and miss him more.

I am hopeful, but it may take awhile. The time that Einstein lived was ripe for breakthroughs. Experiments were demonstrating problems with classical physics in both the realm of the very small where quantum mechanics applies and in the realm of light and electromagnetic radiation where special relativity would provide the solution.

Today we have a very interesting problem that most of the universe is made up of matter and energy that we do not understand. There appears to be matter that we cannot detect with telescopes but is responsible for holding galaxies together, and there is a force or energy that is driving the expansion of the universe faster than four known forces, gravity, electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces can explain. If someone made breakthroughs in both these areas, we would have a candidate for the next Einstein. Now if that person would take a high profile in international affairs we would have it.

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