Chapter 12 of 'Einstein' - all chapters at

12. Albert looked up at the drawing of Galileo Galilei above his desk. In the drawing, the 17th-century astronomer and physicist had a long face with a receding hairline and long dark hair. His beard was white and longer in front than on the sides, giving his face an angular look. He had intelligent eyes.

While some of Galileo's theories had been left behind in the wake of more modern ones, he was still a giant in the development of modern science. He had created the foundation for the evolution of physics by introducing numerous new methods and techniques that brought credibility to science itself. He was recognized as the founder of experimental physics, establishing that experimentation was necessary to test the validity of a theory. He was also the founder of modern mechanics, which was under attack by so many recent discoveries. Galileo was the first to combine mathematics and physics to describe how the world worked. He based calculations on experiments and understood the importance of force in mechanics. He also ground his own lenses, building the most powerful telescope of his day, and applied mathematics to astronomy. It did not escape Einstein's notice that Galileo had also dealt with the question of relative motion. He stated in his book, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, that the observer played a critical role in an experiment. He pointed out that without reference to an outside point, constant motion may be undetectable. On the other hand, a stationary observer and a moving one see the world very differently. This type of relative motion was incorporated into Newton's laws in the 18th century. However, two hundred years after Newton and four hundred years after Galileo, Einstein was grappling with the possibility that Newton did not go far enough. Where are we now? Einstein asked, in May 1905, sitting in his study with his wife in the flat somewhere, keeping her distance emotionally and physically. The answer came not in coherent sentences, but in a steady stream of ostensibly random thoughts about recent scientific revelations that floated into his consciousness like pieces of a wrecked ship. A ship he believed he could repair, but a wrecked ship nonetheless.

First, there was the constancy of the speed of light. It seemed clear from Faraday and Maxwell that light was a type of electromagnetic wave, and that all waves traveled at 186,000 miles per second. Using the Michaelson-Morley finding that a moving source did not add velocity to the speed of light, Fitzgerald and Lorentz had gone on to show that nothing could travel faster than 186,000 miles per second. This discovery suggested that 186,000 miles per second was a natural speed limit beyond which it was impossible to move. What else about the nature of light should he consider? Albert thought about his own recently published paper on light. He had told Besso that this paper was not relevant to his immediate concerns, but perhaps it could be useful after all. Einstein's insight was that light was both wave and particle: tiny packets of energy that defied strict categorization. Albert certainly did not intend for his paper about light to be the final word on the subject. Mostly, he wanted to pin down the nature of light so that he could use this information to understand and describe a variety of phenomena, such as why discrepancies with classical physics always seemed to involve measurements of vast distances in space and minute distances in the tiny world of the atom, where objects approached the speed of light. Why was that? Einstein had to consider the possibility that classical mechanics broke down as speeds approached 186,000 miles per second. As he was leaning back in his chair, a burning ember from his cigar stub fell off and landed on his pants leg. It stayed there for several seconds, burning a small hole in his pants, before he felt the heat and flicked it off. The ember was still hot when it fell onto the floor, but Einstein was oblivious to it. He was too absorbed in his thoughts to pay attention to a stupid ember. Fortunately, it gradually turned from red to gray as it lay on the floor. Albert rubbed his thigh where the heat of the ember had broken through the pant leg, but his mind was elsewhere. His thoughts shifted to the other discoveries that were inconsistent with classical theory. There were several that stood out as particularly important. For instance, Fitzgerald had shown that moving objects contract in the direction of their motion, apparently due to the compression of molecules in an electromagnetic field. That discovery led to all sorts of inconsistencies with Newton's laws. The all-important addition-of-velocities concept was gravely threatened by this finding.

Was this true of all, or most, of Newton's principles? Were they true at easy-to-measure speeds, but fall apart when the items involved were subjected to great speeds? While Einstein could not say for sure, he strongly suspected that the answer to this question was yes. Furthermore, it seemed that if Newton's principles broke down as one approached the speed of light, the extreme speeds may have been enhancing an effect that occurred at normal speeds. This effect may have been undetectable by modern measurements and modern science, but as heretical as it might seem to the scientific world of the early 20th century, Einstein suspected that Newton's theories of mechanics were in jeopardy at everyday speeds, under normal circumstances. But if this were the case, how did it all fit together? If Newton's mechanics fell apart, a new order had to apply that could accommodate the new discoveries. For instance, a new theory of mechanics would need to explain Fitzgerald's contraction in movement and the demolition of the addition-of-velocities principle. It also had to account for the other inconsistencies that scientists were having a difficult time reconciling with classical theory, such as uranium giving off radiation, planets whose orbits were no longer predictable, and the discovery of a negatively-charged electron. It was not an easy task and it was not at all clear to Einstein how to approach this extremely complex and wide-ranging problem. He closed his eyes in thought, as he tried to take a step back and look at the situation as objectively as possible. To put it bluntly, it seemed as if chaos was replacing order, and it was hard to imagine principles that governed this chaos. Ernst Mach, whom Albert had started reading at the ETH, had expressed doubt about some of the most basic concepts in classical physics, especially Newton's references to "absolute time" and "absolute space". If Mach was right, and absolute time and absolute space no longer applied, what was there?

Newton gave us order. Gradual, bit-by-bit destruction of Newton had given us nothing. Neither Mach or Poincare had proposed a new order; in fact, they had apparently believed that it was possible to incorporate the new findings into the Newtonian order, with a bit of imagination and slightly shifting perspective. In fact, many scientists believed that parts of Newton’s theories could be adjusted or overthrown without destroying his principles entirely. But the deviations from classical physics had led Albert Einstein far beyond believing that this was a piecemeal proposition. While he had nothing against Newton or his theories, and understood the value of principles that had governed the development of mechanics for a very long time, Einstein was convinced that there was another broad-based and even more far-reaching theory out there. There had to be. The problem Einstein faced in this endeavor was straightforward. On one side, there was a standard that worked consistently and could be verified under almost all circumstances; on the other side, there was experimental evidence and a series of recent findings that varied from this standard. With the recent findings, one had to ask which parts of Newton's grand principles would remain intact, and which would be discarded in some kind of house-cleaning. What about the Law of Inertia, which stated that a body in motion would tend to stay in motion, and a body at rest would tend to stay at rest? Or the Law of Acceleration, which stated that the force acting on an object was equal to the object's mass multiplied by its acceleration? Or the Law of Action and Reaction, which stated that for every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction? The French mathematician Poincaré had suggested that Hedrick Lorentz's discoveries might make sense within a "principle of relativity," where the speed of light served as an impassable limit.

What did that mean for all the other recent findings in the world of physics? Poincare had called it a principle, but there seemed to be conditions because he also suggested that Newton's laws of mechanics still applied. But this type of half-measure did not make sense to Einstein. How could any responsible person continue to believe in a theory when its tenets failed repeatedly under conditions such as high speeds? The answer, in Einstein's mind at least, was that you could not. Did the application of some sort of relativity concept really provide an answer to any of these questions? Perhaps, Einstein thought. But certainly not in its current abstract and undeveloped form. As he chewed lightly on the last of his dead cigar, Albert smiled at the situation he faced.

It was always possible, of course, that the solution was not there to be found. A new unifying theory might not exist. Eventually, someone might find a way to reconcile the new findings with the prevailing principles and offer perfectly reasonable explanations for all those unusual experimental findings.

It was possible. Every scientist with an open mind, which meant every good scientist, had to admit it was possible.

But Einstein, for one, did not believe it.

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