How smart is Einstein?

There is a parlor game physics students play: Who was the greater genius? Galileo or

Kepler? (Galileo) Maxwell or Bohr? (Maxwell, but it's closer than you might think).

Hawking or Heisenberg? (A no-brainer, whatever the best-seller lists might say. It's

Heisenberg). But there are two figures who are simply off the charts. Isaac Newton is one.

The other is Albert Einstein. If pressed, physicists give Newton pride of place, but it is

a photo finish -- and no one else is in the race.

Newton's claim is obvious. He created modern physics. His system described the behavior of

the entire cosmos -- and while others before him had invented grand schemes, Newton's was

different. His theories were mathematical, making specific predictions to be confirmed by

experiments in the real world. Little wonder that those after Newton called him lucky --

"for there is only one universe to discover, and he discovered it. "

But what of Einstein? Well, Einstein felt compelled to apologize to Newton. "Newton,

forgive me;" Einstein wrote in his Autobiographical Notes. "You found the only way which,

in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power."

Forgive him? For what? For replacing Newton's system with his own -- and, like Newton, for

putting his mark on virtually every branch of physics.

There is a parlor game physics students play: Who was the greater genius? Galileo or

Kepler? (Galileo) Maxwell or Bohr? (Maxwell, but it's closer than you might think).

Hawking or Heisenberg? (A no-brainer, whatever the best-seller lists might say. It's

Heisenberg). But there are two figures who are simply off the charts. Isaac Newton is one.

The other is Albert Einstein. If pressed, physicists give Newton pride of place, but it is

a photo finish -- and no one else is in the race.

Newton's claim is obvious. He created modern physics. His system described the behavior of

the entire cosmos -- and while others before him had invented grand schemes, Newton's was

different. His theories were mathematical, making specific predictions to be confirmed by

experiments in the real world. Little wonder that those after Newton called him lucky --

"for there is only one universe to discover, and he discovered it. "

But what of Einstein? Well, Einstein felt compelled to apologize to Newton. "Newton,

forgive me;" Einstein wrote in his Autobiographical Notes. "You found the only way which,

in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power."

Forgive him? For what? For replacing Newton's system with his own -- and, like Newton, for

putting his mark on virtually every branch of physics.

That's the difference. Young physicists who play the "who's smarter" game are really

asking, "how will I measure up?" Is there a shot to match -- if not Maxwell, then perhaps

Lorentz? But Einstein? Don't go there. Match this:

In 1905, Einstein is 26, a patent examiner, working on physics on his own. After hours, he

creates the Special Theory of Relativity, in which he demonstrates that measurements of

time and distance vary systematically as anything moves relative to anything else. Which

means that Newton was wrong. Space and time are not absolute -- and the relativistic

universe we inhabit is not the one Newton "discovered."

That's pretty good -- but one idea, however spectacular, does not make a demi-god. But now

add the rest of what Einstein did in 1905:

In March, Einstein creates the quantum theory of light, the idea that light exists as tiny

packets, or particles, that we now call photons. Alongside Max Planck's work on quanta of

heat, and Niels Bohr's later work on quanta of matter, Einstein's work anchors the most

shocking idea in twentieth century physics: we live in a quantum universe, one built out

of tiny, discrete chunks of energy and matter.

Next, in April and May, Einstein publishes two papers. In one he invents a new method of

counting and determining the size of the atoms or molecules in a given space and in the

other he explains the phenomenon of Brownian motion. The net result is a proof that atoms

actually exist -- still an issue at that time -- and the end to a millennia-old debate on

the fundamental nature of the chemical elements.

And then, in June, Einstein completes special relativity -- which adds a twist to the

story: Einstein's March paper treated light as particles, but special relativity sees

light as a continuous field of waves. Alice's Red Queen can accept many impossible things

before breakfast, but it takes a supremely confident mind to do so. Einstein, age 26, sees

light as wave and particle, picking the attribute he needs to confront each problem in

turn. Now that's tough.

packets, or particles, that we now call photons. Alongside Max Planck's work on quanta of

heat, and Niels Bohr's later work on quanta of matter, Einstein's work anchors the most

shocking idea in twentieth century physics: we live in a quantum universe, one built out

of tiny, discrete chunks of energy and matter.

Next, in April and May, Einstein publishes two papers. In one he invents a new method of

counting and determining the size of the atoms or molecules in a given space and in the

other he explains the phenomenon of Brownian motion. The net result is a proof that atoms

actually exist -- still an issue at that time -- and the end to a millennia-old debate on

the fundamental nature of the chemical elements.

And then, in June, Einstein completes special relativity -- which adds a twist to the

story: Einstein's March paper treated light as particles, but special relativity sees

light as a continuous field of waves. Alice's Red Queen can accept many impossible things

before breakfast, but it takes a supremely confident mind to do so. Einstein, age 26, sees

light as wave and particle, picking the attribute he needs to confront each problem in

turn. Now that's tough.

And of course, Einstein isn't finished. Later in 1905 comes an extension of special

relativity in which Einstein proves that energy and matter are linked in the most famous

relationship in physics: E=mc2. (The energy content of a body is equal to the mass of the

body times the speed of light squared). At first, even Einstein does not grasp the full

implications of his formula, but even then he suggests that the heat produced by radium

could mark the conversion of tiny amounts of the mass of the radium salts into energy.

In sum -- an amazing outburst: Einstein's 1905 still evokes awe. Historians call it the

annus mirabilis, the miracle year. Einstein ranges from the smallest scale to the largest

(for special relativity is embodied in all motion throughout the universe), through

fundamental problems about the nature of energy, matter, motion, time and space--all the

while putting in forty hours a week at the patent office.

And that alone would have been enough to secure Einstein's reputation. But it is what

comes next that is almost more remarkable. After 1905, Einstein achieves what no one since

has equaled: a twenty year run at the cutting edge of physics. For all the miracles of his

miracle year, his best work is still to come:

In 1907, he confronts the problem of gravitation -- the same problem that Newton

confronted, and solved -- almost. Einstein begins his work with one crucial insight:

gravity and acceleration are equivalent, two facets of the same phenomenon. Where this

"principle of equivalence" will lead remains obscure, but to Einstein, it offers the first

hint of a theory that could supplant Newton's.

Before anyone else, Einstein recognizes the essential dualism in nature, the co-existence

of particles and waves at the level of quanta. In 1911 he declares resolving the quantum

issue to be the central problem of physics.

Even the minor works resonate. For example, in 1910, Einstein answers a basic question:

"Why is the sky blue?" His paper on the phenomenon called critical opalescence solves the

problem by examining the cumulative effect of the scattering of light by individual

In 1907, he confronts the problem of gravitation -- the same problem that Newton

confronted, and solved -- almost. Einstein begins his work with one crucial insight:

gravity and acceleration are equivalent, two facets of the same phenomenon. Where this

"principle of equivalence" will lead remains obscure, but to Einstein, it offers the first

hint of a theory that could supplant Newton's.

Before anyone else, Einstein recognizes the essential dualism in nature, the co-existence

of particles and waves at the level of quanta. In 1911 he declares resolving the quantum

issue to be the central problem of physics.

Even the minor works resonate. For example, in 1910, Einstein answers a basic question:

"Why is the sky blue?" His paper on the phenomenon called critical opalescence solves the

problem by examining the cumulative effect of the scattering of light by individual