Answer by Jay Wacker, professor at Stanford University in particle physics and astrophysics:
In order to evaluate the claim, consider this one piece of evidence: In one year, Einstein produced four transformative results:
- The photoelectric effect, which is really what set off quantum theory
- Brownian motion, where he proves the existence of atoms that were not accepted generally by physicists (though chemists believed in them)
- Special relativity, where he showed that the constancy of the speed of light led to a new type of kinematics
- The equivalence of energy and mass, where he showed that mass is a type of energy
Those are four results from 1905. Although Einstein did not work in a vacuum, he did publish all of these papers on his own before anyone else and deserves credit for each of these results. Particularly for special relativity, the scientific community was circling around the answer, but he simply gave us the intuition that we still teach a century later.
Any person who made a single one of those contributions would have their names in physics textbooks a century later. That one person made all of these contributions and made them in one year places him in the canon of leaders of human thought from all time.
He contributed many other things to physics in the following years. His most important contribution was general relativity, where his single-minded fixation on the equivalence principle (that inertial mass and gravitational mass are the same) let him formulate a scientific theory decades before we should have had it.
Einstein was universally respected and admired, and physicists are not ones to give credit lightly to others. As an example, the year 2005 was called the “World Year of Physics” because it was the centennial of the miraculous year that Einstein had.
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Answer by Eric Pepke:
No, Einstein wasn’t a fraud.
A lot of people discovered E = mc2, or more commonly, E = kmc2, where k is some constant. It’s easy to do using dimensional analysis, and the formula for kinetic energy is E = 1/2mv2, which is kind of a hint.
However, this is not the contribution of Einstein, even in special relativity. What Einstein did, which was quite brilliant, was to work out the Lorentz transformations (Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction and Lorentz time dilation) in a way that came from simple Euclidean geometry, most notably the Pythagorean theorem, in such a way that it made sense without extraneous concepts like the Luminiferous Aether. The real equation is E2 – p2c2 = m2c4, which relates energy, momentum, and mass in a 4-D Minkowskian space-time manifold in exactly the same way that space and time are related. This was quite brilliant. E = mc2 is simply what happens when you set the momentum p to zero and take the (positive) square root of both sides. This equation caught on, partially because it’s easy to remember, and partially because people tried to make it work with a concept called the “relativistic mass.” Talking about this hasn’t been fashionable for about 60 years, though, because it has the potential of muddying more than clarifying, and it distracts from the beauty of the 4-D view.
The fact that there are other names for these things (Lorentz, Fitzgerald, Minkowski) should provide a clue that other people had done bits of important work, and they are appropriately recognized by the names (even if they are harder to spell). Einstein put it all together and made it simple.
It was pretty common at the time for scientists at the time to get their spouses to help with writing papers. (For a gender-reversed case, see Marie and Pierre Curie.) The strong claim I have seen is that Einstein’s wife was better at math (along with the myth that Einstein was terrible with math). This runs into two problems. First, the math in special relativity is very simple, well within the skills of a reasonably intelligent ninth-grader. Second, it had already been devised by the people mentioned. What Einstein really did in special realtivity was provide a keen, childlike insight that made what had been known for years make sense.
There’s a small problem in that Einstein’s special relativity paper, “,” was what we would now call a “sketch” paper and did not have the kind of references we now expect from papers. However, throughout his career, Einstein was, if anything, effusive in his recognition of and thanks to other people.
Still, it is unlikely that Einstein would be remembered for special relativity alone. General relativity was his crowning achievement. He started to get famous because general relativity correctly explained the precession of Mercury, about which nobody had a good idea. Even without this, general relativity would have been a brilliant accomplishment, as it provides a way to deal with all reference frames with the same set of equations, though at the expense of great mathematical complexity, for the first time since Galileo came up with the principle of relativity that all motion could be treated equally.
In his later life, Einstein ran up against some brick walls and made some serious mistakes. Once he thought he had come up with a way of unifying gravity and electromagnetism. It was so popular that a London shopkeeper attached the paper to the inside of his windows, and it drew significant crowds. (How times have changed!) It was wrong, but still it makes me more tolerant of the various people (who mostly seem to be electrical engineers) who come up with similar ideas from time to time.
Still, general relativity is amazing, and his work in quantum Mechanics was at least very good. He was nowhere near a fraud.
More questions on Physicists:
- What was it like to be at CERN on the day of the discovery of the Higgs Boson (4th July, 2012)?
- Is having a bunch of the world’s best mathematicians and physicists work on automated trades a waste of the world’s human capital?
- How did Einstein’s musical practice inform his scientific work?