Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Einstein's century

Einstein's century
By Thomas Oliphant  |  March 1, 2005

ACCORDING to the documentary record, what was arguably the hottest hot streak in the history of the human mind was beginning just about now 100 years ago....
....The Bush administration, however, has chosen to dishonor the triumph of America's best known immigrant. Instead, it is starving the research activities of people working on potential breakthroughs across the board, especially those attempting pure research and thought of the kind that Einstein devoted his life to. It is also erecting political roadblocks to other forms of research on the basis of religion-based absolutes. It is scorning science in its policies on the environment, needle exchange and sex education to curb the spread of HIV-AIDS, and climate change. The Bush idea of faith in science's potential is best expressed in the billions being flushed down the toilet for missile defense and work on a new generation of nuclear weapons.
In lieu of a science-friendly government to celebrate Einstein, we nonexperts at least have a marvelous book to turn to, hot off the Harvard University Press. In ''Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness," John Rigden not only summarizes accessibly the great man's accomplishments of that year; he analyses the nature of scientific research.
A physics professor at the Washington University in St. Louis, Rigden says scientists and their research breakthroughs differ from great accomplishments by artists and composers. If Claude Monet had never lived or if Mozart had not written his mold-breaking opera ''The Magic Flute," their works would not exist. To that extent, the activity inside their heads is central.
Scientists, according to Rigden, are much more driven by events outside their creative heads. It is certain, he says, that particle theory, quantum physics, even relativity would have emerged out of the then-existing state of knowledge and inquiry. Where the scientist is unique is in his expression of what he discovers. Einstein famously said ''a storm broke loose in my mind" that unprecedented year, and for all his genius he just as famously said that in pure research, ''imagination is more important than knowledge."....