Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein

By Abraham Pais | Go to book overview
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2
Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory

Einstein's life ended . . . with a demand on us for synthesis. W. Pauli [P1]


2a. Orderly Transitions and Revolutionary Periods

In all the history of physics, there has never been a period of transition as abrupt, as unanticipated, and over as wide a front as the decade 1895 to 1905. In rapid succession the experimental discoveries of X-rays ( 1895), the Zeeman effect ( 1896), radioactivity ( 1896), the electron ( 1897), and the extension of infrared spectroscopy into the 3 μm to 60 μm region opened new vistas. The birth of quantum theory ( 1900) and relativity theory ( 1905) marked the beginning of an era in which the very foundations of physical theory were found to be in need of revision. Two men led the way toward the new theoretical concepts: Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck, professor at the University of Berlin, possessed--perhaps obsessed-- by the search for the universal function of frequency and temperature, known to exist since 1859, when Gustav Robert Kirchhoff formulated his fundamental law of blackbody radiation (19a)*; and Albert Einstein, technical expert at the Swiss patent office in Bern, working in an isolation which deserves to be called splendid (3).

In many superficial ways, these two men were quite unlike each other. Their backgrounds, circumstances, temperaments, and scientific styles differed profoundly. Yet there were deep similarities. In the course of addressing Planck on the occasion of Planck's sixtieth birthday, Einstein said:

The longing to behold . . . preestablished harmony** is the source of the inexhaustible persistence and patience with which we see Planck devoting himself to the most general problems of our science without letting himself be deflected by goals which are more profitable and easier to achieve. I have often heard that colleagues would like to attribute this attitude to exceptional will-power

____________________
*
In this chapter, I use for the last time parenthetical notations when referring to a chapter or a section thereof. Thus, (19a) means Chapter 19, Section a.
**
An expression of Leibniz's which Einstein considered particularly apt.

-26-

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