The Legacy of E = mc2

The Legacy of E = mc2
by Peter Tyson
What hasn't Einstein's equation touched in our world?
It's difficult to separate the enormous legacy of E = mc2 from Einstein's legacy as a
whole. After all, the equation grew directly out of Einstein's work on special relativity,
which is a subset of what most consider his greatest achievement, the theory of general
relativity. But I'm going to give it a try nevertheless.
The equation explained
First, though, a capsule explanation of "energy equals mass times the speed of light
squared" might be helpful. On the most basic level, the equation says that energy and
mass (matter) are interchangeable; they are different forms of the same thing. Under the
right conditions, energy can become mass, and vice versa. We humans don't see them that
way—how can a beam of light and a walnut, say, be different forms of the same thing?—
but Nature does.
So why would you have to multiply the mass of that walnut by the speed of light to
determine how much energy is bound up inside it? The reason is that whenever you
convert part of a walnut or any other piece of matter to pure energy, the resulting energy
is by definition moving at the speed of light. Pure energy is electromagnetic radiation—
whether light or X-rays or whatever—and electromagnetic radiation travels at a constant
speed of roughly 670,000,000 miles per hour.
Why, then, do you have to square the speed of light? It has to do with the nature of
energy. When something is moving four times as fast as something else, it doesn't have
four times the energy but rather 16 times the energy—in other words, that figure is
squared. So the speed of light squared is the conversion factor that decides just how much
energy lies captured within a walnut or any other chunk of matter. And because the speed
of light squared is a huge number—448,900,000,000,000,000 in units of mph—the
amount of energy bound up into even the smallest mass is truly mind-boggling (see The
Power of Tiny Things.)
Of course, intuitively understanding that energy and matter are essentially one, as well as
why and how so much energy can be wrapped up in even minute bits of matter, is another
thing. And E = mc2, which focuses on matter at rest, is a simplified version of a more
elaborate equation that Einstein devised, which also takes into account matter in motion
(more on that in a moment). But I hope that you, like I, now have a basic comprehension
with which to appreciate the equation's prodigious influence.
E = mc2 in miniature
Perhaps the equation's most far-reaching legacy is that it provides the key to
understanding the most basic natural processes of the universe, from microscopic
radioactivity to the big bang itself.
Radioactivity is E = mc2 in miniature. Einstein himself suspected this even as he devised
the equation. In the 1905 paper in which he introduced E = mc2 to the world, he
suggested that it might be possible to test his theory about the equation using radium, an
ounce of which, as Marie Curie had discovered not long before, continuously emits 4,000
calories of heat per hour. Einstein believed that radium was constantly converting part of
its mass to energy exactly as his equation specified. He was eventually proved right.
Today we know radioactivity to be a property possessed by some unstable elements, such
as uranium, or isotopes, such as carbon 14, of spontaneously emitting energetic particles
as their atomic nuclei disintegrate. They are metamorphosing mass into energy in direct
accordance with Einstein's equation.
We take advantage of that realization today in many technologies. PET scans and similar
diagnostics used in hospitals, for example, make use of E = mc2. "Whenever you use a
radioactive substance to illuminate processes in the human body, you're paying direct
homage to Einstein's insight," says Sylvester James Gates, a physicist at the University of
Maryland. Many everyday devices, from smoke detectors to exit signs, also host an
ongoing, invisible fireworks of E = mc2 transformations. Radiocarbon dating, which
archeologists use to date ancient material, is yet another application of the formula. "The
decay products that we see in carbon dating—that energy is directly obtained from the
missing mass that you see in E = mc2," Gates says.
Heavenly applications
Space technologies owe much to the equation. Unceasing E = mc2 disintegrations from
radioactive elements such as plutonium provide everything from power for
telecommunications satellites to the heat needed to keep the Mars rovers functioning
during the frigid martian winter. Space travel in the distant future may also rely on such
radiation-derived power. Photons streaming out from the sun and other stars hold energy
that in the vacuum of space can theoretically be harnessed to propel a spaceship. "In the
far future," says David Hogg, a cosmologist at New York University, "if you imagine that
we're sailing to distant stars with spaceships that are driven by radiation pressure—if that
ever happens, that will be a really big legacy of Einstein's kinematics."
Kinematics is the study of motion without reference to mass or force, and it figures in a
more elaborate form of Einstein's equation that—unlike plain old E = mc2, which
concerns mass at rest—also takes into account mass in motion. (If you must know, it's E2
= m2c4 + p2c2, where p equals momentum.) "His bigger equation plays an enormous
part in our understanding of how light works, and how energy and light can be transferred
and transformed from one place to another, and that sort of thing," Gates says. "So if you
consider the larger context, the part of the equation that's not in the public eye, it has an
even larger legacy in science."
One application that draws on this larger equation, Gates says, is the giant neutrino
detector now being built in Antarctica. Sunk deep in the ice, it will detect the eerie blue
light, known as Cherenkov radiation, that is given off by neutrinos. Neutrinos are
subatomic particles so lacking in mass that they pass straight through the Earth
unscathed. Studying their light helps cosmologists better understand these mysterious
particles and their distant sources, which may include black holes. Thus, says Gates, "as
part of the equation's legacy, we'll be using the ice of Antarctica to look at neutrinos and
other objects coming from outer space. And without knowing the relationship between
the energy, momentum, and mass, that would be inconceivable to do. In fact, it was the
use of this equation that led to the realization that neutrinos must exist."
A nuclear world
Einstein's equation also perfectly describes what's happening when we produce nuclear
energy. As Arlin Crotts, a professor of astronomy at Columbia University, puts it, "our
entire understanding of nuclear processes would be sort of lost without it." Fission
reactors in nuclear power plants generate electricity by unlocking the energy tied up in
fissionable materials. Fusion also furnishes energy from mass just as the equation posits.
When two hydrogen atoms fuse to form a helium atom, the mass of the resulting helium
is less than the two hydrogens, with the missing mass manifesting itself as fusion energy.
Nuclear weapons, too, operate on the principle defined by the equation. Indeed, the
mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb explosion is E = mc2 made visible.
“One of its legacies is very sociological: it just captures the imagination of everyone.”
The equation spawned a whole new branch of science—high-energy particle physics.
Labs that work in this field thrive on E = mc2 conversions. In fact, proper design of
particle accelerators, as well as analysis of the high-speed collisions within them, would
be impossible without a thorough comprehension of the equation. Within accelerators,
colliding particles are constantly vanishing, leaving only energy, and dollops of energy
are constantly transmuting into newly fashioned particles. "Our species has repeatedly
used an understanding of the equation to convert E into new forms of m that had never
previously been seen," Gates says. "One of the outposts of science for the next century
may well be whether the E includes super-E, and m includes super-m—new forms of
energy and matter called 'super-partners.'"
A grasp of the equivalence of mass and energy also comes in handy when studying
antimatter. When a particle meets its antiparticle, they annihilate eachother, leaving only
a pulse of energy; by the same token, a high-energy photon can suddenly become a
particle-antiparticle pair. Altogether, says Hogg, "E = mc2 has been very important in
diagnosing and understanding properties of antimatter."
Einstein's formula also accounts for the heat in our planet's crust, which is kept warm by
a steady barrage of E = mc2 conversions occurring within unstable radioactive elements
such as uranium and thorium. "When they decay, some of the mass is lost and a little
energy is created, and that keeps the crust warm," says John Rigden, a physicist at
Washington University in St. Louis and author of Einstein 1905: The Standard of
Greatness (Harvard, 2005). "So the temperature of the outer Earth, the crustal matter, is
directly related to E = mc2."
A cosmological constant
A similar process happens far beyond Earth, inside stars. The warmth we feel from the
sun, for example, is the result of the energy generated as hydrogen deep within our star
continuously fuses to form helium. And stars don't stop there. When they exhaust their
hydrogen, they begin to burn new fuels and create new elements, which are spewed out
into the universe when the stars eventually explode, as burnt-out stars are wont to do.
"The carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen that make up living organisms were baked
in the innards of a star," Rigden says. "In terms of what goes on in stars, we owe our
existence to E = mc2."
Einstein's equation even tells of what transpires at black holes, which can contain the
mass of millions of stars. Here, E = mc2 is taking place on an astronomical—and highly
efficient—scale. "In a nuclear process, you convert something like one part in 1,000 of
your rest mass into energy, whereas if you fall into a black hole, you can convert
something like 20, 30, 40 percent," Hogg says. "So from the point of view of the
energetics of the universe, these black holes are important, because they are big
converters of rest mass into energy."
On the largest scale of all—the beginning of the universe—E = mc2 is the only accepted
explanation for what was going on. In the first seconds after the big bang, energy and
matter went back and forth indiscriminately in exact accordance with the equation. "The
description of how the big bang unfolds would be much, much different if you couldn't
interconvert mass to energy," Crotts says. If it weren't for E = mc2, the universe would
have ended up with a completely different collection of particles than we have now. "I'm
not sure what we would have, but we definitely wouldn't be here," he says.
Intangible aspects
The equation's legacy extends into realms well beyond the scientific. David Hogg finds it
very useful in teaching, for instance. "I use the equation a lot in class because it's the one
equation that all students have definitely heard of," he says. "So one of its legacies is very
sociological: it just captures the imagination of everyone." It also helps students
remember the units of energy. "A joule is a kilogram meter squared per second squared,
and the way you remember that is E = mc2," he says.
Arlin Crotts notes the world Einstein's equation opened up for us. "It just laid bare the
fact that all this stuff lying around us is potentially a tremendous reservoir of energy,
almost beyond the imagination, if only we could devise ways to get at it," he says. "And
that's just an amazing fact." For John Rigden, the equation and Einstein's other leaps of
imagination revealed how scientists can be just as visionary as artists, writers, and other
"creative" types. "What he did," Rigden says, "has all the creativity in it of Absalom,
Absalom or Monet's lily pads."
Jim Gates seconds that. Until Einstein's time, scientists typically would observe things,
record them, then find a piece of mathematics that explained the results, he says.
"Einstein exactly reverses that process. He starts off with a beautiful piece of
mathematics that's based on some very deep insights into the way the universe works and
then, from that, makes predictions about what ought to happen in the world. It's a
stunning reversal to the usual ordering in which science is done. So that's one of the
legacies, that we've learned the power of human creativity in the sciences—or, as
Einstein himself might have said, 'to know the mind of God.'"
In the end, the equation's influence, on both scientific and sociological fronts, is indeed
hard to separate from Einstein's influence as a whole—which, like E = mc2-derived heat
from the sun, shows no sign of diminishing.
The Equation Today
It's hard to imagine how something that was groundbreaking a century ago could still be
at the core of groundbreaking activity today. After all, the world has changed a lot since
1905, when Einstein formulated special relativity. But much of the most advanced
contemporary research in physics is still actively harnessing E = mc2 and building on its
lessons. To underscore this point, we asked three of the most promising young physicists
in the country to describe how E = mc2 plays out in their work.
Quantum Contemplations
by Stephon Alexander
When I think about the impact that Einstein's greatest equation, E = mc2, has on my
research, which involves constructing thought experiments about the nature of our
universe, it's hard not to reflect on how I got started in physics. My physicist tendencies
go back to my earliest years in my native Trinidad. When I was a little boy in Basse
Terre, I often swam in its bay, but I would never venture very far into the ocean. There
was something frightening about the Caribbean's periodic movement, the roaring sound
of its waves, and the vastness of the horizon. I considered the sea a living thing, its
motion like the heaving back of a giant creature. At night, I would theorize that the starry
sky was an extension of the ocean. Even at age five, I was in awe of my natural
surroundings, and I constantly wondered about the world around me, just like I do today.
When my family moved to the Bronx in New York City when I was eight, the ocean and
the wide, star-filled skies of Trinidad were replaced with the din of traffic and a horizon
of skyscrapers. But I quickly found other things to ponder. I recall, for example, being
transfixed by the magic of a remote-controlled car I received one Christmas. I didn't yet
know about what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance," a natural consequence of
the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, though I did consider that invisible forces were
at work. Later, in high school physics, I learned that remote-controlled cars work because
electricity and magnetism can be generated and propagated to far distances at the speed
of light—Einstein's theory of special relativity borne out. It was magical to finally
understand this; I felt like a wizard and my pencil was my wand.
My high school physics teacher, Mr. Daniel Kaplan, was my greatest inspiration. He
didn't care that I and my fellow students were a bunch of immigrant kids with low SAT
scores and even lower expectations. A lot of my peers were very aware of the lowered
expectations of us and were very sensitive to them. Which is why we were drawn to rare
souls like Mr. Kaplan: he took us seriously. I came to school solely to be in his classroom
and get my daily dose of his kindness and, of course, his knowledge about the laws of
I had a conversation with him that has had a lifelong impact on me. It started with me
asking, "Mr Kaplan, where do space and time come from?" He answered, "To understand
that, Stephon, you'll have to learn Einstein's theory of general relativity. If you can master
Einstein's relativity, you'll be a master of space and time." This was all I needed to hear. I
began to read everything I could get my hands on. Ten years later, I completed a Ph.D. in
theoretical physics at Brown with a specialty in cosmology and string theory. But did I
master space and time like Mr. Kaplan promised? Well, the answer is not a straight yes or
Mastering space-time
Everyone has heard of E = mc2, but how many of us realize that our very existence here
on Earth depends on the equation? E = mc2, which outlines the equivalence of matter and
energy, explains for starters how our sun provides warmth and life on Earth because of
the continuous conversion of elements such as hydrogen into radiation energy. What the
equation does not describe is how energy is converted into matter and vice versa. To
explain that process, one must consider how special relativity works in the quantum or
microphysical domain, where my work is involved.
We are well on the way to unlocking profound surprises about our universe.
Special relativity famously tells us that if the speed of light is the same to different
observers moving at different relative speeds, then at very high speeds space and time
reveal their true faces. The most striking observation is that time is no longer absolute.
Different observers can experience clocks ticking faster or slower depending on their
individual states of motion. How can this be? Space and time are unified into a fourdimensional reality that is no longer separated into three spatial dimensions and one time
dimension, as we commonly think about them. Einstein merged space and time into an
entity he called space-time. This means that if you change your relationship with respect
to space (by moving very fast) you will automatically change your relationship to time. If
you think this is weird, read the next paragraph.
Not only are space and time unified, but space-time itself is relative. This physical reality
was revealed when Einstein formulated his general theory of relativity. Under this
description of the physical universe, all of space-time itself is dynamical. It is no longer a
static stage as in a Broadway play, with actors dancing and singing across it. In Einstein's
view, space-time itself is an actor. It has a script of its own and responds to the actors of
energy and matter. In general, it is incorrect to think that things live in a place called
space-time. Our experience of objects living in space-time is a relational coincidence.
This space-time script of general relativity is Einstein's field equation. The field equation
relates the contents of energy and matter to the dynamics of space-time. Matter and
energy curve space-time, and the space-time curvature makes matter move.
This basic definition of general relativity begs a question. We know from E = mc2 that
energy can create mass "actors," which can transform into energy "actors," but what is
responsible for the origin of the space-time "actor?" Where does the fabric of space-time
come from? To properly address these questions we need a quantum theory of gravity, an
explanation of the microscopic world, which is governed by the rules of quantum
mechanics. That's what I'm here for. I and other physicists are trying to combine into one
unified picture the two most important achievements of 20th-century physics, quantum
theory and Einstein's relativity. If we can successfully combine these two theories and
generate a quantum theory of gravity, we will solve one of the greatest puzzles of physics
and achieve one of the deepest insights physicists have ever had into how our universe
works and how the space-time that governs it came into being. My work takes on
quantum mechanics, string theory, and relativity in hopes of solving this conundrum.
Towards a theory of strings and/or loops
So how close are we? Currently, there are two main themes in the attempt to formulate a
theory of quantum gravity: string theory and loop quantum gravity. At the moment, I am
thinking a lot about how these two theories can relate to each other in complementary
ways. String theory tells us that matter is like vibrating spaghetti when you get down to
very small length scales and that everything, including space and time, emerges from the
vibration of these strings. Loop quantum gravity, on the other hand, tells us that at even
smaller scales, space and time become atomistic, and there is no space and time outside
these atomistic networks of loops. Which is correct? I don't know. This is why research in
these areas is so exciting and challenging.
It is amazing that we have come so far since Einstein's breakthrough 100 years ago.
While we continue to understand how recent observations of the universe's deepest
secrets such as dark energy and dark matter jibe with relativity and our ongoing quest for
quantum gravity, we are well on the way to unlocking profound surprises about our
universe. I hope to be there every step of the way.
It's All Relative
by Michael Kelsey
E = mc2 is probably the most recognized physics equation among the general public,
beating out Newton's Second Law of motion, F = ma. Despite that recognition by the
outside world, E = mc2 is hardly ever used all by itself by practicing physicists for any
sort of calculation. It is only true if you are talking about masses that are at rest. The total
energy of an object includes both the "intrinsic energy" of the mass itself as well as the
extra energy coming from the object's motion. In particle physics, nothing we study is
ever at rest, and so E = mc2 on its own doesn't really help us to solve problems.
Einstein's most famous equation is really an icon, a symbol for the whole fabric of special
relativity that Einstein discovered and laid out for us to use in 1905. That fabric is the
core both of our understanding of the nature of matter and of how we produce,
manipulate, and analyze the tiny, short-lived bits of matter that lead us down the road of
that understanding. Relativistic quantum mechanics, my specialty, focuses on
conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, and how particles interact with one
another and transform from one kind to another while keeping all mass and energy
balanced. Without all of that, none of my work would make sense or even be possible.
My own physics involves colliding high-energy beams of electrons and positrons
(antimatter electrons) to produce new, short-lived particles. Those particles decay into
groups of two or three (or more) other short-lived particles, which decay in turn, until we
end up with a spray of a few to a dozen or more particles stable enough to pass all the
way through our three-meter-thick collection of detectors. At every step of that process,
relativity is essential to making our devices work correctly and to understanding the data
that come out.
Creating collisions
We accelerate electrons using electric fields inside copper pipes. Microwaves help
generate and maintain these fields. If the electrons were made to "go faster" by that
acceleration, then at each step of the process they would cover a longer and longer
distance in each time step, and we would have to continuously change the microwave
frequency to match. But relativity tells us that the speed of light is a maximum limit. The
more energy we put into accelerating our electrons, the closer their speed gets to c, but no
matter how much energy we put into them, they can never move faster than c. The benefit
of this to us is that we can design our system as though the electrons have constant speed,
and hence we can use the same microwave frequency everywhere. The electrons get more
and more energetic, but relativity means that they pass through each section of pipe in the
same amount of time.
I can’t imagine my work without E = mc2.
The equivalence of mass and energy explained by E = mc2 is what allows us to create the
anti-electrons we use in our collisions. After accelerating the electron beam, we take a
part of that beam and aim it into a stack of heavy metal (tungsten) plates. As the electrons
pass close to the metal atoms, some of the energy of their motion transforms into mass,
into pairs of new electrons and positrons, moving forward along with the initial beam at
high energy. Those new particles in turn have some of their energy turned into additional
electron-positron pairs, and so on. After many such interactions, much of the beam's
energy has been converted to mass. What comes out the far side of the stack of plates is a
"spray" of electrons, positrons, and gamma radiation (photons). We use complex
magnetic fields to capture and collect the positrons, and then we put them through the
same accelerator to get them up to high energies.
In a similar way, when we collide our beams of electrons and positrons head on, the
energy they carry, including the energy of their own mass, transforms to produce new
particles (called "B mesons"), which fly away from each other. The initial particles are
extremely massive—together the two of them add up to almost the total energy available
from the beams. The little bit of energy that didn't transmute into mass is left for getting
the two B's moving in opposite directions. We use the equations of relativity and
quantum mechanics to carefully adjust the energies of the electron and positron beams so
that they are just enough to produce the massive particles we are interested in studying.
Decoding decay
When a B meson decays, special relativity (and quantum mechanics) govern how the
resulting products move. I mentioned above that E = mc2 only applies to things that are
at rest. The full expression is really
E2 = (pc)2 + (mc2)2
where p represents momentum, the product of mass and velocity. Energy and momentum
conservation tell us that the motion of things before the decay, and the motion of things
after the decay, have to add up to be equal. From all of this, if we measure the momenta
and identify the types (masses) of the final particles from the decay, we can work
backward to determine the mass, momentum, and energy of the original B's.
The B's are normally produced moving in opposite directions at about six percent the
speed of light. At that speed, they would travel only about 28 microns before decaying.
One goal of our experiment is to measure properties of B mesons with respect to the time
before they decay, but 28 microns is too short a distance to reconstruct or measure
reliably. We take advantage of another aspect of Einstein's relativity, time dilation, to
"stretch" the particle's lifetime as we see it. Our electron and positron beams have
different energies, which means that all the particles created in the collision and decay are
moving together relative to our detector, at about half the speed of light. This motion
stretches the B lifetime, as we observe it, so that they travel about 250 microns—about
1/100th of an inch—before they decay. This is large enough for us to measure reliably by
reconstructing the trajectories of the decay products.
In short, the mathematics and physical reality of Einstein's relativity suffuse every aspect
of the particle physics experiments I do every day, from the production of the beams we
collide, to the analysis of the data that comes out of the detector. I can't imagine my work
without E = mc2.
Einstein the Nobody
by David Bodanis
13 April 1901
Professor Wilhelm Ostwald
University of Leipzig
Leipzig, Germany
Esteemed Herr Professor!
Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the
interest of his son.
I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that ... he feels profoundly
unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks
with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In
addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest
I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to ... write him, if
possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and
If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant's position for now or the next autumn,
my gratitude would know no bounds....
I am also taking the liberty of mentioning that my son does not know anything about my
unusual step.
I remain, highly esteemed Herr Professor,
your devoted
Hermann Einstein
—From the collected papers of Albert Einstein, Volume I. No answer from Professor
Ostwald was ever received.
Before the miracle year
The world of 1905 seems distant to us now, but there were many similarities to life today.
European newspapers complained that there were too many American tourists, while
Americans were complaining that there were too many immigrants. The older generation
everywhere complained that the young were disrespectful, while politicians in Europe
and America worried about the disturbing turbulence in Russia. There were newfangled
"aerobics" classes; there was a trend-setting vegetarian society, and calls for sexual
freedom (which were rebuffed by traditionalists standing for family values), and much
The year 1905 was also when Einstein wrote a series of papers that changed our view of
the universe forever. On the surface, he seemed to have been leading a pleasant, quiet life
until then. He had often been interested in physics puzzles as a child, and was now a
recent university graduate, easygoing enough to have many friends. He had married a
bright fellow student, Mileva Maric, and was earning enough money from a civil service
job in the patent office to spend his evenings and Sundays in pub visits, or long walks—
above all, he had a great deal of time to think.
Although his father's letter hadn't succeeded, a friend of Einstein's from the university,
Marcel Grossman, had pulled the right strings to get Einstein the patent job in 1902.
Grossman's help was necessary not so much because Einstein's final university grades
were unusually low—through cramming with the ever-useful Grossman's notes, Einstein
had just managed to reach a 4.91 average out of a possible 6, which was almost
average—but because one professor, furious at Einstein for telling jokes and cutting
classes, had spitefully written unacceptable references. Teachers over the years had been
irritated by his lack of obedience, most notably Einstein's high school Greek grammar
teacher, Joseph Degenhart, the one who has achieved immortality in the history books
through insisting that "nothing would ever become of you." Later, when told it would be
best if he left the school, Degenhart had explained, "Your presence in the class destroys
the respect of the students."
Slipping behind
Outwardly Einstein appeared confident and would joke with his friends about the way
everyone in authority seemed to enjoy putting him down. The year before, in 1904, he
had applied for a promotion from patent clerk third class to patent clerk second class. His
supervisor, Dr. Friedrich Haller, had rejected him, writing in an assessment that although
Einstein had "displayed some quite good achievements," he would still have to wait "until
he has become fully familiar with mechanical engineering."
In reality, though, the lack of success was becoming serious. Einstein and his wife had
given away their first child, a daughter born before they were married, and were now
trying to raise the second on a patent clerk's salary. Einstein was 26. He couldn't even
afford the money for part-time help to let his wife go back to her studies. Was he really as
wise as his adoring younger sister, Maja, had told him?
He managed to get a few physics articles published, but they weren't especially
impressive. He was always aiming for grand linkages—his very first paper, published
back in 1901, had tried to show that the forces controlling the way liquid rises up in a
drinking straw were similar, fundamentally, to Newton's laws of gravitation. But he could
not quite manage to get these great linkages to work, and he got almost no response from
other physicists. He wrote to his sister, wondering if he'd ever make it.
“The idea is amusing and enticing, but whether the Lord is laughing at it ... that I cannot
Even the hours he had to keep at the patent office worked against him. By the time he got
off for the day, the one science library in Bern was usually closed. How would he have a
chance if he couldn't even stay up to date with the latest findings? When he did have a
few free moments during the day, he would scribble on sheets he kept in one drawer of
his desk—which he jokingly called his department of theoretical physics. But Haller kept
a strict eye on him, and the drawer stayed closed most of the time. Einstein was slipping
behind, measurably, compared to the friends he'd made at the university. He talked with
his wife about quitting Bern and trying to find a job teaching high school. But even that
wasn't any guarantee: he had tried it before, only four years earlier, but never managed to
get a permanent post.
The turning point
And then, on what Einstein later remembered as a beautiful day in the spring of 1905, he
met his best friend, Michele Besso ("I like him a great deal," Einstein wrote, "because of
his sharp mind and his simplicity"), for one of their long strolls on the outskirts of the
city. Often they just gossiped about life at the patent office, and music, but today Einstein
was uneasy. In the past few months a great deal of what he'd been thinking about had
started coming together, but there was still something Einstein felt he was very near to
understanding but couldn't quite see. That night Einstein still couldn't quite grasp it, but
the next day he suddenly woke up feeling "the greatest excitement."
It took just five or six weeks to write up a first draft of the article, filling 30-some pages.
It was the start of his theory of relativity. He sent the article to Annalen der Physik to be
published, but a few weeks later, he realized that he had left something out. A three-page
supplement was soon delivered to the same physics journal. He admitted to another friend
that he was a little unsure how accurate the supplement was: "The idea is amusing and
enticing, but whether the Lord is laughing at it and has played a trick on me—that I
cannot know."
But in the text itself he began confidently: "The results of an electrodynamic
investigation recently published by me in this journal lead to a very interesting
conclusion, which will be derived here." And then, four paragraphs from the end of this
supplement, he wrote it out.
E = mc2 had arrived in the world.
Genius Among Geniuses
by Thomas Levenson
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's 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.
Miracle year
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 demigod. 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 20th-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 40 hours a week at the patent office.
Who’s smarter? No one since Newton comes close.
Further miracles
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 20-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 coexistence
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
molecules in the atmosphere.
Then, in 1915, Einstein completes the general theory of relativity, the product of eight
years of work on the problem of gravity. In general relativity, Einstein shows that matter
and energy—all the "stuff" in the universe—actually mold the shape of space and the
flow of time. What we feel as the "force" of gravity is simply the sensation of following
the shortest path we can through curved, four-dimensional space-time. It is a radical
vision: space is no longer the box the universe comes in; instead, space and time, matter
and energy are, as Einstein proves, locked together in the most intimate embrace.
In 1917, Einstein publishes a paper that uses general relativity to model the behavior of
an entire universe. General relativity has spawned some of the weirdest and most
important results in modern astronomy (see Relativity and the Cosmos), but Einstein's
paper is the starting point, the first in the modern field of cosmology—the study of the
behavior of the universe as a whole. (It is also the paper in which Einstein makes what he
would call his worst blunder—inventing a "cosmological constant" to keep his universe
static. When Einstein learned of Edwin Hubble's observations that the universe is
expanding, he promptly jettisoned the constant.)
Returning to the quantum, by 1919, six years before the invention of quantum mechanics
and the uncertainty principle, Einstein recognizes that there might be a problem with the
classical notion of cause and effect. Given the peculiar dual nature of quanta as both
waves and particles, it might be impossible, he warns, to definitively tie effects to their
Yet as late as 1924 and 1925, Einstein still makes significant contributions to the
development of quantum theory. His last work on the theory builds on ideas developed
by Satyendra Nath Bose and predicts a new state of matter (to add to the list of solid,
liquid, and gas) called a Bose-Einstein condensate. The condensate was finally created at
exceptionally low temperatures only in 1995.
In sum, Einstein is famous for his distaste for modern quantum theory, largely because its
probabilistic nature forbids a complete description of cause and effect. But still he
recognizes many of the fundamental implications of the idea of the quantum long before
the rest of the physics community does.
The miracle that eluded him
After the quantum mechanical revolution of 1925 through 1927, Einstein spends the bulk
of his remaining scientific career searching for a deeper theory to subsume quantum
mechanics and eliminate its probabilities and uncertainties. It is the end, as far as his
contemporaries believe, of Einstein's active participation in science. He generates pages
of equations, geometrical descriptions of fields extending through many dimensions that
could unify all the known forces of nature. None of the theories works out. It is a waste of
time—and yet:
Contemporary theoretical physics is dominated by what is known as "string theory." It is
multidimensional. (Some versions include as many as 26 dimensions, with 15 or 16
curled up in a tiny ball.) It is geometrical: the interactions of one multidimensional shape
with another produces the effects we call forces, just as the "force" of gravity in general
relativity is what we feel as we move through the curves of four-dimensional space-time.
And it unifies, no doubt about it: in the math, at least, all of nature from quantum
mechanics to gravity emerges from the equations of string theory.
As it stands, string theory is unproved, and perhaps unprovable, as it involves interactions
at energy levels far beyond any we can handle. But to those versed enough in the
language of mathematics to follow it, it is beautiful. And in its beauty (and perhaps in its
impenetrability), string theory is the heir to Einstein's primitive first attempts to produce a
unified field theory.
Between 1905 and 1925, Einstein transformed humankind's understanding of nature on
every scale, from the smallest to that of the cosmos as a whole. Now, a century after he
began to make his mark, we are still exploring Einstein's universe. The problems he could
not solve remain the ones that define the cutting edge, the most tantalizing and
You can't touch that. Who's smarter? No one since Newton comes close.
The Transcripts of the TV programmes
PBS Airdate: October 11, 2005
NARRATOR: When we think of E = mc we have this vision of Einstein as an old wrinkly
man with white hair. E = mc is not about an old Einstein. It's actually about a young,
energetic, dynamic, even a sexy Einstein.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: What would I see if I rode on a beam of light?
MICHAEL FARADAY (Dramatization): Perhaps some sort of electrical force is emanating
outwards from the wire.
HUMPHRY DAVY (Dramatization): What?
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE (Dramatization): Faraday, my dear boy, electricity flows
through a wire, not sideways to it.
MICHAEL FARADAY: You see, John? You see?
ANTOINE LAVOISIER (Dramatization): It is my great ambition to demonstrate that
nature is a closed system, that in any transformation no amount of matter, no mass, is
ever lost, and none is gained.
JEAN-PAUL MARAT (Dramatization): The people...
CAPTAIN: Lavoisier.
JEAN-PAUL MARAT: is they who will determine right and wrong.
FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE (Dramatization): Emilie, you are being
absurd. Why ascribe to an object a vague and immeasurable force like vis viva? It is a
return to the old ways.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET (Dramatization): Are you capable of discovering something of
your own?
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: There is no right time for the truth.
OTTO HAHN (Dramatization): Fraulein Meitner?
LISE MEITNER (Dramatization): Yes?
OTTO HAHN: Otto Hahn.
LISE MEITNER: The nucleus is our focus.
KURT HESS (Dramatization): The Jewess endangers our Institute.
HEINRICH HORLEIN (Dramatization): We can't harbor a Jew. If she stays the regime
will shut us all down.
LISE MEITNER: He's split the atom.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH (Dramatization): No, no, no. You've split the atom.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (Dramatization): Energy equals mass times the square of the speed
of light.
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN (Dramatization): Would you like me to check your
Google is proud to support NOVA in the search for knowledge: Google.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, serving
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Funding for Einstein's Big Idea is provided by the National Science Foundation, America's
investment in the future.
And by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to enhance public understanding of science and
And the U.S. Department of Energy, fostering science and security.
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by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.
NARRATOR: A hundred years ago, a deceptively simple formula revealed a hidden unity,
buried deep in the fabric of the universe. It tells of a fantastic connection between
energy, matter and light. Its author was a youthful Albert Einstein. It's the most famous
equation in the world: E = mc .
STATION MASTER (Dramatization): All aboard.
NARRATOR: But while we've all heard of Einstein's big idea, very few of us know what it
means. In fact, E = mc is so remarkable that even Einstein wasn't sure if it was really
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: Albert, darling, you are later than I expected. We've only
got sausage and cheese tonight. What is it?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: We need to talk.
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: Has something happened?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Oh, no, nothing, sorry, no. I spent most of the day staring out the
window at work looking at trains, and I started to think about an object and how much
energy it had. Can I explain it to you?
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: Of course you can, but first, dinner—food and talk.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: I think the gods are laughing at me.
NARRATOR: The gods were not laughing at Einstein. He'd united, in one stunning
insight, the work of many who had come before him, scientists who'd fought, and even
died, to create each part of the equation. The story of E = mc starts long before Einstein,
with the discovery of "E" —for energy.
In the early 19th century, scientists didn't think in terms of energy. They thought in
terms of individual powers or forces. These were all disconnected, unrelated things: the
power of the wind, the force of a door closing, a crack of lightning. The idea that there
might be some sort of overarching, unifying energy which lay behind all these forces had
yet to be revealed. One lowly man's drive to understand the hidden mysteries of nature
would begin to change all that.
DAVID BODANIS (Author, E=mc ): Young Michael Faraday hated his job. He was
uneducated; the son of a blacksmith, he'd been lucky to become a bookbinder's
apprentice. But Faraday craved one thing, he craved knowledge. He read every book that
passed through his hands. He developed a passion for science. All of his free time and his
meager wages were poured into his self-education. He was on the threshold of an
incredible journey into the invisible world of energy.
NARRATOR: Faraday had impressed one of his master's customers and was rewarded
with a ticket that would change his life.
MICHAEL FARADAY: Excuse me please. Can I pass, please?
MICHAEL FARADAY: Some of us are trying to improve ourselves, if people will let us.
CHATER (Dramatization): Of course, of course. Pass, pass. This way to a better life.
S. JAMES GATES, JR. (Physicist, University of Maryland): In the early 1800s, science
was the pursuit of gentlemen—something Faraday was clearly not. He had a rudimentary
education, he'd read widely, he'd gone to public lectures, but in 1812, he was given
tickets to hear Sir Humphry Davy, the most prominent chemist of the age.
NARRATOR: Nineteenth century scientists were the pop stars of their day. Their lectures
were hugely popular, tickets were hard to come by, and Davy reveled in his status.
JOHN NEWMAN (Dramatization): They're waiting.
NARRATOR: He was also a keen follower of the latest fashion: nitrous oxide, or
"laughing gas." He said it had all the benefits of alcohol without the hangover.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Electricity, ladies and gentlemen, a mysterious force that can unravel
the confusing mixture of intermingled substances that surround us and produce pure,
pure elements. How do we do this?
S. JAMES GATES, JR.: Davy was an absolutely first-rate scientist, however, many will
come to say that his greatest discovery is Michael Faraday.
HUMPHRY DAVY: ...unknown metals. Unknown that is until I, I isolated potassium from
molten potash and sodium, as I showed you last time, from common salt. That same
NARRATOR: Faraday may not have been born a gentleman, but he wasn't going to let
class barriers stop him from pursuing a career in science. He worked for nights on end to
bind his lecture notes into a book for his new hero.
MICHAEL FARADAY: Lord, help me to think only of others, to be of use to mankind.
Help me be part of the Great Circle that is your work and love. Lord, I am your servant.
HUMPHRY DAVY: This is excellent work, Faraday. So, what is it you aim to do with your
MICHAEL FARADAY: My desire, sir, is to escape from trade—which I find vicious and
selfish—and to become a servant of science, which I imagine makes its pursuers amiable
and liberal.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Really? Well, I shall leave it to the experience of a few years to set
you right on that score. Look, I haven't anything at the moment. I'll send a note if
anything comes up.
NARRATOR: Despite this humiliating setback, Faraday was determined to break free
from his daily toil. His patience was rewarded.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Newman, meet Mr. Michael Faraday, he's going to be my helper while
I recover. He assures me he is a Christian fellow. Perhaps with God and Faraday in
charge of the chemicals you and I will be safe in our place of work.
JOHN NEWMAN: Thank you, Professor Davy. Welcome Faraday.
MICHAEL FARADAY: Oh, no, thank you. And thank you, Sir Humphry.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Just stick to your job and do as you're told, and you'll be fine,
NARRATOR: Faraday became the laboratory assistant, eagerly absorbing every scrap of
knowledge that Davy deigned to impart. But in time the pupil would surpass the master.
The big excitement of the day was electricity.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Another charge, Newman.
NARRATOR: The battery had just been invented and all manner of experiments were
being done. But no one really understood what this strange force of electricity was.
S. JAMES GATES, JR.: The academic establishment, at the time, thought that electricity
was like a fluid flowing through a pipe, pushing its way along. But, in 1821, a Danish
researcher showed that when you pass an electric current through a wire and place a
compass near it, it deflected the needle at right angles.
NARRATOR: This was the first time researchers had seen electricity affect a magnet: the
first glimpse of two forces, which had previously been seen as entirely separate, now
unified in some inexplicable way.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Faraday, come look at this. You're the bright spark around here,
perhaps you can work it out. Oersted's reported an amazing finding. We're just
replicating it here.
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: Let's try the compass on the other side.
CHATER: Now, that is remarkable.
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: But if the electrical force is flowing through the wire, why
does the needle not move in the same direction, parallel to the wire?
CHATER: Let's try turning the whole apparatus round.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Again, Newman.
CHATER: So, the electrical force goes this way, the compass points that way. How can
one affect the other?
MICHAEL FARADAY: Perhaps the electricity is throwing out some invisible force as it
moves along?
MICHAEL FARADAY: Perhaps some sort of electrical force is emanating outwards from
the wire.
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: Oh, my dear boy, let me tell you that at the University of
Cambridge, electricity flows through a wire, not sideways to it.
MICHAEL FARADAY: Well, that may be what they teach at Cambridge, but it doesn't
explain what's happening before our eyes.
HUMPHRY DAVY: Now, now. Let's just get on. Let's swap the compass to below the
NARRATOR: Why the compass was deflected at right angles, why the electricity was
affecting the compass at all, dumbfounded Davy and many others.
MINISTER (Dramatization): As we celebrate the marriage of Michael and Sarah...
NARRATOR: For Faraday, however, the problem became an obsession. It was a
fascination inspired by his religion. For him the problem was a way to understand God's
hidden mysteries.
DAVID BODANIS: There is a small, almost persecuted group in London called the
Sandemanians. They were religious...not really a sect, they were just a small sub-sect,
sort of like Quakers. Faraday was a member of that group. It was a very gentle, decent
group. They believed that underneath the whole surface of reality, everything was
created by God in a unified way—that if you opened up one little part of it you could see
how everything was connected.
S. JAMES GATES, JR.: Michael Faraday was someone who, like Einstein, thought in
terms of pictures.
DAVID BODANIS: Faraday was different from anybody else. He had a flair for
understanding his experiments, for understanding what was really going on inside them.
NARRATOR: By methodically placing a compass all around an electrified wire, Faraday
started to notice a pattern.
DAVID BODANIS: What everyone else at the time had been taught was that forces
travel in straight lines. Faraday was different. Faraday imagined that invisible lines of
force flowed around an electric wire. And then he imagined that a magnet had similar
lines emerging from it and that those lines would get caught up in this flow. It was a bit
like a flag in a wind.
NARRATOR: But Faraday's great leap of imagination was to turn this experiment on its
head. Instead of an electrified wire moving a compass needle, he wondered if he could
get a static magnet to move a wire.
JOHN NEWMAN: I've never seen you like this, Faraday. You look like a happy child.
MICHAEL FARADAY: I'm shaking, Newman. Underneath I'm shaking. You see, John,
you see?
S. JAMES GATES, JR.: This is the experiment of the century. It's the invention of the
electric motor. Scale up the magnets and the wires; make them really big. Attach heavy
weights to them and they'll be dragged along. But almost more importantly, he's
inventing a new kind of physics here.
NARRATOR: Although he didn't realize it at the time, Faraday had also just
demonstrated an overarching principle. The chemicals in the battery had been
transformed into electricity in the wire, which had combined with the magnet to produce
motion. Behind all these various forces there was a common energy.
DAVID BODANIS: A couple of months earlier, Davy had been elected President of the
Royal Society, which was the elite body of English science. But then he saw this great
discovery published in the Quarterly Journal of Science. I don't know if he was envious,
but he certainly saw that this young man who had been his assistant, this mere
blacksmith's son, had come up with one of the greatest discoveries of the Victorian era.
S. JAMES GATES, JR: Davy accuses Faraday of plagiarizing similar work from another
eminent British scientist, William Wollaston.
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: So Faraday, what does Wollaston make of all this?
MICHAEL FARADAY: He's written to me and assures me that he's taken no offense, and
he acknowledges that what I published was entirely my own work.
CHATER: Quite, quite. Davy is just being an ass.
MICHAEL FARADAY: But will Davy now retract his allegation?
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: Sadly, no. In fact, he is still vehemently opposed to you
being elected a member of the Society.
MICHAEL FARADAY: Really? And what do you think?
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: Faraday, my dear boy, you have my vote.
CHATER: And mine. And I believe you even have Wollaston's.
MICHAEL FARADAY: Oh, what a mess.
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: Well, no matter, no matter. It's the science that counts.
So, tell me, how does this wire of yours spin round its magnet? What mysterious forces
are at play?
MICHAEL FARADAY: There seems to be an electro-magnetic interaction. In my mind, I
see a swirling array of lines of force spinning out of the electrified wire, like a spiraling
WILLIAM THOMAS BRANDE: But invisible lines of force? It's all a bit vague, isn't it?
HUMPHRY DAVY: Faraday, might I have a word in private?
HUMPHRY DAVY: Listen, Faraday, let's stop this nonsense. I want you to take down
your ballot paper from the notice board.
MICHAEL FARADAY: Sir Humphry, I see no reason to take it down. My friends have
proposed me. It is they who put the paper up. I will not take it down. Good day.
NARRATOR: Faraday was elected to the Royal Society. Davy died five years later, a
victim of his many gaseous inhalations. In time, Faraday's world of invisible forces would
lead to a whole new understanding of energy. He'd started what Einstein would call "The
Great Revolution."
It was in the very heart of this exciting new world of energy that Einstein grew up.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: My father and uncle wanted to make their fortune by bringing
electric light to the streets of Germany. From an early age I loved to look at machines,
understand how things work.
HERMANN EINSTEIN (Dramatization): He's going to kill himself. Albert, stay there.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: I experienced a miracle when my father showed me a compass. I
trembled and grew cold. There had to be something behind objects that lay deeply
At high school, they had their ideas about what I should learn, I had my own. I was
merely interested in physics, maths, philosophy and playing the violin. Everything else
was a bore.
PROFESSOR FRITZ MUHLBERG (Dramatization): Einstein, on your feet. As you
obviously know everything about geology, tell me how do the rock strata run here?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: It's pretty much the same to me whichever way they run, Herr
NARRATOR: Einstein's teachers tried to drum into him, as Faraday had shown, that
energy could be converted from one form into another. They also believed that all forms
of energy had already been discovered. Einstein was going to prove them wrong. He
would discover a new, vast reservoir of energy, hidden where no other scientist had ever
thought of looking, deep in the heart of matter.
A hundred years before Einstein's birth, King Louis the XV was on the throne of France,
but the ancient, absolute power of the monarchy over the people was starting to be
MONSIEUR PAULZE (Dramatization): Jacques, leave the windows, forget the rain, we
need air.
NARRATOR: The French Revolution was just around the corner.
PATRICIA FARA (Historian, University of Cambridge): This was the era of the
Enlightenment, when intellectuals believed very firmly that the way forward lay in
science. And they felt that one of the first tasks that lay ahead of them was to rationalize
and to classify every single kind of matter so they could see how it all interacted
NARRATOR: Antoine Lavoisier, a wealthy, aristocratic young man decided to take up this
task to see if there was some basic connection between all the stuff of everyday life, all
the different substances in the world. But what worked for Lavoisier as a scientist—his
meticulous, even obsessive attention to detail—was also to be his downfall.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE (Dramatization): Monsieur Lavoisier, you are, if my eyes do not
deceive me, consuming only milk this evening. First you had a glass of milk, now you are
"eating" a bowl of milk. Will you move on to a plate of milk?
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Your precise observations commend you as a lady of scientific
curiosity, Mademoiselle, most unusual. As you seek knowledge, so I shall dispense it. For
the last five weeks I have taken nothing but milk.
COUNT DE AMERVAL (Dramatization): Good god, man, I would rather die than fast on
milk for five weeks. Are you in the grip of some horrendous ailment?
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: On the contrary. I am investigating the effects of diet on health.
COUNT DE AMERVAL: Monsieur, with the greatest of respect to a member of the Royal
Academy of Sciences, your gut must think your throat has been slit.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Whereas your gut, Count, is, no doubt, petitioning the Academy
for a widening of your throat.
BARONESS DE LA GARDE (Dramatization): Marie Anne, how dare you insult the Count?
Don't forget what the Count offers. Not just marriage, but think of how you will be
introduced to all the Salons. You will be the toast of Paris.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Would it not be a shame, Madame, to burden you with the
duties of matrimony before you have had a chance to experience your curiosity for
BARONESS DE LA GARDE: Shall we all go through? It's getting rather hot in here.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Do you really plan to marry de Amerval?
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: There is a plan, but it is not mine.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Then I must contrive to save you.
NARRATOR: Lavoisier wasn't a scientist by profession. He was the head of tax
enforcement in Paris. His great idea was to build a huge wall around the city and to tax
everything that came and went. But his taxes on the simple things in life—bread, wine
and cheese—did not endear him to the average Parisian. This scrupulous, fastidious
young man did still allow himself the occasional act of passion.
In 1771, Lavoisier married Marie Anne Paulze, the daughter of his colleague in the tax
office. Thus he saved her, as he had promised, from an arranged marriage to a count 40
years her elder.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Allow me to show you something.
PATRICIA FARA: Lavoisier, I think, found his job as a tax collector really rather tedious,
and the times he looked forward to were the evenings and the weekends when he could
indulge his passion for chemical experimentation. And he called those times his "jours de
bonheur," his "days of happiness."
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Madame. What will happen if I take a bar of copper or iron and
leave it outside in the rain for months on end, Madame Lavoisier?
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Mmmm, Monsieur Lavoisier?
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: The metals what will become of them?
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Is this a verbal examination prior to an examination proper, sir?
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: I merely seek the truth.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Then you toy with me, Monsieur, for you know the truth. The
copper will become covered in a green verdigris and the iron will rust. I believe the term
is "calcined."
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Most impressive, my charming wife. But let me press you
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: When the metal rusts, does it get heavier or lighter?
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Why, sir, I think you mean to trap me.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Then perhaps this little butterfly should land and allow me take
a closer look.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Every last citizen in France of sensible age knows that when a
metal rusts it wastes away, it gets lighter and eventually disappears.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Huh? Stop. I have not finished. Contain yourself, sir. There is
more. In a recently published pamphlet by a brilliant young chemist, Antoine Lavoisier
demonstrates that the iron combines with the air. It, in fact, becomes heavier.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Most impressive. I intend...
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Now whatever you intend, Monsieur, I intend to be by your side.
I will learn all I can about your science and become your worthy colleague.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Then let me show you how the iron combines with the air to
form such a delicate union.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Tomorrow, Monsieur, tomorrow.
NARRATOR: Marie Anne learned chemistry at her husband's side, but soon sought other
ways to contribute to his work. She learned English so that she could translate
contemporary scientific works. She took drawing lessons so that she could record in
forensic detail the minutiae of their work together. She ran their laboratory and was the
public face of "Lavoisier, Inc." She was central to the whole research effort.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Monsieur, that is a terrible thing to say. You are a cheeky man.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: This way please, gentlemen.
Messieurs, it is my great ambition to demonstrate that nature is a closed system, that in
any transformation, no amount of matter, no mass, is ever lost, and none is gained. Over
here, please.
This precise amount of water is heated to steam. This steam is brought into contact with
a red hot iron barrel embedded in the coals. From this end, we cool the steam, but,
interestingly, we collect less water than we started with. So clearly we lose a certain
amount of water. However, we also collect a gas, and the weight of the iron barrel
increases. Now, when we combine these two increases, the new weight of the iron barrel
and the gas we have collected, they are exactly equal to the weight of the lost water.
MEMBER OF ACADEMY: Aha! But is it atmospheric air, Monsieur Lavoisier?
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: No, no because I am measuring it, to the very last grain, I can
see that it is lighter than the air around us, and moreover, it is flammable. Voila.
DAVID BODANIS: Water is made out of hydrogen and oxygen. So what he had done is
get the oxygen to stick to the inside of a red hot iron rifle barrel. He was basically just
making rust, which is oxygen iron, but he was making the rust really quickly. Now that
left the hydrogen—what he called combustible "air"—and that was just floating around as
a gas.
No mass had been lost, it had merely been transformed, and now he wanted to transform
it all back into water.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: This is only the beginning. In the next few months, I hope to
demonstrate that I can recombine this combustible air with vital air and transform them
both back into water. I will recreate exactly the same amount of water that was lost here
in this process. It is my hope to complete the cycle, water into gas into water, and not a
drop lost.
DAVID BODANIS: For a long time, Lavoisier had suspected that the exact amount of
matter, the mass, involved in any transformation was always conserved. But to prove
this he had to perform thousands of experiments, and he had to do the measurements
with incredible accuracy. That's where his great wealth from being a tax collector came
in. He could afford to commission the most sensitive instruments ever built. He became
obsessed with accuracy.
NARRATOR: But Lavoisier's exacting methods were also starting to anger the growing
mob of hungry, disenchanted Parisians.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: Antoine, Antoine. Oh, wake up, Antoine.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: I'm sorry. What time is it?
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: It is almost time to receive Monsieur Marat. The Academy asked
you to assess his designs. He claims to have made a great discovery. Oh Antoine, have
you forgotten?
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: What? My god, another charletan with an idea to peddle! God
give me patience.
Well, Monsieur Marat.
JEAN-PAUL MARAT: Monsieur, I have invented a device which projects an image of the
substance of fire onto a screen. You see, when a lantern is shone through a flame we see
a shimmering pattern above the flame. My device renders the substance of fire visible.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: Have you collected it, this substance of fire? Have you trapped it
and measured it?
JEAN-PAUL MARAT: Well, no, but, but one can see it.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: I'm sorry, in the absence of exact measurements, of precise
observations, without rigorous reasoning, one can only be engaging in conjecture. So this
is not science.
JEAN-PAUL MARAT: I am not given to conjecture, Monsieur.
ANTOINE LAVOISIER: No. If you will you excuse me, I am extremely busy today.
Thank you. Thank you.
JEAN-PAUL MARAT: So that is all? Then, good day, Monsieur.
JEANE MANSON (Dramatization): Let me guess, Marat. The King's scientific despot has
decreed that your invention does not conform to the version of the truth as laid down by
the Academy.
JEAN-PAUL MARAT: Lavoisier, he talks about facts; he worships the truth.
JEANE MANSON: Listen to me, my friend. They are all the same, the Royal Academies.
They insult the liberty of the mind.
JEAN-PAUL MARAT: They think they are the sole arbiters of genius. They are rotten to
the core, just like every other tentacle of the King. The people, it is they who will
determine right and wrong.
JEANE MANSON: Don't worry. In my next pamphlet, I will expose this persecutor of
NARRATOR: For years the Lavoisier's burned, chopped, melted and boiled every
conceivable substance. They'd shown that as long as one is scrupulous about collecting
all the vapors, liquids and powders created in a transformation then mass is not
decreased. Liquids might become gases, metals may rust, wood may become ash and
smoke, but matter, the tiny atoms that make up all substances, none of it is ever lost.
The crowning glory of this opus was their remarkable use of static electricity to cause
oxygen and hydrogen to recombine back into water.
MARIE ANNE PAULZE: What is happening?
NARRATOR: As the French Revolution exploded, the royal family and whole swathes of
aristocrats lost their heads on the guillotine.
PATRICIA FARA: To the French revolutionaries of 1790, Lavoisier meant one thing and
one thing only: he was the despised tax collector who'd built the wall around Paris.
NARRATOR: Lavoisier's job as a tax collector brought him under suspicion. He was
denounced by a failed scientist turned radical journalist, Jean-Paul Marat.
DAVID BODANIS: What Lavoisier did was absolutely central to science and especially to
E = mc , because what he said is if you take a bunch of matter, you can break it apart,
you can recombine it, you can do anything to it, and the stuff of the matter won't go
away. If the mob burned Paris to the ground, utterly raised it, shattered the bricks into
rubble and dust, and burned the buildings into ashes and smoke, it turns out if you put a
huge dome over Paris and weighed all the smoke and all the ashes and all the rubble, it
would add up to the exact same weight of the original city and the air around it before.
Nothing disappears.
NARRATOR: A century later, all of nature had been classified into two great domains.
There was energy—he forces that animated objects—and there was mass—the physical
stuff that made up those objects. The whole of 19th century science rested on these two
mighty pillars. The laws that governed one did not apply to the other. But young, newly
enrolled physics student Albert Einstein didn't like laws.
MICHELE BESSO (Dramatization): Good grief, Einstein, what happened to you?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: It is more than a little ironic, having been reprimanded yesterday
by that idiot Professor Pernet for poor attendance, that I should, in fact, attend a
practical lesson which was as long as it was boring, and utterly pointless by the way, only
to be the victim of an explosion of my own apparatus.
MICHELE BESSO: And so it was your own fault then?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Thank you. And how are you today, Fraulein Maric?
MILEVA MARIC: Extremely well, Herr Einstein. All the better for seeing you have
escaped the physics laboratory with your life.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Well, in order not to alarm you any further, I pledge to forever
continue my studies here at the Cafe Bahnhof, reading only the great masters of
theoretical physics and eschewing the babbling nonsense of the polytechnicians.
MICHELE BESSO: Hah. That's about all you ever do.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: It's getting a little stuffy in here, Fraulein Maric. Would you care to
take a walk with me? There's something I'd like to discuss with you.
MILEVA MARIC: Why, Herr Einstein, of course. Perhaps, you'd like me to tell you what
you have missed in lectures this week?
DAVID KAISER (Physicist and Historian, Massachusetts Institute of Technology):
Einstein wasn't exactly a model student. He excelled in certain subjects, especially
physics and math, but he wasn't very diligent in a lot of his other classes. He was
undoubtedly very questioning, which seems to have annoyed most of his professors
throughout his life. He would pursue his fascinations with just incredible determination.
MICHIO KAKU (Physicist, City University of New York): We know from his letters that
Einstein, even from the age of 16, was literally obsessed with the nature of light.
Everyone he could speak to, his friends, his colleagues, even his then girlfriend, Mileva
Maric—who would become his wife—everyone he badgered with the question, "What is
ALBERT EINSTEIN: What would I see if I rode on a beam of light?
MILEVA MARIC: What? A beam of light? By what method do you propose to ride on this
beam of light?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: The method is not important. Let us just imagine we two are young,
radical, bohemian experimenters, hand in hand, on a journey to the outer reaches of the
universe, and we are riding on the front of a wave of light.
MILEVA MARIC: I really don't know what you are suggesting, Herr Einstein. Do you
wish to hold my hand or ridicule me?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Ridicule you? No, never. I merely want you to help me to
understand. What would we see, do you think, if we were together, and we sped up and
up until we caught up to the front of a beam of light? What would we see?
NARRATOR: It was Einstein's relentless pursuit of light, which would bring about a
revolution in science. With light he would reinvent the universe and find a hidden
pathway that would unite energy and mass.
Light moves incredibly fast: 670 million miles per hour. That's why scientists use the
term "C." It stands for Celeritas, Latin for "swiftness." Long before the 19th century,
scientists had computed the speed of light, but no one knew what light actually was. Back
in England, a man we've already met was willing to make an educated guess.
After Sir Humphry Davy's death, Michael Faraday became Professor Faraday, one of the
most important experimenters in the world. The scientific establishment still found it hard
to accept that electricity and magnetism were just two aspects of the same phenomenon,
which Faraday called "electromagnetism." But now he has an even more outrageous
proposal for his audience.
MICHAEL FARADAY: ...invisible lines that can emanate from electricity in a wire, from a
magnet, or even from the sun. For it is my contention that light itself is just one form of
these vibrating lines of electromagnetism.
NARRATOR: For 15 years, Faraday struggled to convince the skeptics that Light was an
electromagnetic wave, but he lacked the advanced mathematics to back up his idea.
Eventually, someone came to his rescue. Professor James Clark Maxwell believed in
Faraday's farsighted vision, and he had the mathematical skill to prove it. Maxwell and
the aging Faraday became close friends.
MICHAEL FARADAY: James, James, forgive me. A word of advice: don't get old.
JAMES CLARK MAXWELL(Dramatization): Michael, how are you?
MICHAEL FARADAY: Oh, I'm fine. Memory isn't too good though.
JAMES CLARK MAXWELL: Well, I thought you might like to see what I've just
MICHAEL FARADAY: Oh, yes, yes, splendid.
JAMES CLARK MAXWELL: So your results show that when electricity flows along a wire
what it actually does is create a little bit of magnetism. As that magnetic charge moves it
creates a little piece of electricity.
JAMES CLARK MAXWELL: Electricity and magnetism are interwoven, like a neverending braid, so it is always pulsing forward.
MICHAEL FARADAY: That's wonderful.
JAMES CLARK MAXWELL: Michael, Michael. There's something very crucial in the math.
This electricity producing magnetism and magnetism producing electricity, it can only
ever happen at a very particular speed. The equations are very clear about it. They come
up with just one number, 670 million miles per hour.
MICHAEL FARADAY: I'm not sure I...
JAMES CLARK MAXWELL: It's the speed of light. That is the speed of light. You were
right all along, light is an electromagnetic wave.
NARRATOR: Maxwell had proven Faraday right. Electricity and magnetism are just two
aspects of a deeper unity, a force, now called electromagnetism, which travels at 670
million miles per hour. In its visible form it is nothing other than light itself.
And nothing fascinated the young Einstein more than light.
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: We have lectures in half an hour.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Oh, let me think: Professor Weber and his life-draining monologue
or you, Mozart and James Clark Maxwell?
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: We can't. We'll get a warning.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Our project is too precious to waste time listening to those dullards.
Come with me. We'll read Maxwell and think about the electromagnetic theory of light.
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: Oh, why, my dear little Johnnie, how you enchant a lady.
She's very pretty.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Yes, but can she soar and dance like our dark souls do?
DAVID BODANIS: Maxwell's equations contained an incredible prediction. They said you
could never catch up to a beam of light. Even if you were traveling at 670 million miles
an hour, you would still see light squiggle away from you at 670 million miles an hour.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Do you see how she stares at that wave?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: You see how, for her, it is static? She and the wave are traveling at
the same speed. We see the moving through the water. But relative to her it just sits
there. So is light like that?
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: Common sense would say that if you caught up to a light
beam, there would be a wave of light, just sitting there. Maybe it would be shimmering, a
bit of electricity and a bit of magnetism.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: So, if she was traveling alongside the light wave it wouldn't be
moving. It would be static. But Maxwell says you can't have static light.
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: Maybe Maxwell is wrong. Maybe if you catch up to light it is
static, Albert, like a wave next to a boat.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Imagine if I were sitting still and holding a mirror to my face. And
the light travels from my face to the mirror, and I see my face. However, if I and the
mirror were traveling at the speed of light?
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: You're going at the same speed as the light leaving your
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: The light never reaches the mirror?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: So would I be invisible?
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: That doesn't make sense.
NARRATOR: Young Einstein was starting to realize that light was unlike any other kind
of wave.
Einstein was about to enter a surreal universe where energy, mass and the speed of light
intermingled in a way no one had ever suspected. But there was one last mathematical
ingredient that Einstein would need, the everyday process of squaring.
Long before the French Revolution, scientists were not sure how to quantify motion.
Equations that explained how objects moved and collided were in their infancy. A crucial
contribution to this subject would come from an unusual source. Meet the aristocratic,
16-year old daughter of one of King Louis the XIV courtiers, Emilie Du Châtelet.
CHARLES (Dramatization): Quickly, father's coming.
NARRATOR: Emilie du Châtelet would have a huge effect on physics in her tragically
short lifetime. Unheard of, for a woman of her time, she would publish many scientific
works, including a translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia, the greatest treatise on
motion ever written. Du Châtelet's translation is still the standard text in France today.
TUTOR (Dramatization): Musa, mihi causas memora?
CHARLES: Muse, my memory causes...?
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: "O Muse. The causes and the crimes relate; what goddess was
provok'd, and whence her hate; For what offence the Queen of Heav'n began to
persecute so brave, so just a man."
EMILIE'S FATHER (Dramatization): Do not be cross with your sister because she
persecutes many a just man. Only the other night Emilie silenced the Duc du Luynes
when she divided a ridiculously long number in her head in a matter of seconds. You
should have seen the incredulity on their faces when they realized Emilie was correct.
CHARLES: Was it my sister's astounding intelligence or her boundless beauty that made
their mouths gape, I wonder?
EMILIE'S FATHER: Ah well, yes, you have a point, Monsieur.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: Messieurs, I thank you for your kindness. I fear, however, that
my wit is only a curiosity to others. If only my mind was permitted opportunity.
EMILIE'S FATHER: My dearest, Emilie. You are blessed with intellect and courage. Use
them both and the world will fall at your feet.
JUDITH ZINSSER (Du Châtelet Biographer): In one sense, she is a woman utterly out of
her true time and place. She is a philosopher, a scientist, a mathematician, a linguist.
She demands a freedom that women didn't begin to enjoy until over 150 years later, a
freedom to study science, to write about it and to be published.
NARRATOR: Du Châtelet married a general in the French army at age nineteen and had
three children. She ran a busy household, all the while pursuing her passion for science.
She was 23 when she discovered advanced mathematics. She enthusiastically took
lessons from one of the greatest mathematicians of the day, Pierre de Maupertuis. He
was an expert on Newton, and she was his eager young student. It seems they had a
brief affair. But then he set off on a Polar Expedition.
Du Châtelet then fell passionately in love with Voltaire, France's greatest poet. A fierce
critic of the King and the Catholic Church, Voltaire had been in prison twice and exiled to
England, where he became enthralled by the ideas of Newton. Back in France, it wasn't
long before he again insulted the King. Du Châtelet hid him in her country home.
CHARACTER (Dramatization): The poor little creature is devoted to him.
NARRATOR: Isolated far from Paris, Du Châtelet and Voltaire turned her chateau into a
palace of learning and culture—complete with its own tiny theatre—and all with the
apparent blessing of her husband.
PATRICIA FARA: There is a great deal of myth surrounding Du Châtelet and her love
life. And most of it is very exaggerated. But her husband did accept Voltaire into his
household, and he often went to Paris on behalf of Voltaire. He went to his publisher to
plead Voltaires' case, to keep Voltaire out of jail. And it is also true that Emilie Du
Châtelet did have several affairs of a fleeting nature.
JUDITH ZINSSER: She created an institution to rival that of France's Royal Academy of
Sciences. Many of the great philosophers, poets and scientists of the day visited.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: Ah, Monsieur you are young. I hope that soon you will judge me
for my own merits or lack of them, but do not look upon me as an appendage to this
great general or that renowned scholar. I am, in my own right, a whole person,
responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do.
NARRATOR: Du Châtelet learned from the brilliant men around her, but she quickly
developed ideas of her own. Much to the horror of her mentors, she even dared to
suspect that there was a flaw in the great Sir Isaac Newton's thinking.
Newton stated that the energy of an object, the force with which it collided with another
object, could very simply be accounted for by its mass times its velocity. In
correspondence with scientists in Germany, Du Châtelet learned of another view, that of
Gottfried Leibniz. He proposed that moving objects had a kind of inner spirit. He called it
"vis viva," Latin for "living force." Many discounted his ideas, but Leibniz was convinced
that the energy of an object was made up of its mass times its velocity, squared.
DAVID BODANIS: Taking the square of something is an ancient procedure. If you say a
garden is "four square," you mean that it might be built up by four slabs along one edge
and four along the other so the total number of paving slabs is four times four, is 16. If
the garden is eight square, eight by eight, well eight squared is 64, it'll have 64 slabs in
it. This huge multiplication, this building up by squares is something you'd find in nature
all the time.
FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE: Emilie, Emilie, you are being absurd. Why
ascribe to an object a vague and immeasurable force like vis viva? It is a return to the
old ways. It is the occult.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: When movement commences, you say it is true that a force is
produced which did not exist until now. Think of our bodies, to have free will we must be
free to initiate motion. So, all Leibniz is asking is, "Where does all this force come from?"
FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE: In your case, my dear, the force, I'm sure,
is primeval.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: Aaah, you're infuriating. You hide behind wit and sarcasm. You
only think you understand Newton. You are incapable of understanding Leibniz. You are a
provocateur. Everything you do is about something else and makes trouble for you.
Criticize this, denounce that. Are you capable of discovering something of your own?
NARRATOR: Despite the overwhelming support for Newton, Du Châtelet did not waver in
her belief. Eventually, she came across an experiment performed by a Dutch scientist,
Willem 'sGravesande that would prove her point.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: 'sGravesande, in Leiden, has been dropping lead balls into a pan
of clay.
FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE: Dropping lead balls into clay? How very
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: Using Newton's formulas, Monsieur Voltaire, he then drops a
second ball from a higher height, calculated to exactly double the speed of the first ball
on impact.
So, Messieurs, care for a little wager? Newton tells us that by doubling the speed of the
ball, we will double the distance it travels into the clay. Leibniz asks us to square that
speed. If he is correct the ball will travel not two, but four times as far. So who is
PIERRE LOUIS DE MAUPERTUIS (Dramatization): Messieurs, I feel Mister Newton's
reputation dwindling, ever so slightly.
FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE: Oh, Maupertuis, do not succumb to her.
There is no earthly reason to ascribe hidden forces to this Dutchman's lead balls.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: Well, the ball travels four times further.
DAVID BODANIS: Turns out Leibniz is the one who is right. It's the best way to express
the energy of a moving object. If you drive a car at twenty miles an hour, it takes a
certain distance to stop if you slam on the breaks. If you're going three times as fast,
your going sixty miles an hour, it won't take you three times as long to stop, it'll take you
nine times as long to stop.
PIERRE LOUIS DE MAUPERTUIS: Oh. Well, it does seem worth consideration.
FRANCESCO ALGAROTTI (Dramatization): Perhaps we might look over his calculations?
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: I have already checked his figures. I am sure Leibniz is correct
on this point. I intend to include a section on this matter in my book.
PIERRE LOUIS DE MAUPERTUIS: Really? Do be careful, Madame. Do you think the
Academy is ready for such an opinion?
FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE: Quite, quite. We really should be careful...
I see no reason to delay. There is no right time for the truth.
JUDITH ZINSSER: Emilie du Châtelet published her Institutions of Physics in 1740, and
it provoked great controversy. Voltaire wrote that "she was a great man whose only fault
was being a woman." In her day that was a great compliment.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: I am with child.
EMILIE DU CHÂTELET: Undoubtedly. Two to three months. I'm afraid...
FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE: You are afraid? Well you should have...Oh,
well, this child is obviously not mine, nor is it your husband's. Oh, Emilie, Emilie.
PATRICIA FARA: Emilie Du Châtelet knew that in the 18th century, for a woman to
become pregnant at the age of forty-three was really very dangerous, and all the while
she was pregnant she had terrible premonitions about what was going to happen.
NARRATOR: All her life Du Châtelet had tried to rise above the limitations placed on her
gender. In the end it was an affair with a young soldier that led to her demise. Six days
after giving birth to her fourth child she suffered an embolism and died.
Emilie du Châtelet's conviction, that the energy of an object is a function of the square of
its speed, sparked a fierce debate. After her death it took a hundred years for the idea to
be accepted—just in time for Einstein to use this brilliant insight to finally bring energy
and mass together with light.
Einstein pursued light right through university and beyond. Unfortunately, he'd upset so
many professors that no one would write him a reference. He accepted a low paying job
in the Swiss patent office. He and Mileva married and had a child. The young family
struggled, but none of it seems to bother Albert.
DR. HALLER (Dramatization): Einstein, I see you are busy as usual.
Look, Einstein, you have shown some quite good achievements. But listen, about your
promotion, I really think it would be better to wait until you have become fully familiar
with mechanical engineering. I'm sorry, perhaps next time.
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: But I wanted to hire a maid so I can get back and finish my
degree. Now I'll never pass my dissertation.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Oh, come, come, my pretty little duck. All will be fine, you'll see.
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: But how will it be fine Albert? Do I have to just wait another
year, until you are promoted?
ALBERT EINSTEIN: All will be fine. All will be fine. You'll see.
DAVID BODANIS: There really is a very charming, but kind of a self-centered streak to
Einstein. He focuses only on his particular obsessions. If the rest of the world fits in
around him, that's fine, if they can't, it doesn't bother him.
MICHELE BESSO: Albert, Albert, Albert. A pretty neck and your head spins.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Besso, we must behold and comprehend the mysterious.
MICHELE BESSO: Well, that kind of mysterious is going to get you into trouble.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: I'll tell you what is truly mysterious, the secret of a long and happy
marriage. Ha, ha.
CONRAD HABICHT (Dramatization): The mathematics are fine, if a little unconventional.
But this only works for big systems. It'll fall down when you apply it to small systems.
MICHELE BESSO: Oh, no, here we go: another grand theory by Herr Albert Einstein,
Patent Clerk, Third Class.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: What would happen if one applied those formulas to
electromagnetic radiation?
CONRAD HABICHT: Albert, you can't just borrow one bit of physics and apply it, without
proper regard, to a completely different area.
MICHELE BESSO: Albert, I know you like the grand linkages, the big theories, but
wouldn't things be better all'round if you just got going in some small area, got a
university post. Get a decent wage, for God's sake. At least Mileva could study again.
Then she'd be happy and you'd be happy.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Ah, the vulgar struggle for survival, food and sex: spoken like a
true bourgeois, Besso. I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in
this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his
thoughts. The rest are details.
MICHELE BESSO: Yes, but you can't feed your children on his thoughts, Bertie.
DAVID KAISER: So it turns out Einstein was going for walk with his very close friend
Michele Besso. They'd studied physics together and talked about physics and philosophy
for years and years. They were very close. They had cornered the question of light from
every possible angle.
NARRATOR: As Einstein and Besso were ruminating on how much time it would take
light to reach them from clocks at different distances, Einstein had a monumental insight.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Thank you, thank you! I've completely solved the problem.
DAVID BODANIS: What Einstein did was completely turn the problem on its head. Other
scientists had found it impossible to accept Maxwell's idea that light would always move
away from you at 670 million miles an hour, even if you, too, were traveling really fast.
But Einstein just accepted that as a fact: light's speed never ever changes. Then what he
did was bend everything we know about the universe to fit light's fixed speed. What he
discovered was that to do that you have to slow down time.
LISA RANDALL (Physicist, Harvard University): His extraordinary insight is that
you approach the speed of light, time itself will slow down. It's a monumental shift in how
we see the world.
MICHIO KAKU: The instant, the very instant when Einstein had this brilliant insight that
time could slow down, well the floodgates began to open. You see, before then people
had assumed that time was like a wristwatch on God's hand, that it beat at a steady rate
throughout the universe no matter where you were. Einstein said no, that the tick, tick,
tick of this wristwatch was actually the click, click, click of electricity turning into
magnetism turning into electricity—in other words, the steady pace of light itself.
DAVID BODANIS: 1905 was a miraculous year for Einstein and for physics. He had an
unbelievable outpouring of creativity. It starts with his publication of a paper on how to
work out the true size of atoms. Two months later is the publication of his paper on the
nature of light. That's what will earn him the Nobel Prize. The third paper, only a month
later is on how molecules move when heated, and that finally ends the debate on
whether atoms really exist. The fourth paper is published at the end of this half-year
period. In it Einstein sets out his theory of light, time and space. It was the "Theory of
Special Relativity" that changed the way we see the world.
NARRATOR: In Einstein's new world, the one true constant was not time or even space,
but light.
But Einstein's miracle year was not over; in one last great 1905 paper, he would propose
an even deeper unity. As he computed all the implications of his new theory he noticed
another strange connection, this one between energy, mass and light.
DAVID BODANIS: Einstein realizes that the speed of light is kind of like a cosmic speed
limit, nothing can go faster. So imagine we have a train charging along. And let's say it's
getting up to the speed of light, and we're stuffing more and more energy in trying to get
it to go faster and faster, but it's still bumping up against the speed of light. So all this
energy, where does it go? It has to go somewhere. Amazingly it goes into the object's
mass. From our point of view, the train actually gets heavier. The energy becomes mass.
It's an incredible idea. Even Einstein is amazed by it.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Look. I think I have found a connection between energy and mass.
If I am right then energy and mass are not absolute. They are not distinct. They can be
converted into one another. Energy can become mass, and mass can become energy,
and not just energy equaling mass. Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of
MILEVA MARIC EINSTEIN: Would you like me to check your mathematics?
NARRATOR: Einstein sent his fifth great 1905 paper for publication. In three pages he
simply stated that energy and mass were connected by the square of the speed of light:
E=mc With four familiar notes in the scale of nature, this patent officer had composed a
totally fresh melody, the culmination of his 10 year journey into light.
DAVID BODANIS: Here we are, for thousands of years, thinking that over here is a
world of objects, of matter, and over there is an entirely separate world of movement, of
forces, of energy. And Einstein says "No. They are not separate. Energy can become
mass. And crucially, mass can also become energy." There is a deep unity between
energy, matter and light.
MICHIO KAKU: "E = mc ." That equation shows that every piece of matter in our
universe has stored within it a fantastic amount of energy. The speed of light for example
is about 300 million meters per second, you multiply that by itself and you get 90
quadrillion. So, in other words, what is matter? In some sense, matter is nothing but the
condensation of vast amounts of energy. So, in other words, if you could unlock,
somehow unlock, all the energy stored within my pen, that would erupt with a force
comparable to an atomic bomb.
LISA RANDALL: After Einstein's fifth great 1905 paper, physicists no longer spoke of
mass or energy. They are now the same thing to us.
NARRATOR: Probably the most miraculous year in human science ends in silence. The
articles are published to resounding...nothing.
ALBERT EINSTEIN: I think the Gods are laughing at me.
NARRATOR: Then slowly it starts: a letter here, a letter there. For four years Einstein
answered each inquiry dutifully, trying to explain his difficult, complex ideas to a
confused physics community.
S. JAMES GATES, JR.: I love the idea that life just went on as normal. Here are these
universe-changing papers circling around, and the world is struggling to come to terms
with them.
MICHIO KAKU: Einstein had a fan club of just one. Luckily, it happened to be the most
important living physicist.
DR. HALLER: Einstein, Einstein. Max Planck has sent someone to see you.
DR. HALLER: Yes, he has sent his assistant. He's here to see you.
NARRATOR: Max Planck encourages the world's most eminent physicists to take Einstein
seriously. After four years of waiting he is appointed Professor of Physics at Zurich
University. From there his career is meteoric. He is made Professor of Physics in Berlin,
achieves world renown and becomes a household name. He is the undisputed father of
modern physics.
But Einstein's success was the downfall of his marriage. In 1919, he divorced Mileva and
married his cousin. His fame led to numerous affairs.
E = mc became the Holy Grail of science. It held out the promise of vast reserves of
energy locked deep inside the atom. Einstein suspected that it would take a hundred
years of research to unlock it. But he hadn't banked on the Second World War and the
genius of a Jewish woman in Hitler's Germany.
Twenty-eight year old Austrian Lise Meitner was painfully shy. Despite her anxiety, the
young Doctor of Physics arrived in Berlin determined to pursue a career in the exciting,
new field of radioactivity. Unfortunately, in 1907, German universities did not employ
female graduates. Luckily, one man came to her aid.
OTTO HAHN: Fraulein Meitner?
OTTO HAHN: Otto Hahn. I'm a researcher in the Chemistry Institute. Professor Planck
suggested I...
LISE MEITNER: Ah yes, Herr Hahn. I have read both your papers on Thorium and
Mesothorium. Dr. Planck suggested that I...
OTTO HAHN: Yes, he suggested I speak to you. I need someone to collaborate with.
LISE MEITNER: I think I could really help with the physical analysis.
OTTO HAHN: And the mathematics?
LISE MEITNER: Yes, yes, and the mathematics.
OTTO HAHN: Studying radioactive atoms has become so much a collaboration between
chemistry and physics these days.
OTTO HAHN: I'll ask Fischer for a laboratory then.
LISE MEITNER: Excellent.
OTTO HAHN: I'll speak to you soon.
NARRATOR: Lise Meitner had just taken the first step on a journey that would
irrevocably change world history. For her, it would be a road marked with success and
renown, but also with terror and betrayal.
DAVID BODANIS: At this time, not a lot was known about the atom. At first people
thought it was like a miniature cellular system, there's a solid nucleus of the center and
electrons would spin around it, sort of like planets around our sun. A little later, some
researchers proposed that the nucleus itself wasn't a solid chunk but was made up of
separate particles, of protons and neutrons. But then, in what are called radioactive
metals, things like radium and uranium, the nucleus itself seemed to be unstable, leaking
out energy and particles. Perhaps this was an example of E = mc , the mass of a nucleus
turning into energy?
NARRATOR: Meitner and Hahn's collaboration to unlock the secrets of the atom, started
out on an extremely unequal footing. He was given a laboratory. She was forced to work
in a woodshop.
OTTO HAHN: I see you haven't set your hair on fire?
OTTO HAHN: The boss. He thinks that if he lets women into the Chemistry Institute
they'll set their hair on fire.
LISE MEITNER: Ah, so his beard must be fireproof.
STAFF MEMBER (Dramatization): Good day, Herr Hahn.
OTTO HAHN: Good day.
LISE MEITNER: You see. I am nonexistent to this place. At least physicists recognize me
for my abilities.
OTTO HAHN: Ah, yes, where would we chemists be without the steadying hand of the
RUTH LEWIN SIME (Meitner Biographer): It took years, but Lise lost her shyness
eventually. In 1912, she and Hahn moved to the brand new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for
Chemistry where their status was really that of equals. Lise became the first woman in
Germany to have the title of Professor.
OTTO HAHN: Lise, I have news. You remember the art student I told you of?
OTTO HAHN: Yes, well, I have asked her to marry me, and she has accepted.
LISE MEITNER: Ah. Doctor Hahn, congratulations.
OTTO HAHN: Yes, well, I wanted you to be the first to know.
LISE MEITNER: I'm very pleased for you, very pleased.
RUTH LEWIN SIME: Lise Meitner was warm hearted by nature, she had many friends,
and she may have wanted to have a closer relationship with Otto. But it really does seem
that physics was Lise's first love, maybe even her passion.
NARRATOR: The 1920s and '30s were the golden age of nuclear research. The largest
known nucleus at the time was that of the Uranium atom containing 238 protons and
neutrons. Meitner and Hahn were leading the race to see if even bigger nuclei could be
created by adding more neutrons.
LISE MEITNER: So, the atom—pretty familiar, nucleus in the center, electrons orbiting
around. The nucleus is our focus: the nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons. Now,
the largest nucleus we know is that of the Uranium atom. Its nucleus is a tightly packed
structure of 238 protons and neutrons. The thrust of our work is to try to fire neutrons
into this huge structure, and if we can get a neutron to stick in here, it will be a
NARRATOR: Meitner may have been on the brink of a major discovery, but Germany in
the 1930s was a dangerous place to be, even for a world-class scientist.
KURT HESS: The Jewess endangers our Institute.
RUTH LEWIN SIME: When the Nazis came to power, one of the first things they did was
to drive out Jewish academics from the universities. Einstein was very prominent, and for
that reason he was one of the first to go. He was hounded out of Germany in 1933. Lise
was not dismissed at that time. She was able to stay because she was Austrian. But in
March 1938, Austria was annexed into Germany, and at that point her situation became
OTTO HAHN: What is it?
LISE MEITNER: Frightening news.
FRITZ STRASSMAN (Dramatization): What's happened?
LISE MEITNER: Kurt Hess is going around saying that I should be got rid of.
OTTO HAHN: I, I actually knew. I heard today. I was going to speak to the treasurer of
the Institute before I told you. We'll speak to him tomorrow.
Come on, let's get you home. It's late. We'll finish up.
NARRATOR: The pressure on Meitner was unbearable. Hahn, who was known for his
anti-Nazi views, did his best to protect her, at least initially.
OTTO HAHN: I need to talk to you about Lise.
HEINRICH HORLEIN (Dramatization): Not now, I'm too busy.
OTTO HAHN: We have to protect her.
HEINRICH HORLEIN: How? What can we do? The situation is the way it is. Who knows
what could happen next? She can't stay. It's just not tenable.
OTTO HAHN: But she hasn't got a visa or even a valid passport, and she may soon be
forbidden to leave Germany.
HEINRICH HORLEIN: We can't harbor a Jew. If she stays the regime will shut us all
OTTO HAHN: Lise, Horlein demands that you leave.
FRITZ STRASSMAN: You can't throw her out.
OTTO HAHN: Horlein says you should not come into the Institute any more.
LISE MEITNER: Well, I have to write up the thorium irradiation tomorrow, so I have to
come in.
FRITZ STRASSMAN: You've given up.
NARRATOR: When it became clear that Meitner would be dismissed and probably
arrested, physicists all around Europe wrote letters inviting her to conferences, giving her
an excuse to leave Germany. The Nazis refused to let her go. In July of 1938, a Dutch
colleague traveled to Berlin and illegally took Lise back with him on a train to Holland.
The trip was so frightening that at one point she begged to go back. Despite the great
danger, she got through.
RUTH LEWIN SIME: She had lost everything: her home, her position, her books, her
salary, her pension, even her native language. She had been cut off from her work just at
the time when she was leading the field and was on the brink of a major scientific
NARRATOR: No matter what privations she suffered, Lise was still thinking of physics.
Amazingly she and Hahn were able to collaborate by letter.
LISE MEITNER: I hope, my dear Otto, that after 30 years of work together and
friendship in the institute, that at least the possibility remains that you tell me as much
as you can about what is happening back there.
RUTH LEWIN SIME: Lise was invited by an old student friend to spend Christmas on the
west coast of Sweden. Her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, who was also a physicist, came to
join her there.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: Aunt? Aunt? Aunt Lise? How are you, my dear? Merry
LISE MEITNER: I need your help, come on let's go out.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: But, I was hoping you'd help me.
NARRATOR: Back in Berlin, Hahn was getting strange results. He found no evidence to
suggest that bombarding the uranium nucleus with neutrons had caused it to increase in
size. In fact, his experiments seemed to be contaminated with radium, a smaller atom.
He desperately needed Meitner's expert analysis. From afar, she was starting to suspect
that something very different was happening in their experiment.
LISE MEITNER: Hahn and Strassman are getting some strange results with the uranium
LISE MEITNER: A couple of months ago Hahn told me that they were finding radium
amongst the uranium products. We are looking for a much bigger element, and here we
are finding something much smaller. I urged Hahn to check again, it couldn't be radium.
And now he writes to me and tells me that it's not radium, it's barium.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: But that's even smaller.
LISE MEITNER: Exactly. Hahn is sure that it's another error, but I don't know any more.
It is at least possible that barium is being produced.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: So Hahn still needs you to interpret the data.
LISE MEITNER: It is my work too, you know.
LISE MEITNER: Well, I can't be there, can I? Come on, let's walk.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: Surely, he's made a mistake, hasn't he? He hasn't done what
you told him to.
LISE MEITNER: My darling, Robert, he may not be a brilliant theorist, but he's too good
a chemist to get this wrong.
RUTH LEWIN SIME: If you imagine a drop of water, a big drop, it's unstable, on the
verge of breaking apart. It turns out that a big nucleus like uranium is just like that. Now
for four years Meitner and Hahn and all other physicists had thought that if you pump
more neutrons into this nucleus, it'll just get bigger and heavier. But suddenly Meitner
and Frisch, out in the midday snow, realized that this nucleus might just get so big that it
would split in two.
LISE MEITNER: If the nucleus is so big that it has trouble staying together, then
couldn't just a little tiny jog from a neutron and...
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: Yes, but if the nucleus did split, the two halves would fly apart
with a huge amount of energy. Where's that energy going to come from?
LISE MEITNER: How much energy?
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: Well, we worked out that the mutual repulsion between two
nuclei would generate about 200 million electron volts. But something has to supply that
LISE MEITNER: Wait, let me do a packing fraction calculation. The two nuclei are lighter
than the original uranium nucleus by about one-fifth of a proton in mass.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: What? So some mass has been lost? Einstein's E = mc ?
LISE MEITNER: If we multiply the lost mass by the speed of light squared we get...200
million electron volts. He's split the atom.
OTTO ROBERT FRISCH: No, no, no. You've split the atom.
RUTH LEWIN SIME: It was an amazing discovery. Of course in the laboratory we are
talking about tiny amounts of uranium and correspondingly tiny amounts of energy. But
the point is that the amount of energy released was relatively large and that came from
the mass of the uranium itself. The energy released was entirely consistent with
Einstein's equation, E=mc
NARRATOR: Meitner and Frisch published the discovery of what they called nuclear
fission to great acclaim. But betrayal awaited them. Otto Hahn was under pressure from
the Nazi regime to write his Jewish colleague out of the story. He alone was awarded the
1944 Nobel Prize for the discovery. In his speech he barely mentioned the leading role of
Meitner. Bizarrely even after the war, Hahn maintained it was he and not Meitner who
had discovered nuclear fission.
LISE MEITNER: Now I want to write something personal, which disturbs me and which I
ask you to read with more than 40-year friendship in mind, and with the desire to
understand me. I am [now] referred to as "Hahn's long time co-worker." How would you
feel if you were only characterized as the longtime co-worker of me? After the last 15
years, which I wouldn't wish on any good friend, shall my scientific past also be taken
from me? Is that fair? And why is it happening?
DAVID BODANIS: Lise Meitner had been working on this for 30 years. She'd only
broken apart a handful of atoms, but that was enough, once she had broken even one,
the genie was out of the bottle.
What Meitner had started...after that physicists around the world began to realize they
could take it a lot further.
NARRATOR: In 1942, an intense effort to build an atom bomb was begun. All over
America, secret installations sprang up under the code name "The Manhattan Project."
DAVID BODANIS: Meitner was asked to join the Manhattan project, and she refused.
She refused to have anything to do with the atomic bomb. But Robert Frisch was
different. He was an important member of the team, because he was convinced of the
need to beat the Nazis in a nuclear arms race.
NARRATOR: A nuclear bomb was never used on Germany, but the atomic bombs
dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the terrible destructive power of E =
mc . Vast amounts of energy, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, were released
from a few pounds of uranium and plutonium.
While the pure inquisitiveness of the world's most gifted scientists ironically had brought
humanity a weapon of mass destruction, the equation's life has a parallel story of
creation and beauty. Today, young physicists carry on Einstein's quest. Ever since its
birth, E = mc has been used to delve into the depths of time, to answer the biggest
question of all, "Where did we come from?"
At particle accelerators, researchers propel atomic particles to the speed of light and
smash them together, creating conditions like those in the Big Bang.
DAVID KAISER: E = mc actually tells us how the Big Bang itself happened. In the first
moments of creation, the universe was this immensely dense, immensely concentrated
eruption of energy. As it rushed apart and expanded, huge amounts of energy or "E"
were converted into mass or "M." Pure energy became matter, it became the particles
and atoms, and it eventually formed the first stars.
DAVID BODANIS: Our sun is a huge furnace, floating in space, and it's powered by E =
mc . Now it turns out, every second, four million tons of solid mass of the sun,
disappears. It comes out as energy. Not just a little bit of energy, it's enough to light up
our entire solar system, make the solar system glow with heat and light.
MICHIO KAKU: And not only do stars emit energy, in accordance with E = mc , the
whole process actually creates life itself. Eventually, a massive star dies, the debris floats
around, clusters together, gets pulled into the orbits of another star and becomes a
planet. We humans and the earth we stand on are made of stardust; we are a direct
product of E = mc .
NARRATOR: Building on the work of scientists through the ages, new generations are
searching for answers. Using bold new tools that reach almost to the speed of light, they
can now ask questions that their predecessors could never have even imagined.
As Einstein himself knew, the journey of discovery is sometimes painful, sometimes
joyful. It is as old as human curiosity itself and never, ever ends.
"Einstein Revealed"
PBS Airdate: September 9, 1997
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, on NOVA, his name is synonymous with genius. Albert
Einstein illuminated the most fundamental scientific truths of his time and became an
international celebrity. But what of the private man behind the public hero? Newly
discovered letters shed light on his bold thought experiments and forbidden loves. A two
hour NOVA special: Einstein Revealed.
NOVA is funded by Merck.
Merck. Pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease and improving health.
Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine.
And by Prudential.
Prudential. Insurance, health care, real estate and financial services. For more than a
century, bringing strength and stability to America's families.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you. Additional funding for
this program is provided by the National Science Foundation.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I was 16 when the image first came
to me. What would it be like to ride a beam of light? At 16, I had no idea, but the
question stayed with me for the next ten years. Simple questions are always the hardest,
but if I have one gift, it is that I am as stubborn as a mule.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Albert Einstein once said that he spent his
whole life trying to understand the nature of light. More than any other scientist, he
succeeded. In 1932, Einstein was 53 and at the height of his fame. But there was another
private Einstein whose thoughts and feelings have only recently come into view.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): My Dear Dolly, How was I able to
live alone before I met you? Without you, I lack self-confidence, passion for work,
enjoyment of life. In short, without you, my life is no life.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): This is the Einstein that we know: the wise
old man, the other-worldly genius. But new revelations from his papers, notebooks and
love letters have finally illuminated the younger man whose discoveries about light,
space and time have transformed our view of the universe. Albert Einstein was born in
1879 in the south German market town of Ulm, the first child of upwardly mobile Jewish
parents. German Jews had just received the right to own land, access to higher education
and the chance to engage in a wide range of careers. Albert and his sister, Maja, enjoyed
a comfortable childhood. Pauline Einstein was cultivated and ambitious, with a touch of
the ruthlessness that her son Albert would later exhibit. She encouraged her husband,
Hermann, a featherbed merchant, to pursue new business opportunities, while he gave the
young Albert his first taste of the wonders of science.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I must have been four or five when
my father showed me a compass. You see the needle always points in one way no matter
how I turn the compass. When I saw this for the first time, the fact that it behaved in such
a fixed way changed my understanding of the world. Until then, I thought that one thing
had to touch another to make it move. But at that moment, I realized that something
deeply hidden had to lie behind things.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): That mysterious something was called
electromagnetism. Its discovery as a fundamental force of nature was the greatest
breakthrough of 19th century physics. Within decades, it produced a technological
revolution. Throughout Germany, the change from gas lighting to electricity was in full
swing. Hermann Einstein set his sights on this booming new market, so he moved his
family to Munich to manage a factory that manufactured dynamos. Albert grew up
surrounded by electricity, both its machinery and its mystery.
JURGEN RENN: He was surrounded by people who would love to explain how things
worked to him. He had uncles, there were visitors coming to the family who would
introduce him also into the knowledge connected with the technology. So he got a very
early introduction in what would become the key topics of his later science.
Electromagnetism was the family business, and electromagnetism became the central
topic of Einstein's later research.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): As a boy of ten, Einstein plunged
voraciously into a program of self-education. He read Euclid, taught himself geometry
and immersed himself in every popular book on science he could find. Albert never
minded studies, it was school he hated. He detested the regimentation characteristic of
German education, and of so much of German society. By the time he reached high
school, he dreaded the inevitable sequel: conscription into the German army. In 1894, his
family moved to Italy, leaving Albert alone in Munich to complete the school year.
Overwhelmed by competition in Germany, Hermann Einstein had shifted his factory to
Pavia. Lonely and isolated, Albert lasted less than a term on his own.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I hated my school in Munich, the
rigid discipline, the worship of authority, the school masters strutting around like officers
whipping the troops into shape. I searched for a way out until finally it came to me: The
next time the teacher scolded me, I went to my family doctor and obtained a certificate—
It seems I was suffering from ... nervous exhaustion, and needed to leave immediately!
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): He escaped Munich, bound for Italy.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: He probably didn't even announce that he was coming, so I
can see him turning up on the doorstep of his parents in Pavia and saying, "Well look, I
made a go of it in Germany, but don't worry about it, I'm not going to become a bum. I
have a plan and here's what I'm going to do." The degree of independence for someone at
the age of 15 is really astonishing.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein's plan was to forego high school and
take the entrance exam to the Swiss Polytechnic, one of Europe's top technical
universities. While waiting for his results, he enjoyed an extended break in Pavia. One of
his sister's friends reported that he spent his time walking and cycling constantly, often
daydreaming, always thoughtful. And free of the demands of school, Albert could learn
about electricity first-hand in his father's factory.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: I think the fact that Einstein could get his hands dirty in the
factory was, is an important thing that's often overlooked. He had in his father and uncle's
factory in Pavia a wonderful laboratory, if you will a playground. We see the Einstein
who is the great theoretician who only needs his pencil and paper. But working the
dynamos certainly had a fascination for him and was an important element, I think, also
in the way Einstein did his science, which is to visualize how things work.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): But Albert was still a drop out with no high
school diploma and no nationality, for he had renounced German citizenship to avoid
military service. So when he failed the arts portion of the Swiss University exam, Albert
gave in to his father's demands that he complete high school in the Swiss town of Aarau.
It seemed a setback, but as it turned out, it was here that Einstein first experienced what it
might mean to be a scientist.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: He has this great stroke of luck that he comes into an
excellent school system with a new physics laboratory. So it's the combination now of
some kind of orthodox training combined with the playfulness he's already exhibited and
which isn't stifled in Aarau, that I think makes it such an important part of his
development as a scientist and as a person.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): In the laboratory, Einstein first came to grips
with the physics that lay behind the electrical devices with which he was already familiar.
He hooked compass needles to batteries and wires to prove to himself the fact discovered
earlier in the century that electric currents can induce magnetic fields, and that the two
were both aspects of the same phenomenon called electromagnetism. With a simple bar
magnet, Einstein explored the patterns formed by a handful of iron filings, swept up by
the lines of force created in a magnetic field. And when he was taught that light itself is
an electromagnetic wave travelling through space, Einstein had found his life's work.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): That was when it came to me, that
image of riding a beam of light.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): This was the first of Einstein's famous
thought experiments. He created these deceptively simple scenarios to explore the most
complex concepts. If light were a wave, Einstein reasoned, then no matter how fast it
travels, it ought to be possible to catch up to its peaks or valleys. But then, Einstein
wondered, what would he see? Would the light stand still? Would time stand still? Would
he ride that same peak of light forever, a glimpse of one frozen instant? At 16, Einstein
could not find the answers to his questions. He was not yet a trained scientist, but this he
knew was a puzzle worth his talents. But as his year in Aarau came to an end, he had to
turn his thoughts to practical concerns.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Now let me see. Oh yes. Yes, here
it is, my final exam essay. My plans for the future. At University, I plan to study
mathematics and physics. I suppose I will become a high school teacher of the theoretical
parts of the sciences. Here are the reasons for my individual inclination for abstract and
mathematical thinking and my lack of imagination.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): For all that alleged lack of imagination, the
17-year-old posing for his high school graduation photograph displayed an easy
confidence. From Aarau, Einstein enrolled at the ETH, the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich,
one of the leading technical institutes in Europe. Its laboratories were second to none.
Einstein admitted that he could have gotten a first class education there, but that would
have required regular attendance in class. And Einstein preferred to spend his time at his
favorite haunts, including the Odeon Cafe, which remains largely unchanged to this day.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): It's nothing short of a miracle that
the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled useful curiosity. For
this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein would stay in the cafes for hours,
sipping coffee and talking with his classmates, among them, two who would become
lifelong friends: Marcel Grossman and Michele Besso. And there was a third, the one
woman in Einstein's course. She quickly caught his eye.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): February, 1898. Esteemed Miss, the
desire to write to you has finally overcome the bad conscience that made me avoid
exposing myself to your critical eyes.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Her name was Mileva Maric. She had come
from Hungary to the ETH, one of the few European universities open to women.
FRANCOISE BALIBAR: Being bright at school, she was taught by her teachers to go
further. First she went to a boys school, because of course the boys could go further than
girls at that time. And then, I think she was rather lucky, because some of her teachers
told her that a school was opening in Zurich where girls were admitted, which was quite
unusual at that time.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): At the ETH, Mileva was enrolled in the
physics teaching course, as was Einstein. She projected an air of independence and
intelligence that he found highly appealing.
FRANCOISE BALIBAR: She probably was a kind of realization of a dream for him,
because she was free. She had no family on her back. She had to take care of herself by
herself. In a sense, she was freer than he was.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Gradually, Albert and Mileva came to feel
that they were two of a kind.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): August, 1899. How closely our
mental and physiological lives are linked. We both understand each other's black souls so
well, not to mention drinking coffee and eating sausages.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): For Einstein, these were the important things
in life: studying with Mileva, walking beside the lake and thinking about physics, but
rarely in school.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Fortunately, there were only two
examinations which meant for the most part I could do as I pleased. Of course, it
certainly helped to have a friend who attended the lectures faithfully.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): That friend was Marcel Grossman, a brilliant
mathematician who gladly provided Einstein with his notes. But even with Grossman's
help, Einstein did have to attend a few classes. Recent research in Einstein's papers has
produced a portrait of a truly infuriating student.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: We have here his college record and you see something
interesting happening by the third year at the ETH. We have March, 1899, it says that a
reprimand has been issued to Einstein through the administration because of a lack of a
diligence. I think that that's an administrative way of saying that he was lazy in the
physics practicum, in the physics lab. We also have as an indication of that a very fat one
which is almost—Well, it's essentially the lowest grade he can get. To be fair, he also
gets in an electro-technical lab that same year a six. So certainly he has already developed
that which I think is his hallmark, and that is he turns his attention and is assiduous in
those areas where he wants to, and other areas he just ignores.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): That kind of confidence, almost arrogance,
brought Einstein into direct conflict with the head of the physics department, Professor
Heinrich Weber.
HEINRICH WEBER: You are a clever boy, Einstein, a clever boy. But you have a great
fault, you never let yourself be told anything.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Of course I wasn't going to be told
anything by Weber. As far as I could tell, he thought that physics had stopped seventy
years ago. When I came up with experiments of my own, he wouldn't hear of it. What
could I do? Just sit back and hope that Weber didn't know what I thought of him?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): The experiments Einstein wanted to perform
turned once again on the unsettling problem of light. His image of riding a beam of light
had told him that very odd things must happen at the speed of light. Einstein's
contemporaries focused on the fact that light travels in waves, which implied that light
must move through some type of substance, just as waves on a lake travel through water.
JULIAN BARBOUR: And there was really one big mystery, that if light was a wave
phenomenon, it must propagate in something, it must be the excitation of something, the
vibrations of something. And they called this something the ether, and it really was for
the 19th century, the foundations of physics.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): The ether, it was thought, filled every corner
of space. The ether was supposed to make light behave itself, to make its motion conform
to everyday experience. In ordinary circumstances, it's easy to analyze motion. We can
measure the speed of the ship relative to the lake. We can also determine the speed of the
sailor crossing the lake, a little faster than the boat when he walks forward, a little slower
than the boat when he walks back toward the stern. Speed is relative here on Earth. One
can add or subtract velocities depending on which way you move with respect to another
moving object. But the great mystery was, would light behave the same way with respect
to the ether? Would speeds add and subtract where light is concerned? Several
researchers tried to measure the speed of light through the ether, using the Earth as a
whole as the laboratory. The idea was that the Earth orbits the sun at 20 miles per second,
racing through the ether as it goes. That would set up a wind as the ether rushes past the
Earth. And if light travelling through the ether matched ordinary experience, then a beam
of light moving with the ether wind should move faster than a beam of light struggling in
the opposite direction, against that 20-mile-per-second breeze. Unfortunately, every
attempt to measure such variation in the speed of light failed. With every experiment, the
speed of light remained rock steady, unchanging in any direction. Einstein would come to
dismiss the notion of an ether long before any other physicist could accept such a radical
step. But if there were no ether, then the message was clear: The speed of light was fixed
and unchanging, an exception to all the laws of motion that govern what happens here on
Earth. It made no sense, but Einstein was in no position to figure it out. In 1900, he
graduated from the ETH, but his battles with Weber cost him the university job he had
expected to receive. And in Pavia, his father's firm had failed. Einstein desperately
needed a job.
Professor Weiner, Last summer, I completed my studies at Zurich Polytheknicum, and
since I would like to expand the knowledge I acquired, I am taking the liberty of asking
you whether you might need an assistant. Respectfully yours ... Esteemed Herr Professor
Ostwald, Permit me to inquire whether you might have any use for a mathematical
physicist familiar with absolute measure ... Esteemed Herr Professor Onnis, I have
learned through a friend that you have a vacancy for an assistant. I am taking the liberty
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Even Hermann Einstein begged for help for
his son. Esteemed Herr Professor, please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you
in the interests of his son. My son feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of
position and his idea that he is now out of touch becomes more entrenched everyday. In
addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden to us, people of modest
means. If you could secure him an assistant's position, my gratitude would know no
bounds. Yours, Hermann Einstein.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I honored all the physicists from
the North Sea to the southern tip of Italy with an offer of my services. Not one responded.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): And amidst a growing sense of crisis, Mileva
became another bone of contention.
FRANCOISE BALIBAR: Einstein's parents were very strongly against Albert marrying
Mileva, that she was too independent. I think his mother said that she is going to be
always in her books and not cooking for you or something like that, mending your socks
and saying that she was going to die if he was going to marry this woman. Maybe she
would have died if he had married any woman, but still, this one obviously was not the
right one.
promise I will not tolerate my parents' opposition to you. When you failed your exams, I
went into Mama's room. She asked, "What will become of your little Dolly now?" "My
wife," I told her. She threw herself on the bed. "You are ruining your future. If she has a
child, you will be in a pretty mess." At this, my patience finally gave out. I denied
completely we were living in sin.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): But in the Spring of 1901, Albert and Mileva
met in northern Italy for a romantic interlude. This episode has only recently come to
light with the discovery of the couple's early love letters.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): You sweet little witch, you
absolutely must come to see me in Como. It will cost very little of your time, and will be
a heavenly joy for me. Bring a happy, light heart and a clear head. I promise you an
outing, the likes of which you've never seen.
MILEVA MARIC: I went to Como where a certain person waited for me with open arms
and a pounding heart. We stayed in Como half a day, then visited Villa Carlotta. How
happy I was to have my darling to myself, for myself, especially because I saw he was
equally happy.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): At the Villa Carlotta, the figures of Eros and
Psyche that Albert and Mileva saw still dominate the entrance way. But in Como, Pauline
Einstein's fears would come true. Within weeks, the news reached Albert. Mileva had
become pregnant. For the next several months, Mileva remained in Zurich to re-take
exams she had failed while Albert traveled throughout Switzerland as a substitute
teacher. Desperation began to creep into their letters.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Dear Dolly, When you are my dear
little wife, we'll diligently work on our science together so we don't become old
philistines. Everyone but you seems foreign to me as if they were separated by an
invisible wall.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): In the Fall, Einstein found a temporary
tutoring job in Schaffhausen, north of Zurich. By now visibly pregnant, Mileva could not
be seen with him in the same town. She hid at Stein am Rhein, three miles up the river.
Lost amongst the tourists of the famous Rhein Falls near Schaffhausen, the couple would
steal time with each other. The pretense wore on both of them.
MILEVA MARIC: My dear naughty little sweetheart, Now you're not coming tomorrow
again, and you don't even say you're coming on Sunday instead.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): My dearest Dolly, I don't want to
anger or tease you ever again, only to be an angel all the time. What a nice illusion. But
you'll still love me, won't you, even if I am the same old rogue?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Mileva would always have to compete for
Albert's attention.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Dear Dolly, I have just read the
most marvelous paper on the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light. I am filled
with such joys that you absolutely must share some of it. By the way, how are your
studies and our little child-to-be?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Mileva's studies were not going well. She
failed her exams for a second time, which ended her hopes for a scientific career. She left
Switzerland to give birth in her parent's home in Hungary. The couple could not marry
unless Albert got a real job. They had no prospects until ...
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): My dear sweetheart, Yesterday,
there was a letter from Marcel in which he tells me that he takes it for certain that I'll get
the position in Bern. I am dizzy with joy when I think about it, even happier for you than
for myself.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein immediately rushed to Bern, six
months before his work at the Swiss patent office was to begin.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): February, 1902. My dearest Dolly,
It's delightful here in Bern. The homes are uncommonly clean. I have a large, beautiful
room with a very comfortable sofa. In addition, six upholstered chairs and three
wardrobes. Its plan follows. B is the little bed, G is a magnificent mirror and J is me, your
little Albert.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): In his new home, Einstein resumed the
serious study of physics, while Mileva remained with her parents, and in January, 1902,
gave birth to a daughter named Lieserl, a child whose existence has only recently come to
ROBERT SCHULMANN: Lieserl was discovered in the course of finding the love
letters, the fifty-four letters. And she represented a challenge to Einstein, I don't think, of
a kind that he had never had to face before and which I think caused him a lot of, caused
him a lot of pain. I think it caused Mileva much, even greater pain.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Dearest Dolly. Now that you see
that it really is a baby girl as you wished, is she healthy? Does she cry? I love her so
much, and don't even know her yet. All we need to resolve is how to keep our Lieserl
with us. I wouldn't want to have to give her up.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): But as a new Swiss civil servant, Einstein
could not risk a scandal. Keeping the child could have cost him the job that had been so
difficult to get. After months of wrestling with the problem, he and Mileva made their
decision: Lieserl was to be given up.
FRANCOISE BALIBAR: It wasn't cruel, it was just something convenient that many
people did. Einstein and Mileva intended to take the child with them later on when they
could possibly get married or when she had finished school. And this was a very ordinary
plan, I think, at that time.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): In the end, Einstein never saw Lieserl. She
fell ill and all record of her disappears.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): This marked a turning point for me.
I came to understand that I have to disengage from the momentary, from the merely
personal. The essence of a man of my type lies in what I think, not in what I feel.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): But even Einstein could not simply will his
emotions away. Shortly after Lieserl was born, Hermann Einstein fell ill. When it became
clear that his father was on his deathbed, Albert rushed to Italy for a final encounter.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: Einstein had a very complicated relationship with his father.
He was the weaker of the two parents. He felt very guilty about having demanded and
received money from the father in the times when the father had progressively failed in
the businesses. He also felt guilty because the father had proved to be a failure,
something that he had set his mind never to be. On the other hand, he was someone that
he loved.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): My father's failures ruined his
health. That's what taught me how cruel life is. The endless chase just to fill our
stomachs. I wanted to be with him at the end. I came into his room and we talked a little.
That's when he relented and gave me permission to marry. But then he asked me to leave
and he turned his face to the wall. He died that day alone.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: Although Einstein is always pictured as someone who tried to
deny emotions, as he always said, "I tried to get above the only personal," this was a very
powerful shock to him and something that he perhaps said to himself would never happen
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): A few months after Hermann's death, Albert
and Mileva were married in January, 1903. After returning from the wedding supper,
Albert had to wake up his landlord. He had forgotten his key. Einstein now started at the
patent office as probationary technical expert third class. The job was ideal for the least
likely bureaucrat in the Swiss Civil Service.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: While he had to work six days a week at great hours, eight
hours a day, he was able to consolidate the work in such a way that he could turn to his
physics work either on the side or under the table.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): You might not think so, but the
patent office was a far better place for me than the university. Had I become a lecturer, I
would have been forced to produce papers as fast as possible, no matter how trivial, and it
isn't easy to resist that kind of pressure.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Instead of a university, Einstein and some
friends formed a club, which they mockingly called The Olympia Academy. The club,
often joined by Einstein's college friend, Michele Besso, would take long walks through
the mountains near Bern, discussing set topics in physics and in the philosophy of
science. To outward appearance, Einstein's life now seemed perfectly settled. Mileva
gave birth to their first son, Hans Albert, in 1904. Einstein had a secure government job,
and now his ideas about physics began to gel. Questions of light and motion, ten years in
the asking, suddenly began to come clear. By 1905, Einstein simply accepted that the
speed of light was absolutely constant everywhere in nature. But that left the problem of
motion. There is no difficulty measuring speed here on Earth. As far as a juggler at the
castle can tell, he is standing still, while his twin on the boat juggles away at five miles an
hour. Meanwhile, the juggler afloat sees it differently. He stands still while the lake, the
shore, and his twin recede at five miles an hour. That's the principle of relativity, the idea
that both jugglers can use the same laws of physics to describe the motion of the pins. But
light is the wild card. Einstein was convinced that if a beam of light passes both the
juggler at rest and the juggler in motion, each would measure the same speed for light.
But how could that work? What happens to allow both jugglers to agree on the speed of
light? That's when the breakthrough came. Speed is simply a measure of distance traveled
in a unit of time, and Einstein realized that if the speed of light never changes, then
something else must vary. What if, Einstein asked himself, the speed of light is constant,
but the flow of time is not? It was an instantly radical thought. To everyone but Einstein,
time was absolute, unchanging, the steady beat of the universe. The idea that the tick of
time could waver was exceedingly difficult to accept, even for Einstein.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Hard? It took me ten years to get
from my first questions about light to my theory of relativity. I went through all sorts of
nervous conflicts. And after all that, it came to me suddenly. It was a beautiful day, my
friend, Besso and I were out walking. I was doing most of the talking, I told him that I
had been struggling with a question and needed his help. But as I spoke, the answer came
to me. I stopped in mid-sentence and ran home. The next morning I went to him again.
"Thank you," I said, "I have completely solved the problem."
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): But what a solution, to say that time is not
the same for all of us, that it flows at a different rate for someone moving, than for
someone standing still. Einstein proved it with another paradox. Can we all agree, he
asked, that two events are simultaneous when they occur at precisely the same time?
Actually, no. Einstein staged his thought experiment alongside a railroad track. Set up
two poles, he said, and then measure the distance between them. Find the midpoint and
mark it. Using a right angle mirror, it is possible to see both poles. Imagine that lightning
bolts hit the two poles at once. The observer beside the track could see them both in his
mirror and would be able to confirm that the two events occur at exactly the same time.
But how would the same event look to an observer on a train? He also has a two sided
mirror. At the instant he reaches the midpoint between the two poles, lightning strikes
again. But the moving observer does not see the events as simultaneous. He sees the
lightning strike the pole that he is towards first. Light takes time to move from the pole to
the mirror, and in that time, the train travels towards the forward pole. The light has a
shorter distance to cross to reach the mirror. So the two observers, one moving, one
standing still, cannot agree when the lightning bolts hit the poles. That confirmed what
Einstein intuitively grasped. Time is relative.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): There is nothing mysterious or
unreasonable here. All my theory does is show that time flows at different rates for each
of us, but very few believe me when I tell them it's that simple.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): It took Einstein five weeks to move from his
first insight that time varies, to the finished form of what we now call the Special Theory
of Relativity. His theory showed that the faster you move, the slower your clock ticks
compared to that of a stationary observer.
JULIAN BARBOUR: He immediately realized and says so already in his first paper, that
clocks which are moving relative to me must appear to go slower from my viewpoint and
he even says that if you took a clock around the equator and you had a clock at the pole
of the Earth, the one that went round the equator would be going slower than the one at
the pole. He already said that in 1905.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Which means, hard as it may be to believe,
that time actually passes more slowly on the drive to work than it does while sitting at a
desk. In a car traveling at thirty miles an hour, changes in time and length are
imperceptible. But if you could drive at ninety percent of the speed of light, the effects
become striking. You would shrink to forty-four percent of your usual length, from the
point of view of someone watching from the side. And here, finally, was the answer to
Einstein's first question about light. What would happen if he could ride a beam of light?
Nothing, for he never could. At the speed of light itself, length shrinks to zero and time
stands still.
JULIAN BARBOUR: Which at the first glance seems absolutely crazy, you would say
he's cheating, he can't do it that way. And yet, when you look at it, it is totally and
beautifully consistent and it works, and that was it. That was the discovery of the special
theory of relativity.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): On the thirtieth of June, 1905, Einstein
submitted his new theory to the Annelen Der Physik, the leading German physics journal,
in a paper titled, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." The paper stood alone.
There were no references to earlier work, no footnotes. Einstein did make one
acknowledgement, thanking Michele Besso for listening so well as he pondered the
mystery of relativity. He made no mention of Mileva. At one time, Einstein and Mileva
did seek an intellectual partnership, even on the problems of light and motion as he made
clear in one early letter.
always remain a shrine for me to which no one has access. I know that of all people you
love me the most and understand me the best. I'd be so happy and proud when we can
bring our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion.
FRANCOISE BALIBAR: The question then is, what was really Mileva's contribution to
special relativity. In my opinion, but this is controversial, she did not really contribute to
it, she was more of a kind of a sounding board, meaning that she could understand what
he was thinking about and even critique his ideas. But she had no real new idea by her
own. You can see that in her letters, where she never speaks about intellectual matters.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): After two years of married life, house work
and the care of her husband and of their son had transformed Mileva's role. The couple
still seemed content, but as a physicist, Einstein was on his own.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: Those very traits that are exhibited in his science, the
ruthlessness with which he is able to seize upon a problem, the very broad grasp of the
literature and homing in then on what question is important and what, which questions
have to be answered. This same kind of restless, ruthlessness, if you will, is I think
exhibited on the interpersonal side, too, and it's not a coincidence.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Throughout 1905, Einstein overflowed with
ideas. Even today it is called the Annus Mirabilis, Einstein's Miracle Year. He completed
breakthrough works on the quantum theory of light, exploring light's particle nature, and
on the existence of the atom. Then, in what was almost an afterthought, he applied special
relativity to mass and energy. And this is what Einstein found, E=MC2, which means the
energy contained in any object is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared, an
enormous number.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Every gram of matter contains a
tremendous amount of energy. But if none of that energy escapes, none of that energy can
be observed. It's like a fabulously rich man who never spends anything. No one can tell
how rich he is.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): And if mass contains energy, then energy has
mass. Every second the Earth is struck by four and one-half pounds of sunlight. But as
remarkable as Einstein's discoveries were, the world didn't seem to notice at first. Who
could believe that a 26-year-old patent clerk who worked on physics in his spare time
would alter forever our understanding of the universe.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Why was I the one? Normal adults
never stop to think about such concepts as space and time. These are things children ask
about. My secret is I remained a child. I always asked the simplest questions. I ask them
still. All I have tried to do in my life is ask a few questions. Could God have created the
universe any other way, or had he no choice? And, how would I have made the universe
if I had the chance?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): It was Albert Einstein's astounding, almost
arrogant ambition to read the mind of God. And he succeeded time and again, completely
transforming our understanding of space, time and light. But as his newly published
papers revealed, there was a price that he and those closest to him had to pay for each and
every triumph.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I have learned to isolate myself
from the unpredictability of human relations. Life tends to get clogged up, especially
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): That conflict between science and human
relations played out across all of Einstein's adult life. In 1905, he and his wife, Mileva,
were living a quiet life in Bern with their infant son. Even after the publication of
"Special Relativity," and the other discoveries of his miracle year, Einstein remained an
examiner at the Swiss patent office.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): January, 1907. Dear friend, I am
still a federal ink piecer, with a decent salary. I work everyday, eight hours at the patent
office, and at least one hour of private lessons. Yet I enjoy it here, and there is much
thinking to be done.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): But in science, Einstein was no longer an
outsider. A growing number of physicists made the pilgrimage to the patent office. They
would trek up to the top floor and ask a smartly dressed young man to lead them to Dr.
Einstein. Einstein later told a friend that he had never met a real physicist before. His
friend responded, "Didn't you look in the mirror?" But even as his reputation grew,
Einstein began to grasp the limitations of his Special Theory of Relativity. In 1907,
Einstein was asked to summarize everything then known about special relativity for a
leading physics journal. He saw that his theory encompassed all of physics, except for
one crucial gap.
ABRAHAM PAIS: He said to himself, "Now I must see if I can fit into that framework
all of what I can think of, and everything could be fitted. Mechanics, as it was known,
there's a theory of Maxwell, as it was known, electromagnetic theory, but one thing he
couldn't fit in and that was gravitation.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Gravity seemed straight forward enough. A
pound of pork, a pound of cherries, or of anything, will move the scales the same amount
because the Earth's gravity pulls on them all in exactly the same way. Yet what the Earth
does to make itself felt by meat, potatoes and us, that no one knew. Isaac Newton had
shown that gravity governs the motion of the solar system as well. But even Newton's
theory could not explain how gravity exerts its influence throughout the universe. That
was the mystery of gravity. How is it that the heavens stay on track? What is it that orders
the universe as a whole? Einstein, still in his twenties, was chasing the biggest game in
physics, a tremendous gamble as the great Max Planck tried to tell him.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Max Planck warned me not to work
on the theory of gravity. The problem was too difficult, he said, and even if I succeeded,
no one would believe me. But I took it on anyway, and never worked so hard in all my
life. The first theory of relativity was child's play compared to the problem of gravitation.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Gravity is the most democratic phenomenon
in the universe. It treats every object the same, no matter what it is made of, no matter
how big it is. There were no exceptions to give Einstein a place to start. He had no idea
how to approach the problem, until . . .
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Then all of a sudden, it occurred to
me. Der gluckliche gedanke meines Lebens, the happiest thought of my life. If a man
falls from the roof of a house, he will not feel his own weight.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): In another of his thought experiments,
Einstein put the idea this way. He asked, "What if someone were in an elevator when the
cable snapped? He would float, weightless, as he and the elevator both free fall at the
same rate in the Earth's gravitational field. Then, Einstein changed the scene. What if the
passenger were in a rocket ship far from Earth? He would still float with no gravitational
field to hold his feet to the floor. But what would happen if the rocket began to move? As
it accelerates, the floor of the rocket rises. On its way up, it would catch the passenger,
and to him, it would seem that gravity was holding his feet to the floor. And if gravity
and acceleration feel the same, perhaps they are the same. And there is no difference
between accelerating in outer space or standing in the Earth's gravitational field, waiting
for the elevator door to open. This was classic Einstein. His contemporaries found this
equivalence of acceleration and gravity interesting. But only he realized that it could
serve as the foundation of what would become a revolutionary new theory of gravity.
MARTIN KLEIN: If I had the opportunity of asking Einstein one question, I would ask
him how he could be so sure of the principles on which he built his theories, how could
he be so sure that the dear Lord require that the relativity postulate be satisfied
throughout nature? How could he be so sure that the equivalence principle really held
everywhere and at all times. And if he could tell us how he did that, that would be
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): What we do know is that he did it with
ferocious concentration—to the exclusion of all else—which meant that over time, he
gave less and less attention to one person: his wife, Mileva. When they courted, he had
promised that they would be scientific partners—two against the world. But Einstein's
priorities had changed.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I am not much good with people,
and I am not a family man. I want my peace. I feel the insignificance of the individual,
and it makes me happy.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Relations between Einstein and his wife
grew worse when they moved to Prague in 1911. Einstein had been named a full
professor at the German university there, a major step up the professional ladder. But for
Mileva, cloistered in their apartment and with a second son to care for, Prague felt like
ROBERT SCHULMANN: Mileva felt she was being marginalized. Evermore pushed to
the side, less and less important, when the division of labor between Einstein and Mileva
was that he do the scientific work and she be expected to do the domestic side of things, I
think the pretense that they had tried to maintain over the years fell apart completely.
FRANCOISE BALIBAR: Just think of it. She had failed in her ambitions. When I say
ambitions, I don't mean ambitious, getting power or something like that, but becoming a
new kind of woman in a world of men. This had completely failed.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Recently discovered letters revealed an
uneasy mix of pride, fear, and a hint of jealousy.
MILEVA EINSTEIN: I am very happy about his success, which he has really earned. I
only hope and wish that fame does not exert a detrimental influence on his human side.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Behind the walls of their home, Mileva's
depression and bitterness grew.
MILEVA EINSTEIN: Not much time remains for his wife. I often ask myself whether
I'm not a person who feels a great deal and suffers because of that. I am starved for love,
and I almost believe wicked science is guilty.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): When I think seriously day and
night, I cannot easily engage in loving chatter—in the same way one can't play the violin
if he has just been working with a large hammer.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): There could be no compromise. Science
would always come first, especially the problem of gravitation. Einstein now asked, if
acceleration and gravity are equivalent, what happens while accelerating that reveals
something new about gravity? Back to his rocket ship, Einstein resumed his thought
experiment. As the rocket accelerates, a ray of light shining through the window hits the
other side at a lower point than it entered. To a passenger, the light appears to curve. If
acceleration can bend light, then by the equivalence principle, gravity must do the same.
It seemed a crucial clue. But where would it lead?
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Gravity does more than make
things fall. That much was clear. But I still had no idea what it was. My office in Prague
looked out over an asylum. And there were times when I felt a certain kinship with the
inmates. They were the madmen who did not concern themselves with physics. I was the
madman who did.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): The asylum is still there—walls, bars,
inmates, and all. For his part, Einstein was only half-joking. Over the next five years,
gravity became almost his sole obsession. In 1911, the first Solvay conference in Brussels
brought together Europe's most famous physicists. It was an invitation-only affair.
Einstein was the youngest to attend. Gabrielle Oppenheim's father was rector of the
University of Brussels. She is now 103. But she was 19 when Einstein came to call.
GABRIELLE OPPENHEIM: Well, we had a big soiree, because my father and mother
invited many people. And that day, they were all physicists, because there was a congress
of physics. And my husband said, "That gentleman"—He pointed him out—"will be one
of the greatest of those physicists."
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): The former patent clerk now traded ideas
with the likes of Madame Curie, with the great Dutch physicist, Hendrik Lorentz, and the
English atomic scientist, Ernest Rutherford. Even in such company, Einstein was
recognized as first among equals.
GABRIELLE OPPENHEIM: My husband said, "That gentleman, he will be one of the
greatest." So, I gave him one sandwich more. It's true!
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): There was one person who missed Einstein's
MILEVA EINSTEIN: It must have been very interesting. I would have loved only too
well to have listened a little and to have seen all those fine people. It's been an eternity
since we've seen each other. Will you still recognize me?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): What Einstein wanted in marriage was
domestic comfort—not an intellectual partner.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): October, 1911. En route. My dear
little wife, around one in the morning, I found the ham and immediately polished it off.
The apples also did an infinite amount of good in this frightful steam bath. Many kisses
to you and the children.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): As the months passed, Mileva's isolation
deepened. But the worst shock was still to come. On a visit to Germany, Einstein a
cousin, Elsa Einstein, who came from a town and background similar to his own. Einstein
saw in Elsa a chance for a domestic life free of demands and conflict.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: He had in Elsa a link to this place. She shared a lot of the
traits that are commonly associated with this, and that he would have identified with very
strongly, a certain kind of unaffected pleasure in the simple things in life, and enjoyment
of food and drink. And I think that she represented that for him wherever he went, and
that sense of place that she represented went with him.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Mileva had little chance against Elsa's
uncomplicated appeal. The two cousins began a correspondence that reveals their
growing bond.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Dear Elsa, Thank you so much for
your letter. There is no book on relativity comprehensible to laymen. But what do you
have a cousin for? If you ever happen to be in Zurich, then we—without my wife, who is
unfortunately very jealous—will take a nice walk, and I will tell you about those curious
things I have discovered. Dear Elsa, Both of us are poor devils, each shackled to our
unrelenting duties. But I must tell you once again—I love you. I would be so happy to
walk just a few steps at your side. I suffer because I love one at whom I can only look.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): That was it, for a time. In 1912, Einstein
broke with Elsa, and moved to Zurich to teach at the ETH, the federal polytechnic where
he and Mileva had studied. Einstein had been an undistinguished student. Now, he was
coming back as a full professor of theoretical physics. Here, he embarked on the most
intense effort of his life, renewing his attack on the gravity problem. He started with an
idea from a former teacher, Hermann Minkowski, who had doubts about his troublesome
pupil until he read Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity.
JULIAN BARBOUR: After Einstein had created the theory of special relativity, it
happened that his old math teacher—whose lectures he'd skipped—looked at Einstein's
papers and said, "Well, I wouldn't have thought he was capable of this. This is really
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Minkowski called me a lazy dog,
and perhaps he was right. But relativity seemed to impress him. I would have felt some
sense of triumph, only then, he translated it into mathematical terms, whereupon even I
couldn't understand my theory.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein may not have understood it. But to
Minkowski, it was clear: Space and time are fused together into a single, fourdimensional picture of the world.
MICHIO KAKU: Think of a vast arena, a vast arena where four numbers can record the
unique location of any event. For example, with just three numbers, we can locate any
object in the Universe from the tip of your nose to the farthest galaxy. Three numbers—
length, width, and height—allow us to record the position of all objects. Now add time,
with this fourth dimension, we're able to record any event in the Universe from the
explosion of a star to a hot Saturday night date.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Here is one of the most common space time
experiences, meeting a friend on a summer day. This meeting takes place at a particular
location—the intersection of the two paths, and one hopes, at a precise time: ten minutes
past ten. As Minkowski recognized, every event forms a unique mathematical picture in
space time. Here, as the seconds pass, the man stays in one place in space, but moves
continuously through the time dimension, until his date arrives. As the idea of space time
sunk in, Einstein realized he could go one step beyond.
JULIAN BARBOUR: He had this wonderful piece of work which Minkowski had done
in transforming his own work into the idea of a four-dimensional space time. But then,
Einstein hit on the idea that this wasn't a rigid straight space time. It must be curved, and
it must have variations of curvature within it.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): That was perhaps Einstein's most inspired
leap of logic. He asked, what if the shape of space and time could warp and curve? What
would happen then? His answer: Gravity happens.
MICHIO KAKU: Einstein's brilliant idea, the idea that makes the whole thing work, was
the fact that it is matter, matter and energy which drives the bending of space and time.
Throw a rock into a pond, for example. When you throw a rock into a pond, ripples start
to form. It is the rock which creates the ripples on the surface of the pond. Therefore, the
presence of a rock creates ripples in space and time that we call gravity.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Space time without matter is flat. But add a
rock—or a star—and the whole picture changes. The enormous mass of the star creates a
huge dent. Anything that passes close enough will roll down and around that warp in
space time. That's gravity—the straightest path through the curves in space time created
by matter and energy. It was this picture that showed Einstein how gravity holds the
Earth in orbit. The Earth simply follows the warp in space time created by the sun.
Einstein published an early version of his new theory of gravity in 1913. There were still
pieces missing, but he impressed the one audience that mattered. In that year, Max
Planck, Germany's leading physicist, made the pilgrimage to Zurich with a colleague to
offer Einstein a job in Berlin.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Planck and Nernst looked me over
as if I were a prize hen. But I didn't know if I could lay another egg. I told them I needed
to think about it and would meet them at the station the next day. If my answer was no, I
would wear a white flower in my lapel. But if the flower was red, then Berlin it would be.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): It was the climax of a career. Berlin was the
world's leading center for theoretical physics. Without doubt, the former patent clerk had
arrived. But for Mileva, the promise of Berlin held no attraction. The marriage lay in
shambles. The intense concentration on gravity had eroded all that remained of a family
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): In my circumstances, I turn towards
science, which raises me up from the valley of tears into the quiet atmosphere,
impersonal, without swearing and yammering.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): By 1913, he and Mileva were completely
estranged, and Einstein resumed contact with Elsa.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): December, 1913. Dear Elsa, It isn't
easy to get a divorce if one does not have any proof of the other party's guilt. So, I treat
my wife as an employee whom I cannot fire. I have my own bedroom, and avoid being
alone with her. But how nice it would be if one of these days, we could share a small,
unassuming household.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): The Einstein family moved to Berlin in
April, 1914. In July, after just three months, Mileva gave up. She and her sons returned to
Zurich. It was over.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): It is still a great sorrow to me that I
have been cut off from my sons. I even thought of seeking custody of Hans Albert, but it
was out of the question. Mileva poisoned the minds of both boys against me. She was
impossible to live with, jealous of everyone, everything. How could I have married her?
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Despite his sense of loss, the harsh truth
remained. Einstein never had much patience for everyday demands—even those of his
ROBERT SCHULMANN: The demands of the children were something that he felt
badly about rejecting. But he said himself that he was not a good father. I think that
Einstein really wanted to make a go of it in the first marriage. But one has to be careful,
of course, to ask, what was he prepared to sacrifice to make it work? And there, I think he
fails rather miserably.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Amidst such private turmoil, Einstein faced
his first public moral challenge. In August 1914, World War I began. The war fever that
gripped Germany disgusted Einstein. And when 93 leading academics, including his
friend, Max Planck, issued a manifesto in defense of German aggression, Einstein helped
launch a counter-petition urging peace. It got three signatures.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Europe, in all her insanity, has
started something unbelievable. In living through this so-called great epic, I find it
difficult to believe that I belong to such an idiotic, rotten species—the species that
actually boasts of its freedom of will, heroism on command, senseless violence, and all of
the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): A pacifist in an armed capital, Einstein lived
and worked in isolation on the outskirts of Berlin. Amidst Europe's folly, he turned again
to his theory of gravity. He faced one last hurdle. He could not solve the mathematics of
curved space time. The problem had stumped him for three years.
JURGEN RENN: There was not just one flash of insight which brought about general
relativity. Einstein had to cope with the mathematical difficulties. He had to revise his
physical ideas a number of times. And he was ready to give up at a certain point,
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Renn and his colleagues in Berlin have been
studying Einstein's notebooks, and Einstein's struggles from 1912 forward leap off the
JURGEN RENN: And here, you see, this is exactly the kind of object that he wants to
isolate. This is the object which would lead him to the classical theory of gravitation.
What you see in these pages is a human drama unfolding, and a drama that might have
had many endings and not only good ones. He was at times desperate, and you can see on
certain of these pages that he turned to a friend to help him with the mathematics,
because he was no longer knowing where to go.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein friend was Marcel Grossman, his
college classmate, whose math notes he had once borrowed. Grossman again tutored
Einstein—this time in the complex geometry of curved surfaces.
JURGEN RENN: Grossman, you see, it seems really had he has set him on the royal road
towards the correct solution of 1915.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Grossman gave Einstein the tool he needed
to complete his analysis of gravity. The missing pieces were falling into place.
JURGEN RENN: I believe it's the first time he has seen it, but it's not the first time he's
looking at these terms, because he has encountered them earlier on the previous pages.
There, he was simply stumbling around without having all of the mathematical tools he
needed. And once he started to speak, so to say, in this new mathematical language, he
achieved results that he first had to grope to understand. One of the things we can study
on the basis of the notebooks that have survived is actually the correct solution, which
three years later, he would publish triumphantly as the general theory of relativity. But
when he first expressed it in this new language, he didn't understand it himself.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): It took Einstein three years to master all the
subtleties. By the fall of 1915, he was ready to put the theory to the test. The orbits of the
planets were understood with extraordinary precision—with one exception. Mercury's
orbit shifted slightly, unaccountably, every year.
MARTIN KLEIN: It's a very small number, previously totally unexplained. Now here on
the basis of this theory, which he had invented, out of nothing in a certain sense, out of
his view of how God would have had to make the Universe to make it right. He is able to
calculate this very real, small effect, and get the right answer. That could give you
ABRAHAM PAIS: And I believe at that moment, Einstein said, "I don't care what the
world will say. I am right, because the Lord has told me, calculate the perihelion motion
of Mercury and you will see." And he did! And it came out.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): When I found that my calculations
predicted the motion of mercury exactly, something snapped inside me. The feeling was
so extreme. I couldn't work for days. I was beside myself. In all my life, I never felt such
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): The calculation vindicated Einstein's radical
idea that space time is curved. Mercury, the innermost planet, shifts its orbit as it travels
around the dent in space and time created by the sun's huge mass. Mass everywhere
deforms the space around it. Even light, as Einstein had recognized years before, must
follow all the curves in space and time, mapping the shape of the Universe as a whole. It
is this understanding that drives the scientific story of creation: the big bang, the
expanding Universe, the structure of galaxies, the great sweep of modern cosmology
derives directly from this single equation. Space and time on the left, matter and energy
on the right—This is the general theory of relativity, Einstein's theory of gravity.
MICHIO KAKU: General relativity is in a class all by itself. We are just stunned, even
decades later, that he could come out with that theory back in 1916. I would say he was
50 years ahead of his time.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Eight years of sustained effort took their toll.
Einstein collapsed, near death, in 1917. His illness marked him. This photograph from
1920 shows the change. He was nursed back to health by his cousin Elsa. Their
relationship had cooled during the war. But now, he needed her.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I have gained four pounds since last
summer, thanks to Elsa's good care. She herself cooks everything for me.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Her influence showed in Einstein's renewed
attention to his appearance. Finally, in 1919, the couple decided to marry. Einstein's
divorce settlement with Mileva revealed characteristic self-confidence. He promised her
the money from his Nobel Prize, despite the fact that he would not win the award until
1922. Einstein never lacked self-confidence. But the spring of 1919 was special, even for
him. A silent film explained Einstein's breakthrough to the public, with animation by
Max Fleischer, creator of Betty Boop. General relativity predicted that starlight passing
close to the sun would curve around the warp in space time created by the sun's mass.
That bending of the light would make the star seem to occupy a new position in the sky to
an observer on Earth. This could only be seen during a total eclipse of the sun. A British
expedition traveled to the south Atlantic in 1919 to photograph an eclipse. It would be the
first public test of Einstein's theory. May 29th dawned overcast over the Atlantic. But
then, the sky cleared and in the shadow of the eclipse, light warped around the sun.
Gravity bends light—exactly as Einstein had predicted.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): What would I have felt if the
English had found nothing? I said at the time, I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The
theory is correct. For me, general relativity was simply too beautiful to be false. It was
inconceivable that the English would come back proving me wrong.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): The eclipse results were announced in
November. Literally overnight, Einstein became world famous, the first scientist celebrity
of the 20th century. This was the birth of Einstein the icon, the embodiment of scientific
wisdom—a friendly, incomprehensible sage. In the aftermath of a devastating war, he
was the perfect hero for his day.
ABRAHAM PAIS: The year was 1919. The world was in chaos because the first world
war had ended. Nations were tired. Empires had fallen. And there comes this little man
who says, "I proclaim that there are new laws of the Universe." It was a historic moment
against a background of confusion. It's like Moses coming down the mountain with the
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein the German, accepting honors at a
French university, was more than a scientist. He was a symbol of the hope for peace. No
scientist had ever received such public adulation. When Einstein and fellow superstar
Charlie Chaplin crossed paths, the two compared notes.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): With fame, I have become more
and more stupid, which of course, is a very common phenomenon. But you have to take it
all with good humor. Charlie Chaplin had it right. When he and I met, we were
surrounded by people calling our names. "What does it all mean?" I asked him.
"Nothing," he replied.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Not quite nothing. Einstein did enjoy some
of the pleasures that fame can bring, as he began to step out in Berlin society. But
Einstein's basic style remained unchanged, especially at his country house, as Peter
Plesch, son of Einstein's doctor, recalls.
PETER PLESCH: He never carried a hat when he was out in the sun, when he was
sailing, when he was in the countryside. And if the sun, he thought, got a bit too strong
for him, he would take out his handkerchief and he would proceed to make a hat for
himself by knotting the corners. And this actually is very interesting, because the turning
of the flat surface into a curved surface is really a very interesting physical phenomenon,
since relativity theory has as one of its ingredients the curvature of space. And the
practical device was very practical, and it worked like that, with the four corners. And
that was his hat.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Throughout the 1920s, Elsa reveled in her
husband's increasingly prominent position. But Einstein drew sharp lines between them.
They had separate bedrooms. She was not to enter his study. And Einstein kept company
with other, younger women.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): Marriage is the unsuccessful
attempt to make something lasting out of an incident. All marriages are dangerous.
ROBERT SCHULMANN: Einstein had wanted sex without complications. He also
wanted relationships with his closest family members without complications. The pursuit
of ladies, in this context then, is one where the sense of obligation is at a minimum, but
the pursuit of pleasure is maintained. And the pursuit of the greatest priority, physics, is
never in question.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): My friend Besso has lived happily
with the same woman for the whole of his adult life. I failed twice, rather disgracefully. I
can love humanity, it seems, but when it comes to close personal ties with individual men
and women, I am a horse of a single harness, not cut out for tandem or team work.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): But for important causes, Einstein would
break his solitary rule. After the first world war, he came increasingly to ally himself with
a group he had left behind in childhood: the community of European Jews. AntiSemitism was spreading virulently in Germany. Some German scientists even attacked
Einstein himself for what they call his immoral, "Jewish" physics. In response, Einstein
ever more publicly identified himself as a Jew.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I am glad that you have given me
the opportunity of expressing to you here my deep sense of gratitude as a man, as a good
European, and as a Jew. I am a Jew, certainly, but not a practicing one. It was different
when I was boy. I was very ferverent. I even sang religious songs on my way to school.
But then, I read my first books on science. So much for the face of Abraham. And yet,
over time, I have come to realize that behind anything, behind everything is an order that
we glimpse only indirectly. This is religiousness. In this sense, I am a religious man.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): It was Einstein's deep belief in the order of
nature that led him first to ponder the mystery of light, and to arrive at his special theory
of relativity. It led him on to include gravity in his expanding picture of the Universe. But
Einstein's abiding faith that nature must make sense set him on a collision course with the
next great breakthrough in physics. In 1927, the fifth Solvay conference brought Einstein
together with the leading proponents of the revolutionary theory of quantum mechanics—
the description of nature at the very smallest scale. While Einstein had focused on the
large scale structure of the Universe, younger scientists, led by Werner Heisenberg and
Niels Bohr, explored the atom and the tiny building blocks of energy and matter, called
quanta. These young researchers found that uncertainty and randomness govern the
physics of the very small. Einstein himself had pioneered the study of the quantum, but
he loathed the notion that there was anything uncertain in nature.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I don't deny that quantum
mechanics is useful, up to a point. But I am convinced that there is a deeper theory that
will replace the uncertainty at the center of it. As I told Niels Bohr, God does not play
dice with the Universe. Unfortunately, I failed to convince him.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Bohr's reply? Who was Einstein to tell the
Lord what to do?
ABRAHAM PAIS: There's a certain arrogance in the sense that Einstein says, "God does
not play dice." How does he know? And Bohr is, of course, is entirely right. You can't
know what the Lord has up his sleeve.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein never warmed to quantum
mechanics, despite a lifetime of arguments with Bohr. He had grander ambitions, a theory
that would unify the fundamental forces of nature within a single, comprehensive picture.
Few of his contemporaries thought such a unification possible. No matter. Einstein had
gone his own way before; he would do so again.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I have become an obstinate heretic
in the eyes of my colleagues. I am generally regarded as a sort of petrified object,
rendered blind and deaf by the years. I find this role not too distasteful, as it corresponds
very well with my temperament.
MARTIN KLEIN: It was a willed choice on his part to do what he felt only he could do,
because most of physics, most of the physics community wasn't interested in pursuing his
idea of a unified field theory. He felt that it ought to be done because it could lead to a
new foundation for quantum mechanics. At least, he hoped it would. And he would do it,
and if they didn't like it, well, too bad.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Unified field theory was what Einstein called
his still unformed idea. It would subsume relativity and quantum mechanics within a
formulation simpler and more comprehensive than either. He would seek his unified
vision for the rest of his life. But alone, in exile. In the late 1920s, the Nazi Party's power
grew steadily. By 1932, Adolph Hitler was on the verge of becoming Germany's dictator.
No enemy was safe, especially the most famous Jew in the world. Einstein himself had
already received death threats. And as he had as a boy, he once again prepared to flee
Germany. Leaving was almost a relief.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): I have never really belonged to any
country or state, to my circle of friends, or even my family. In fact, in my need to
withdraw within myself has increased over the years. My isolation is often bitter, to be
sure, but I have never regretted it. If I am cut off from the understanding and sympathy of
others, I am also independent of their opinions and prejudices.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): In early 1933, Einstein and Elsa set sail for
the United States. They never returned to Europe.
NEWSREEL INTERVIEWER: What do you think of prohibition, Professor?
MAN: He doesn't drink at all, so he is not interested in this question. (laughter)
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein never lost the ability to please a
crowd. But his need for solitude brought him to the quiet college town of Princeton, New
Jersey. Einstein settled quickly into a routine, walking every morning to his office at the
Institute for Advanced Study, and returning in the afternoon to his modest home on
Mercer Street. He never learned to drive. In America, Einstein gave free rein to his
eccentric streak. Showing up without socks for his induction as a citizen of the United
States. Einstein always refused to play the role of the proper professor. This was Einstein,
the wise sprite. But all this good humor masked growing isolation. In 1936, his wife Elsa
died after a brief illness. Einstein wrote to a friend that his bearishness was accentuated
by Elsa's death, who, he said, "was more attached to human beings than I." Einstein never
saw Mileva again. She died in 1949. His son Eduard, a schizophrenic, remained confined
to an asylum in Switzerland until his death in 1966. His older son, Hans Albert, became a
professor of engineering in California, but saw his father only rarely. The quest for a
unified theory continued. Einstein never found it. But his sense for the important question
remained unsurpassed.
MICHIO KAKU: Some people think that Einstein wasted the last 30 years of his life
chasing after this unified field theory. Well, I believe that we are all greatly indebted,
because Einstein showed us the way. Today, unification is the name of the game. We
have hundreds of physicists now trying to unite the nuclear force with gravity and
electromagnetic force. We are all indebted. We are all essentially inheriting the mantle
that Einstein left for us.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): Einstein passed the war years quietly. His
famous letter to Roosevelt urged nuclear research, but Einstein himself had no role in
building the bomb. After the war, the outside world would seek out Einstein for views on
causes of all sorts. David Ben Gurion even came to Mercer Street to offer Einstein the
presidency of the new State of Israel. To the relief of both, Einstein declined. Science still
came first, even if his unified theory stubbornly refused to take shape. Finally, in the
spring of 1955, Einstein's heart began to fail. He entered the hospital, and then, on April
15th ...
ABRAHAM PAIS: He called his secretary. He wanted his fountain pen, his glasses, and
his latest piece of notes. And Einstein, of course, knew that his time was imminent, to go.
But he wanted a calculator. And he sat down and began to calculate. That is a story that
makes you shudder. It makes me shudder. He knew he would not see whatever would
come out of these calculations by way of achievement. It didn't matter to him.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM (NARRATOR): ... Einstein died just after midnight, April 16,
1955. He was 76. Albert Einstein changed forever our conception of space, time, the
structure of the Universe. To him, that was what truly mattered. The rest, he said, could
be forgotten.
ALBERT EINSTEIN (ACTOR ANDREW SACHS): In my life, I have always sought to
gain just a glimpse of the order that lies hidden in nature. All science requires faith in the
inner harmony of the world. Our longing for understanding is eternal.
ANNOUNCER: Space. Time. Light. Matter. Learn more about the theories, and the man
that changed our understanding of the Universe. Meet the Einstein you never knew on
NOVA's website at