Einstein’s Legacy Alive at Livermore
IN March 1905, a little-known patent examiner in the Swiss patent office published a paper about the properties of light in the German physics journal, Annalen der Physik. The examiner was 26-year-old Albert Einstein, and his paper, “Concerning an Heuristic Point of View toward the Emission and Transmission of Light,” marked the beginning of a surge of human creativity nearly unprecedented in science. In seven months, Einstein published four papers and a thesis that together had far-reaching effects on physics, technology, and our understanding of the universe.
In celebration of Einstein’s extraordinary accomplishments, the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, and various governments and nongovernmental bodies have declared 2005 the World Year of Physics. As part of Lawrence Livermore’s participation in this yearlong celebration, Science and Technology Review (S&TR) is publishing a four-part series, examining how Einstein’s discoveries form the basis for much of the Laboratory’s physics research.
“Applying Einstein’s Theories of Relativity,” the first article in this series, discusses Einstein’s most famous 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which introduced the revolutionary concept of relativity. Special and general relativity play an important role in Livermore physics research, especially our research into the physics of astronomical events such as gamma-ray bursts, black holes, and supernovae. In like manner, our supercomputer codes that model these events must account for relativity. Many of our astrophysics codes were adapted from versions developed originally for nuclear weapons research, which are based on concepts outlined in another Einstein paper. Finally, our work with machines that accelerate ions close to the speed of light would not be possible without incorporating the tenets of relativity.
In June, S&TR will discuss Einstein’s first paper of 1905, “Concerning an Heuristic Point of View toward the Emission and Transmission of Light.” In this paper, he explained some puzzling properties of light as a consequence of its particulate nature. Einstein called light’s discrete packets quanta; we now call them photons. This paper is the foundation for the Laboratory’s research in quantum physics, ionizing radiation, lasers, and advanced optical-imaging techniques.
The July/August S&TR will examine Einstein’s third 1905 paper, “Investigations on the Theory of the Brownian Movement.” In this paper, he explained the random motion of microscopic particles suspended in a liquid, and he used a branch of physics known as statistical mechanics to estimate the size of molecules. This work helped confirm the atomic theory of matter and is the basis for much of the Laboratory’s work in molecular dynamics, Monte Carlo statistical techniques, and physical chemistry.
In September, S&TR will finish the series with a discussion of Einstein’s fourth 1905 paper, “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend upon Its Energy-Content?” In this paper, which appeared in the September 1905 edition of Annalen der Physik, Einstein reported that, as a consequence of special relativity, matter and energy are interchangeable. This work led to the famous equation E = mc2. Thirty years later, physicists discovered fission and fusion, which demonstrate the conversion of mass into large amounts of energy. This work made possible the nuclear weapons research done at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories. It also paved the way for Livermore research efforts in peaceful nuclear power, such as magnetic fusion energy and inertial confinement fusion, as well as the Laboratory’s nuclear and particle physics experiments, in which matter and energy are interchanged.
Einstein’s work in 1905 was such an amazing burst of creativity that it has been called the annus mirabilis, or miraculous year. A measure of the lasting effects of Einstein’s achievements is the way in which they still form the basis of work in pure and applied physics. In that respect, one of our goals in publishing this series is to show how Einstein’s legacy is alive and well at Lawrence Livermore. We pride ourselves on forming teams of specialists to attack challenging science and technology problems in national security. Einstein showed us how much one person can accomplish.