Mike Ko Personal Portfolio


Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

2017 - 2018
United Kingdom

Writing - Commentary

Einstein 1905 - The Standard of Greatness




                        I have recently read the book, Einstein 1905 - The Standard of Greatness, by John S. Rigden, and I would like to share a few thoughts about it.

The Five Papers

                        The book mainly explains what Albert Einstein’s five papers written in 1905 are about, and serves as a good introduction. They are presented in a casual way, explaining the papers in simple terms. It gives the reader a good background of the concepts and impact of the papers on science at the time. Readers with some knowledge about the concepts in a more scientific context, however, might feel that certain areas are not explained thoroughly enough.

                        The contents contain a preface, prologue, five chapters, and an epilogue on Einstein after 1905. Each of the five main chapters is about one of the five 1905 papers that Einstein wrote in March, April, May, June, and September, on the subjects Light Quantization, Molecular Dimensions, Brownian Motion, Relativity and Mass-Energy Equivalence respectively. The papers are presented in a systematic way. First it explains the background of the subject back in 1905, which is followed by an explanation of Einstein’s paper on that subject, and finally the response from the scientific community. With the papers laid out in this fashion, the reader can see the impact that Einstein’s theories had on each subject, which allows us to appreciate Einstein’s contributions better.

The Standard Of Greatness

                        Apart from the papers, the book has another interesting aspect, which is embodied by its subtitle: ‘The Standard of Greatness’. At the beginning of the book, the author provides his view on why we think so highly of Einstein, a view which I agree with. The author states that Einstein’s greatness stems from what he did and how he did it.

                        What Einstein did was writing his five important papers, (Einstein did not stop working after 1905, but for our purposes we’ll focus on that year) and few scientists can claim that their papers had the same level of impact on science as Einstein’s papers did. They propelled the development of quantum mechanics, supported the existence of atoms, revealed the relationship between space and time, and showed that energy and mass can be equal. They greatly changed how we thought about fundamental concepts (like light and matter), which is why we - scientist and layman alike - hold Einstein in such high regard. When you consider that Einstein mostly worked in isolation from the scientific community, it makes his achievements even more impressive.

                        How Einstein did it was about where he did his work, his interest in his work and his view on his work. All of this gives us a glimpse into Einstein’s motivation and method. In the following I shall illustrate these points.

                        On his place of work, Einstein thought about the ideas of his papers in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. His duties involved reviewing the occasional patent application. This environment gave him time to think about the problems that interested him. On his interest, Einstein was deeply intrigued by the fundamental quantities in nature and strived to comprehend the behavior of such quantities. And finally, on his view of his work and theories, Einstein stated that they must not contradict facts and they must have an ‘inner perfection’. He saw that his theories had such inner perfection, and it was one reason why he maintained that his theories were correct even when they were doubted. However, what exactly inner perfection means is open to debate.

                        Still, I would not say that Einstein was over-confident. Rather, in my view, it was just his way of judging theories, on how well they explained natural phenomena. If a theory explains only a single phenomenon, it does not have inner perfection. And most of Einstein's theories explained phenomena in a general, broadly applicable sense, rather than just a single phenomenon. This is just one possible interpretation of inner perfection and I will not look further into this matter here.

                        It is those three reasons, his quiet environment, his interest, and his belief, that partly led Einstein to come up with his five papers, which defines him as one of the greatest scientists of our time. Indeed, as the author stated in the book, Einstein has set the standard of greatness (at least for scientists).

The Most Significant Paper?

                        Many of us like to make comparisons, and some might ask which one of Einstein’s papers is more significant. Yet to me, it would be as if someone was trying to decide whether vegetables or meat is more important for our diet. Each paper concerns a different aspect, so it would be hard to make an absolute comparison. The most that we can do is to think of them in terms of their usefulness: how much or how often can society use such knowledge?

                        However, if I must choose one, I will choose the September paper, but not in terms of its usefulness, and not because the equation that represents the basic concept of the paper, E=mc2 is arguably the most famous one. The reason I choose the September paper is because it linked two fundamental properties of the universe together. On the one hand, we have mass, which ranges from planets to organisms to particles; on the other hand, we have energy, which can exist in various forms like thermal, kinetic, and electric energy. Linking these two together, it shows the relationship that connects everything to each other. It also (once again) demonstrated how interesting the laws that nature follows can be, and that even when at quite fundamental levels, it is possible to unravel its secrets. These are some of the things that make science intriguing and exciting. That is why I think the September paper is more special than the others.

                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
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