E=MC². So?
February 14, 2007 12:59 AM   Subscribe

What did Einstein actually contribute to the modern world? With some scientists, you could say - he made the lightbulb, the other would be - without his help, the computer would not be possible, yet another - he made the first prototype of the airplane. Well, what did Einstein actually do?

We always hear that Albert is one of the greatest scientists in the world, however, the only thing I can think of that his theories actually bore relevance to would be Nuclear Energy. Even with that, I'm not really sure how much he was responsible for, and if the nuclear program would perhaps have been possible without him.

What I'd like is a list of practical tools right now that would possibly not exist, had Albert never been born.
posted by markovich to Science & Nature (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Photoelectric Effect - Einstein played no small role in setting up quantum mechanics, and therefore surely shares some responsibility for a whole load of electronics and optics that have come about since.
posted by edd at 1:20 AM on February 14, 2007

Well, he quantized light into what is now called photons. Most modern electronics that deals with light depends upon this insight - TV cameras, lasers, and lots more.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 1:26 AM on February 14, 2007

Corrections due to special and general relativity had to be taken into account in the design of the GPS system.
posted by chrismear at 1:31 AM on February 14, 2007

It’s Albert’s world. We just live in it.
Just came accross this brilliant article!
posted by rom1 at 1:47 AM on February 14, 2007

Special Relativity established the theoretical basis for atomic power. His paper on the "Photoelectric Effect" (for which he got his Nobel Prize) laid the foundation for the development of Quantum Mechanics, which has yielded many things, not least of which were semiconductors and modern polymer chemistry (i.e. plastics).

That said, your question is misguided. Einstein was a scientist, not an engineer. Scientists try to learn about the world; engineers try to use that knowledge to create useful things. Trying to rate a scientist based on his inventions is a case of using the wrong score board -- like counting innings in a tennis game.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:10 AM on February 14, 2007 [4 favorites]

You can draw a direct line from Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect to photovoltaic (solar) cells if you want some physical technology.

Also, what would Sliders have been without the Einstein-Rosen bridge?
posted by biffa at 3:44 AM on February 14, 2007

Not sure it's ever that clear cut, in fact. Who did invent the light bulb? Humphrey Davy, James Lindsay, Henricg Globel, Henry Woodward, or Sir William Joseph Swan? And what about the computer? Charles Babbage? Alan Turing? John Von Neumann? Konrad Zuse? John Atanasoff?

If you think Alan Turing invented the computer, you can probably say Einstein was responsible for the atom bomb, and as people have said, much else.
posted by Phanx at 4:13 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Every now and then, someone looks at the world that we all see and sees it completely differently. Big Al did that. Netwon & Galileo did the same thing.

It only happens a few times per millenium. In his day, he was the Great Loner, because for a while, only he saw what his work implied.

It's fair to say his personal paradigm shift was founded on the work of others, but he was the first to articulate his new way of looking at the physical world. Lots of scientists have spent nearly 100 years pretty much validating his work, building on it, expanding it.

Whether or not that turned into a 'product' is irrelevant. If you don't think that unifying matter and energy is important, that spacetime is a novel concept. or that time not being a constant is significant, then he did nothing.
posted by FauxScot at 5:01 AM on February 14, 2007

In addition to physical sciences, the theory of relativity was popularized as proving that "everything's relative", which very broadly contributed to an increased questioning of systems based on absolute beliefs, like organized religion, strict paternal families, etc.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:17 AM on February 14, 2007

Oh and can't resist a plug for Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:19 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

What I'd like is a list of practical tools right now that would possibly not exist, had Albert never been born.

This is such a fallacious statement. As Phanx points out, the reality of any situation is such that it's rarely so simple as to say "X invented Y". You could ask the same of nearly every scientist in history: why was Newton important? Sure, he recognized gravity, but he didn't do anything about it (i.e. build an anti-gravity machine or anything). Why was Copernicus important? I mean, sure, he recognized that the solar system is heliocentric, but what does that do for humanity?

I jest.

Einstein's relativity, building off of Lorentz, Maxwell and many others, completely changed the understanding of the relationship of time to space, just like Newton and Copernicus and countless others did in the past. Relativity impacts, to a greater or lesser degree, every invention that relies on an understanding of physics. Examples are given above by others.
posted by The Michael The at 6:17 AM on February 14, 2007

GPS uses SR/GR corrections.
posted by koudelka at 6:40 AM on February 14, 2007

Well, there are often few direct ties between theoretical physics and practical technology however, Einstein helped to advance a few key ideas that greatly contributed to much of contemporary technology:

Wave/particle duality (the photoelectric effect): One of the ideas that stem off of this is that not only can light waves act like particles that we call photons, but particles that we think of as "matter" can act like waves. The idea that a bit of matter such as an electron can behave as a wave is critical for semiconductor electronics and modern chemistry.

Momentum at high velocity: E=MC2 is really a poor summary of this. Essentially, special relativity modifies Newtonian mechanics for extreme cases of extremely high momentum. What he discovered was that momentum did not increase linearly with speed. This becomes important when you start pushing things around at significant fractions of the speed of light.

A practical example is any form of particle accelerator, ranging from vacuum tubes, CRT screens, television sets, to accelerators used for research and medical therapy.

Subjective time: This has less impact on everyday technology, but is important if you need a high level of precision in measuring time between objects not moving together. So satellites and probes that depend on communicating time back to Earth need to account for this.

Mass-energy equivalence: I don't think that Einstein gets credit alone for this. There were dozens of research teams in nuclear chemistry who were trying to bean-count the mass and energy involved in nuclear reactions, that someone would have made this connection eventually. At any rate the fact that Einstein's work on an entirely different problem helped to solve a critical problem in nuclear chemistry certainly pushed the field forward by quite a bit.

General relativity: Not as much application here on Earth, but curved space-time is important to keep in mind as we keep shooting things off into space.

On the other hand, I think the cult of personality around Einstein is a bit problematic for weighing his legacy. According to some accounts while he was excellent at theoretical mathematics, he was a complete putz at anything that actually involved numeric predictions. His collaborations, especially with Eldridge need to be considered. He turned out to be profoundly and deeply wrong about quantum mechanics and the dynamic universe, aka "The Big Bang" (although admitted this error after the fact).
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:43 AM on February 14, 2007

Or to put it another way, Einstein certainly didn't invent anything in the 20th century, but his theoretical insights pushed applied and experimental physics and engineering a lot further than what could have been accomplished by building theory on a multitude of tiny and error-prone observations.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:53 AM on February 14, 2007

Einstein wrote the letter to Roosevelt that led to the Manhattan Project. He was also a worked on the Project, so I'd consider him a co-inventor of the atom bomb.
posted by teg at 7:09 AM on February 14, 2007

scientists != inventors
posted by mkultra at 7:23 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

No Albert then No Stephen Hawking then a truly lesser world indeed.

And that great photo with the flyout hair!

This question is a gag right?

You knew about Newton I guess ...right?
posted by Freedomboy at 7:54 AM on February 14, 2007

He co-invented a type of refrigerator.
posted by benign at 7:55 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Many of the inventions you list were made by inventors, not scientists. Marconi developed wireless telegraph without any understanding of science at all. In fact, his feelings about how things should work contradicted modern science, and there was no explanation for a long time about why wireless telegraph would work over long distances. There's a big difference between a scientist and an inventor.

Without Einstein's contributions computers would not be possible, because quantum calculations are needed to develop them. The telescopes we use to peer in deep space would not work correctly, and obviously anything powered by atomic energy would not work. That said, his real achievement was to create a view of the universe where time and space were one fabric. Doing that took a staggering amount of creativity, and opened up a new realm of technical possibilities for everyone we are only just beginning to explore.
posted by xammerboy at 7:56 AM on February 14, 2007

It is also wrong, especially in science, to toss around phrases like "wouldn't have been discovered without him." Many of Einstein's contributions to Brownian motion, special relativity, and the photoelectric effect were discoveries ripe for the plucking when he did it. Would a single person have done all three, in one year? Certainly not, but the science was right there and all would have been figured out soon enough. Now, from what I understand about general relativity, that was something else entirely. It was more or less ignored for several decades after it came out because it just didn't apply to anything. The cosmological data that we needed weren't there for GR to make a big difference in how we thought about the universe. Sure, it could do things like predict Mercury's orbit, but it took some time before it was a standard topic to be learned and applied to astrophysics. Glancing at Wikipedia, it basically wasn't until the 1970, 55 years after GR was first published on, that it was realized that black holes were more than a curiosity and would apply to real stellar evolution and observed data.
posted by Schismatic at 9:04 AM on February 14, 2007

A theoricist is not an inventor. These are two very different things. Argubaly, if Einstein didnt think of it someone else would have eventually, thus things would probably be the same even if he wasnt born.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:23 AM on February 14, 2007

Yeah, the problem with this question is that engineers and inventors do the things you're citing. Einstein was a theoretician. He created a conceptual framework for engineers and inventors to work in. This is analogous to creating an entire new kind of tool set.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:56 AM on February 14, 2007

Just for the sake of pedanticity, Einstien didn't invent the light bulb. That gem is usually attributed to Edison (though the history is more convoluted than that).
posted by SlyBevel at 10:32 AM on February 14, 2007

And Leonardo DaVinci had prototypical flying machines.

It's a good question, but it's posed on a false premise. Let's give Al lots of credit for what he actually did do. Inflation does no one justice.
posted by SlyBevel at 10:38 AM on February 14, 2007

Try applying this question to Darwin and you'll quickly see what a misguided question it is.

Was Darwin one of the greatest scientists ever? Arguable, but, yes, he is a viable candidate.

Did he invent anything of practical use? I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

Oh, he (and this applies to Einstein) did fundamentally rewrite the way we see the Universe, ourselves and our place in it, unleashing ideas which have infiltrated every aspect of our Art, our philosophies and even the underpinnings of our Science.

But, no, no lightbulbs or bicycles.
posted by vacapinta at 11:23 AM on February 14, 2007

I think the question is slightly flawed because markovich is confusing scientists with inventors and entrepreneurs. Yes, there is crossover, but more often than not the two functionally occupy separate careers and have independent goals.

Vacapinta has it when asking, "What did Darwin invent?" Plug in Newton's name for that matter...

This is of course holding that inventions are material things (like the airplane, light bulb, etc.) Some would argue that the increasingly accurate view of nature, our world, and the fundamentals of reality itself given to us by research scientist is in its own way an invention of sorts.
posted by wfrgms at 11:31 AM on February 14, 2007

I'd like to underscore what Schismatic said: saying that "if it wasn't for x, we wouldn't have y" is almost always a spurious, or at least questionable, statement.

Had Edison not been born, someone else would have invented the lightbulb -- we wouldn't just be sitting around, typing into our computers by candlelight. It might have taken a few more years, but the technology was all there, waiting to be put together by the right person. He was in the right place, and made the right connections, but it could easily have been somebody else.

Similarly, much of what Newton did was also done by Leibniz (and in fact they fought bitterly over who did what first), so even Newton -- who's considered probably one of the most revered scientists of modern time -- isn't wholly irreplaceable. You can go on and on; behind almost every great inventor is one or more competitors who just didn't quite make it into our collective consciousness. (E.g.: You know the Wright brothers, but ever heard of Traian Vuia?)

We like to assign inventions to individual people, as if they just created them out of whole cloth, but this is not typically the case; generally there's a lot of timing and luck involved in "invention."
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:37 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions talks about the cyclic nature of scientific inquiry, and how the re-imagining of the world (say by Newton, or Einstein) spawns whole new discplines. Successive generations of scientist-types then follow up on all the parameters exposed in the "revolution" by generating lots of predictions and data. Anomalies accrue, and the paradigm is fudged. Eventually, the anomalies are irreconcilable with the paradigm and the discipline is ripe for a new revolution.

That's a longwinded way to say that Einstein's contributions lie in several of those areas. For the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion, he was just one of those participants gathering data and putting it together into a story consistent with the prevailing ideas. Relativity -- a revolution, whose implications. exploitation, commercialization are tasks left for the rest of us.

That book, btw, is way dry, but oddly compelling.
posted by janell at 11:50 AM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

According to this (and a few other pages, but that one is the shortest) article, he also co-invented a type of gyrocompass. This page mentions that he also held patents for a type of camera, and a hearing aid. A delightfully oldschool page containing a partial list of his patents, as well as some excerpts and diagrams from a couple of them, can be found here.

The refrigerator never ended up being manufactured after he sold the rights to it (though it has been built), but he did receive royalties for the gyrocompass for a number of years. Are they results of his most profound discoveries? Nope. But you wanted practical tools, and there they are, or at least, there they were. By now they've doubtless been surpassed, but at least the gyrocompass was useful in its time.
posted by benign at 2:26 PM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Poop. "co-invented" above, should just be "invented", as I haven't found any indication that he collaborated with anyone on it. When I wrote that part I thought it might have been the 1933 entry from the list of patents (which does list a joint inventor), but looking at it again I think that's the hearing aid.
posted by benign at 2:33 PM on February 14, 2007

I just want to say that I agree that if Einstein had not been around we would probably still have quantum mechanics today. It was a spurious statement. However, I don't know about relativity. Relativity was a big conceptual leap that may have taken us a very long time to figure out without Einstein. Also, Einstein was a force of personality. He helped give attention to many important scientists and ideas that would have otherwise been dismissed at that time. His search for a "unified theory" is now used by some physicists to justify their work with the untestable string theory. His ideas and personality continue to influence science, politics, and religion.
posted by xammerboy at 2:36 PM on February 14, 2007

Putting aside the leaps he made in Physics, he introduced indicial (or Einstein) notation.

He expressed his theory of general relativity in the language of tensors which is best understood using indicial notation. It's annoying to get the hang of but man is it useful.
posted by crashlanding at 9:42 PM on February 14, 2007

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