Waiting for the new genius

Future Tense for Mar. 14, 2007

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

Albert Einstein was born on this day, March 14, in 1879. He died more than 50 years ago, in 1955.

Physicists are still waiting to greet Einstein’s successor: the man or woman who will create the “theory of everything” that unifies and explains the interactions of four fundamental, universal forces: gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and electromagnetic force. It’s said that only 12 people on the planet understand the current front-running theory, “M theory,” and they can’t agree on what the “M” stands for.

Physicists probably would be happy to find someone who could tie together two of the four forces into what’s called the “Grand Unification Theory” or GUT. At last count, 10 GUT models were giving heartburn and headaches to physicists and mathematicians.

If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, that’s OK. Neither do I. In some ways, it takes a genius to truly appreciate this level of genius. I certainly don’t have the math. Few people do. Einstein himself once remarked, “Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.”

However, like millions of people, I have an intuitive feel for Einstein’s revelations. This was an important part of his genius: his ability to explain new, never-before-conceived-of ways to see our universe — and to do this such a way, he said, that a barmaid or a grandmother can understand it.

How to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity that links time and space?

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour,” Einstein said. “Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

His insights sprang directly from Einstein’s brain — not from any book, computer or television show. He did not claim to have an exceptional intellect. “It’s not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer,” he said. Physically, his brain was no different from yours or mine — just an average 2.3 pounds of gray matter.

However, in the course of one year, 1905, what’s become known as the Annus Mirabilis (”year of wonders”), Einstein’s brain produced five scientific articles that together form the foundation of modern physics. He proved the existence of atoms and predicted the size of molecules. He proposed that light is made up of packets, now called photons, and established a fundamental principle of what would become quantum mechanics (physics at the sub-atomic level). He introduced the special theory of relativity to describe the relationship between time, distance and mass. And then, late in the year, he answered the question, “Does the inertia of a body depend upon its energy content?” The answer was e=mc2, the most famous formula in human history.

It’s been 128 years since he was born and more than a century has passed since the Miracle Year.

So where is Einstein’s successor? For that matter, why haven’t there been a dozen Einsteins or more since his death? As author James Gleick writes, “Why, as the pool of available human has risen from 100 million to 1 billion to 5 billion, has the production of geniuses — Shakespeares, Newtons, Mozarts, Einsteins — seemingly choked off to nothing, genius itself coming to seem like the property of the past?”

No one knows the answer. No one can predict when and how genius will occur. All we can hope, for mankind’s greater understanding of the universe, is that another Einstein will appear ... in the future.

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Update:

After I wrote this article, I saw a Web site (hem.bredband.net/b153434/Index.htm#Timeline) that plots the birth dates and estimated IQs of 18 geniuses born since 1600. The distribution is remarkably even although the world's population has grown from 545 to 579 million in 1600 to more than 6 billion today (and more than doubled since 1960).

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/18. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net