How Albert Einstein's work is seen in today's technology

Why we should admire the astonishing and groundbreaking work of Albert Einstein | Opinion

Einstein's lessons about nature continue to enrich our lives –– his legacy to us and to future generations. If ever anyone was ahead of his time, it was Albert Einstein.

Dennis G. Hall
Guest Columnist
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  • Dennis G. Hall was formerly Vice Provost for Research, Dean of the Graduate School, Professor of Physics and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Vanderbilt University.

For at least forty years, there’s been a bust of Albert Einstein on my fireplace mantle. When my son was a little boy, he found it pretty scary. Einstein was scary, all right –– scary smart.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein was born on March 14, in 1879, in Ulm, Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Albert and his family fled to the United States, where he had accepted a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Einstein was dedicated to world peace, but recognized danger when he saw it. In 1939, he sent an influential letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt advising him that nuclear research on both sides of the Atlantic could be applied to produce bombs of unprecedented strength.

Roosevelt heeded that heads-up, and the rest is history. Prof. Einstein became a U.S. citizen in 1940.

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Einstein and Theory of Relativity

His two-part Theory of Relativity revised our notions of space, time, mass and energy. His Special Theory of Relativity, completed in 1905, taught us that light travels with the same speed for all observers, with space and time linked together into a composite space-time.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, completed in 1915, surpassed Isaac Newton’s earlier work with a richer and more accurate description of gravity. At its core, it taught us that space-time bends or curves in the presence of mass and energy.

Relativity has passed a century of progressively more sophisticated tests with flying colors.

It predicts, for example, that two clocks keep time differently depending on their relative speed and height. Einstein’s Relativity is built into the design of the network of orbiting satellites known as the Global Positioning System, GPS. Each time we use the GPS, we use Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

In this distinguished group which met in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 10, 1931, to discuss scientific problems are, left to right: Walter S. Adams, astronomer and director of the Mt. Wilson Carnegie observatory; Dr. Albert A. Michelson, formerly of Chicago University, who measured the speed of light; Dr. Albert Einstein, famed for his theory of relativity; and Dr. Robert A. Millikan, president of the California Institute and discoverer of the cosmic ray. The latter three have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

According to General Relativity, disturbances travel through space-time as gravitational waves.

That such waves can exist and travel throughout the universe was confirmed just over five years ago by history-making measurements using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO.

Over a billion years ago, two orbiting black holes fell into each other, launching the disturbance detected here on Earth in 2015.

In 1917, after completing Relativity, Einstein broke new ground again by discovering stimulated emission, the working principle behind every laser. Indeed, the word laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Einstein taught us that as an alternative to being absorbed by an atom, a particle of light – a photon – could stimulate the atom to emit a twin photon. Amplification occurs in a laser when one photon arrives and then two identical photons depart. The first laser was demonstrated in 1960.

Remarkably, within two short years—1915-1917—Albert Einstein laid the foundations for both the very existence of gravitational waves and for the laser technology later used to detect those gravitational waves. I’ll just mention that Einstein also predicted the existence of the light quantum now known as the photon, but that’s another story.

Albert Einstein passed away in 1955, before the first laser was demonstrated, before the first GPS satellite was launched and long before the first gravity waves were detected.

Einstein's lessons about nature continue to enrich our lives –– his legacy to us and to future generations. If ever anyone was ahead of his time, it was Albert Einstein.

Dennis G. Hall was formerly Vice Provost for Research, Dean of the Graduate School, Professor of Physics and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Vanderbilt University. He retired from Vanderbilt in December 2015

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