Wonder Year

In Physics by Brian Koberlein4 Comments

Albert Einstein is perhaps the most famous scientist in history. He was a true “rock star” scientist, known around the world for his theory of general relativity, which revolutionized our understanding of gravity. Not surprisingly, he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1921, but it wasn’t for general relativity. It was for a completely different work he published in 1905, the year known as Einstein’s annus mirabilis, or wonderous year.

Publishing research is a challenge for any scientist. Most of us might publish a few to several papers a year, collaboratively with other scientists. While our work is interesting and innovative, it isn’t typically revolutionary. Publishing a truly revolutionary, groundbreaking paper is rare, and something most scientists won’t achieve in their lifetime. But in 1905 Einstein published four groundbreaking papers. Each one was a revolutionary work that changed our understanding of the universe. None of them were about gravity. Einstein’s most famous work wasn’t published until 1915, and one could argue that it wasn’t nearly as revolutionary as his 1905 papers.

So this week we’ll look at Einstein’s annus mirabilis papers:

Brownian Motion, which settled the debate over the existence of atoms, and laid the foundation for a new field of work known as statistical mechanics.

The Photoelectric Effect, which demonstrated the particle aspects of light, and led to the quantum theory of matter.

Special Relativity, which overturned a model of space and time that had stood for millennia.

Mass-Energy Equivalence, which connected matter and energy, and led us to a true understanding of the stars.

Although the photoelectric effect is specifically noted in his Nobel prize award, one of these papers would have been worthy of note. We’ll find out why starting tomorrow.


  1. There’s a course in coursera about Einstein and its work: https://www.coursera.org/course/einstein

    In the introduction Prof. Lagerstrom explains those four papers and the context in which Einstein wrote them, which I found very enlightening. If someone’s interested in Einstein’s life from a history of science perspective, you might want to take a look 🙂

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