Professor discusses Einstein

Though it may seem hard to believe, physics professor A. Douglas Stone argued Wednesday that Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist in history, is underappreciated for his contributions to physics.

“You may wonder: Does he need any more hype?” Stone asked, citing Einstein’s approximately 15 million hits on Google. But Stone said Einstein does indeed deserve even more recognition.

Part of the Yale Engineering Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series “Genius and (Genius)2: Planck, Einstein and the Birth of Quantum Theory,” Stone spoke to students and faculty who filled the seats of Davies Auditorium yesterday in celebration of the World Year of Physics — the centennial anniversary of what Stone referred to as the “miracle year” during which Albert Einstein published his revolutionary papers, as well the 50th anniversary of his death. Stone said Einstein’s discovery of the photon concept, though often eclipsed by his more widely-known Theory of Relativity, is the more important and revolutionary of the two discoveries.

Though science professors and graduate students filled most of the seats, the lecture was written for the general public. Stone used flashy PowerPoint animations, political cartoons and music from “Star Wars” to make his talk more interesting, and several audience members said he helped make the complexities of Einsteinian physics more accessible to those not in the sphere of the physics elite.

“I think it’s very important for physicists to do a good job communicating the excitement of their field to the general public,” Stone said. “This year, there has been a lot of emphasis on Einstein’s more esoteric stuff, but I want to talk about what really relates to us living in the physical world.”

The lecture assumed no prior knowledge of physics, and instead of focusing on technicalities, Stone spoke mostly about the progression of scientific thought and the origins of the quantum theory. He spoke about Max Planck and how his discoveries prompted Einstein’s theories about the photoelectric effect and the concept of the photon — that is, the concept of light as possessing both particulate and wave-like properties.

Dean of Engineering Paul Fleury said it takes a deep understanding of the subject to be able to speak to such a broad audience. Stone’s lecture was one of the best in the series, he said.

“[The lecture] brought in more of the human side of science,” Fleury said. “There was a lot about history, psychology and sociology, not just physics.”

Even some of those already more familiar with the sciences said they enjoyed Stone’s novel approach to Einsteinian physics.

“It told the story behind the science, which is an interesting story to hear,” physics student Ben Turek GRD ’06 said.

John Teufel GRD ’05, also a physics student, said he thought it was interesting to learn about the evolution of ideas rather than just seeing equations on paper in class.

Stone also discussed the nature of scientific genius, citing Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Watson and Crick. One aspect is the introduction of an immortal idea, he said, and another is the creativity involved with introducing a new way of thinking about nature.

“Stone brought up the human dimension of what it is to make a discovery in physics,” Axel Andre, a postdoctoral fellow in physics, said. “I thought Stone’s distinction between making a discovery and then recognizing that you’ve made that discovery was very important.”

Stone concluded by suggesting that Einstein should have been awarded three to four Nobel Prizes for his work, rather than the single prize he received in 1921.