Physics department celebrates Albert Einstein’s miracle year

By Cyndi Loza

A lecture on “Einstein’s Miracle Year” by University Physics Professor Paul Kwiat Saturday kicked off this fall’s Saturday Physics Honors Program series.

The event, which lasts through December, marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s “Miracle Year” when he wrote five papers on three revolutionary topics that changed the field of physics.

“I don’t think I can possibly overstate how important they (the papers) were,” Kwiat said. “I would say, he started basically all of modern physics in one year, which is just amazing.”

The Saturday Physics Honors Program is an outreach program for high school students but is open to the general public as well. High school students from surrounding communities and, on occasion, from as far as Chicago suburbs have attended the program events. Kevin Pitts, University physics professor and program coordinator, said he thinks the program is very beneficial for younger students because it gives them the opportunity to see science in action and to come in contact with some of the leading researchers in the world on this campus.

“The primary motivation for the program is to get younger people interested in science and to show them that, for example, some of the things they might see in movies and popular science fiction is not everything that science is about,” Pitts said. “That really research is very exciting and that some of these things that scientists do have a really direct application on society.”

The lecture consisted of discussion, accompanied by visual presentation, on three revolutionary topics in Einstein’s five papers: the Brownian motion, special relativity and the photoelectric effect.

Among the visual presentations, Kwiat rode a skateboard with a tennis ball to explain the idea according to “old school” physics in which the velocity of one object is added to the other. In explaining special relativity, Kwiat used the example of a tennis ball’s added velocity if it were thrown while he was riding the skateboard.

“It’s really easy to figure how to add velocities, which is that you just add them,” Kwiat said. “So that if I can throw a baseball or a tennis ball at ten meters a second . . . but I happen to be on a train that’s moving at 20 meters a second and I’m throwing the baseball in the direction the train is moving then for someone who is standing on the ground the baseball is going to be moving at 10 plus 20 . . . 30 meters a second.”

Kwiat used this presentation to question if the speed of light can be considered in the same way. He used the example of if a person is moving a flashlight at the speed of light, then whether it would that mean that the photons, the particles composing light, coming from the flashlight are traveling at twice the speed of light. Kwiat explains that the answer is no. Somehow, the photons are always traveling at the speed of light. This broke away from the “old school” physics way of simply adding velocities.

Sara Carlson, a senior from Centennial High School in Champaign, said she liked Kwiat’s presentation.

“I liked all his examples,” Carlson said. “He had more equipment that our teachers can’t show us in school . . . it’s just exploring more of the concepts we learned in school but deeper.”

The lectures for the program are free of charge and are scheduled from 10:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. in room 141 in the Loomis Laboratory of Physics unless indicated otherwise.

“I think one of the very important things we do here and we need to continue to do better is to help educate our society,” Pitts said. “We live in a very technically advanced society and so technology and science is playing a role in everything . . . anything we can do to help give people an idea of what science is like, even if they are not scientists I think is very beneficial.”

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