Day 632: Einstein’s Others

originally published September 23, 2013

Someone once asked me if I’d take a thousandth of this project to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity in plain, common-sense layman-speak. I replied that this had been done on numerous occasions, in fact I think they even tried to do it in an Archie comic once. And besides, isn’t poor Al Einstein getting a little pigeon-holed by that equation? He contributed a lot more to the world than E=mc2 and receiving the honor of having Walter Matthau play him in a film.

No, this isn’t a ham-fisted segue into an article about Australian comedian and Young Einstein star Yahoo Serious, though I will tuck that topic into my back pocket for possible later use. Albert Einstein was the father of quantum theory, the great-uncle of particle theory, and third cousin several times removed of the Manhattan Project that ended World War II.

But there’s more to the Einstein pickle-tray than the big ol’ Kosher dills of scientific genius that everyone knows about. That’s what I want to poke at with my typing fingers today – the other Einsteineries.

For one thing, Einstein invented a fridge.

The Einstein Refrigerator has no moving parts, operates at a constant pressure, and requires only a heat source to help it do its thing. He came up with this along with Leó Szilárd, his former student, in 1925 after reading a report of a family that was killed when a seal on their fridge broke, poisoning them with toxic fumes. I’m not going to get into the science of the thing, as I’d rather not completely alienate the short-attention-spanned read-while-they-poop demographic, but suffice it to say, a solar panel would be enough to keep this thing chilling your Bud Lite from here to the Super Bowl.

I can’t speak to the specifics that keep this thing from being completely practical, though it might have to do with the extensive interactions of ammonia and butane flowing up and down tubes and doing all sorts of funky sciencey stuff. Or maybe it was because Electrolux bought up the patents and hid them in order to protect their interests. Let’s err on the side of conspiracy on this one.

Did you know that Einstein has his very own Syndrome? When a very bright kid suffers from a delay in the development of his or her (but usually his) speech, this could apply. Al himself didn’t start yammering full-tilt until age five, which led to Thomas Sowell’s book, suggesting that children who fit the conditions for the Einstein Syndrome may appear to be autistic, but in fact are not.

This occurs more frequently in boys who have great puzzle-solving skills, as well as highly educated parents, usually with a dash of musical expertise in the family. If you think you know a kid who might fit this description, head out and buy Thomas Sowell’s book because hey, he didn’t come up with the Einstein Syndrome just so he could not sell a lot of books.

Big Al was not thrilled about his work being anywhere in the chain of events that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki being bombed to ashes. He was even less pleased that his work was coming to define the era beyond the war, with both superpowers and a handful of other nations scrambling to tuck as many nukes as they could under their porches. So just a few days before he died, Al lent his signature to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, a plea for peaceful – specifically non-nuclear – solutions to global concerns.

Eleven important intellectuals and science-types signed the manifesto, essentially stating, “Hey, our work brought this stuff into the world. You assholes need to devote your lives to not ever using it.” This was the origin of the Pugwash Conferences, an international organization devoted not to scrubbing small flat-faced dogs as its name implies, but to nuclear disarmament and world peace. Einstein’s work is still in progress.

It’s important to remember that Einstein was not perfect. Just as John Lennon’s legacy is flecked with a few horrible albums with Yoko Ono, Einstein had a handful of balls that didn’t quite land in the basket with a satisfying scientific swoosh. In 1939 he published a paper explaining how black holes could not possibly form. A collapsing star would simply spin and spin as fast as the speed of light with infinite energy. He concluded the paper with the statement, ‘Suck it, idiots’, and a crude sketch of a stickman with crazy hair flipping the bird.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But this Einsteinian paper fell flat on the floor of astronomical study, and is generally believed to be 100% wrong by everyone else in the field. He came up with a theory of superconductivity as well, but that one didn’t get any traction either. Hey, they couldn’t all be winners.

Einstein once wrote a paper about tea leaves. Okay, this is not wholly accurate, but one of the principle factors of a paper he’d written on the erosion of river banks was something called the tea leaf paradox. With this Al asks the question, why doesn’t stirring your tea make all the leaves stick to the side of the cup? Why the hell do they end up dead center at the bottom?

The solution is a slower rotation near the bottom of the cup due to friction, creating an inward flow of liquid where up top it’s floating outward. This secondary flow should bring the leaves to the middle of the cup at the bottom, then propel them up and outward to the rim. But the leaves are too heavy to be lifted up, so they plop down in the middle.

If this seems like a half-interesting anecdote that might have something to do with river erosion but that’s about it, well then you’re underestimating the juicy slab of brain that paid the rent in Einstein’s head. This phenomenon has been adopted by other scientists to better understand atmospheric systems, and also to separate red blood cells from blood plasma.

Also, beer. This same anecdote was crucial in developing a means for separating the coagulated ‘trub’ (gritty sediment at the bottom of the yeast fermenter).

So Einstein’s work has helped chill food by solar power (theoretically), encouraged world leaders to think twice about pointing nukes at one another, and he helped bring an incalculable amount of beer into the world. The guy deserves kudos and adulation for a lot more than one silly little equation.

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