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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Geek Trivia: Shedding some (laser) light

This week, we start by dispelling a Geek Trivia myth: Albert Einstein did not win a Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity.

Yes, everyone's favorite patent clerk did win a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, but the award specifically cites his paper on the photoelectric effect -- one of four papers that Einstein published during his "Year of Wonders" in 1905. The other three papers are on Brownian motion, special relativity, molecular dimensions, and energy-mass equivalence.

(Bonus trivia: Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity, which specifies the unique breakdown of Newtonian mechanics at velocities near the speed of light, does not contain the famous E=mc2 equation; this appears in the energy-mass equivalence paper. While there's a close connection between relativity and E=mc2, the terms aren't interchangeable.)

Although we Geeks are fans of both special and general relativity, let's not be so quick to dismiss the photoelectric effect, people. Besides introducing physicists to the concept of the photon -- which Einstein refers to as energy quanta -- his paper on the photoelectric effect laid the groundwork for the eventual development of the laser. Every time you rip some BitTorrent feeds to your DVD+RW burner or use the barcode scanner at the self-checkout line, you can thank Uncle Albert.

The term laser didn't exist when scientists produced the first coherent beam of electromagnetic radiation in accordance with the quantum principles Einstein describes in the photoelectric effect. The precursor to the laser is the maser, which used microwaves instead of visible frequencies of light.

Charles H. Townes built the first working maser at Columbia University in 1953. When he began working on a maser using visible light in 1957, he referred to the proposed device as an optical maser.

In the same year, another Columbia University grad student began theoretical work on a visible-spectrum maser, which he called a LASER (note the capitalization). This student's later published works brought the term laser into the public consciousness.


To find out, check out the Geek Trivia Answer on

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