The Year in Science: History of Science

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Einstein Papers Defy Time

Some long-lost Albert Einstein papers, including an original manuscript that spells out what scholars consider one of the physicist's greatest discoveries, were unearthed last summer. The trove of papers turned up at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where Einstein was welcomed as a visiting professor during the 1920s by his friend and fellow physicist Paul Ehrenfest.

Ehrenfest's library was bequeathed to the university in the 1980s, a half century after his death. It contained a number of important books and a messy stash of journals and loose-leaf papers. "I mean stacks of old, brittle paper that just crumbles in your hands," says physicist Carlo Beenakker. The archive remained untouched until Rowdy Boeyink, a graduate student at Utrecht University, asked to see it and was shocked when a few letters written by the physicist Niels Bohr fell out of a magazine. Boeyink spent the next three weeks sorting through each and every sheet in 36 piles of paper.

The best find came last. Einstein wrote five major academic papers in his lifetime. Four of those original manuscripts are known and preserved, but the fifth, "Quantum Theory of the Monatomic Ideal Gas," was thought to have vanished into the ether. Late one Friday evening in July, Boeyink happened upon 16 folded pages tucked inside a German magazine. The handwriting was familiar, but the papers were unsigned. So Boeyink turned to the Internet. "I Googled the title and all of a sudden the published version of this article appeared."

Boeyink had found the original manuscript of Einstein's fifth and final major paper, published in 1925, in which he theorized that the supercooling of atoms would cause particles to be locked in the lowest quantum state of a system. It was written 70 years before a team of physicists produced the first empirical evidence of this phenomenon, known as the Bose-Einstein condensate, and earned the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing proof of Einstein's remarkable prescience.   —Anne Casselman 

Found: Leonardo's Lab, Hipparchus' Night Sky, And Odysseus' Home

Art, science, and history entwined this year in three important discoveries:

  • Leonardo's Lab: Roberto Manescalchi believes he located the Florence workshop of Leonardo da Vinci. The cartographer noticed a partial fresco of birds in one building that matched a painting in the structure next door. Close examination showed the two paintings to be one. The rooms were once part of the same church complex where Leonardo is said to have lived. The frescoes resemble other da Vinci works and show an understanding of the physics of flight. Manescalchi and two art historians speculate that the rooms also served as Leonardo's laboratory.
  • Hipparchus' Globe: Astronomer Bradley Schaefer found the sole remaining star chart by Greek astronomer Hipparchus. It was in a Naples archaeological museum, cradled on the shoulders of a marble statue called the Farnese Atlas. By re-creating the globe's night sky, Schaefer concluded the sculptor must have mapped the constellations  by working directly from a chart made around 125 B.C., when Hipparchus was the reigning expert. "Holy cow!" says Schaefer. "We just went out and discovered a lost piece of ancient wisdom."
  • Homer's Island: British businessman Robert Bittlestone thinks he has identified the elusive Ithaca, the Greek isle featured in Homer's Odyssey. Enlisting a classics professor and a stratigrapher, not to mention using satellite imagery to try to match the epic poem's descriptions, Bittlestone says Odysseus' home is not the Greek island now called Itháki, as some believe, nor is it a creation of Homer's imagination. The real Ithaca, he says, is the peninsula of Paliki on the western side of the island of Kefallinía in the Ionian Sea.  —Jessa Forte Netting
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