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Einstein's annus mirabilis

Annus mirabilis is a Latin term meaning "wonderful year". It is used to describe various years, particularly in the history of science, when many important discoveries or inventions were made. It seems to have been used first to describe the year 1666 when Isaac Newton achieved a series of outstanding breakthroughs in optics, gravitation, the study of motion, and calculus. But, more recently, is has been used to described a period in the life of Albert Einstein, centered on the year 1905, when he authored four visionary papers. These four papers changed the course of physics.

At this time Einstein's financial situation was precarious. He worked briefly as a substitute teacher after he graduated but found it difficult to find a permanent teaching post. Fortunately, one of his closest friends, Michele Angelo Besso, helped him get a job at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Although Einstein lacked the experience necessary to perform such work, he managed to pass the interview and become a patent clerk third class.

His job involved giving opinions about patent applications, in particular checking whether a proposed machine or mechanism would act in accordance with the principles of physics. Some of his work at the patent office bore on issues to do with the transmission of electric signals and the electrico-mechanical synchronization of time measurements – topics that figured conspicuously in the gedanken (thought experiments) that eventually led Einstein to his iconoclastic conclusions about the nature of light and the intimate connection between space and time.

Einstein was an outsider – not a member of any formal scientific society or community. His closest scientific collaborator at the time was Besso. Additionally, Einstein discussed scientific and philosophical matters with two friends he'd met in Bern, Michele Solovine and Conrad Habicht, with whom he founded a discussion group called "The Olympia Academy".

Despite the fact that his work at the patent office was low-paid and left only Sundays entirely free, Einstein managed to use his spare time to extraordinary effect. In 1905, two years after his job at the patent office was made permanent, he published four remarkable papers, any one of which would have established his scientific reputation. They concerned: Soon, the physics community recognized Einstein as a rising young star of science. The first person to fully appreciate the significance of Einstein's papers was Max Planck.

The role of Einstein's wife in his scientific career

It has been suggested (most notably in a PBS co-produced documentary "Einstein's Wife") that Einstein's wife at the time, Mileva Maric, played a significant role in his early breakthroughs. There appears to be no basis for this claim.

Although Maric undoubtedly supported Einstein in other ways, notably in raising their young son, Hans Albert Einstein (born in 1904), there is no credible evidence to support the notion that she had an impact on the development, for example, of thw special theory of relativity.

Although Maric studied physics and mathematics at the Zurich Polytechnic, she achieved a poor grade in the math component, scoring just 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 6, and failed to improve her grade average (although her math went up slightly to 3.5) when she re-sat her exams the following year. In fact, the level of difficulty of the mathematics in Einstein's 1905 papers was not high and he would have had no need of outside help in this aspect.

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Thanks to Jacek Hawrot for contributing this article, and to Allen Esterson for comments regarding the role of Mileva Maric in Einstein's scientific work. For more on Esterson's conclusions concerning Maric, see this article on his website.