The papers Einstein wrote in 1905 covered a broad swath—special relativity, electrodynamics, Brownian motion, light quanta. Churned out in less than a year, these ideas had lasting impact: scientists today still devote their lives to evaluating Einstein´s work on gravity, space and time. Einstein isn´t the only scientist, however, to pull off such compacted productivity. Newton, Galileo and others had their own superproductive 12-month stretches—but as far as we can tell, no post-Einstein scientist has managed one. Why? Read on.
Galileo Galilei: 1609-1610
In mid-1609, after hearing of an innovative new Dutch telescope, Galileo built a two-lens prototype that provided twice the magnification of existing field telescopes. Four months later he assembled the world´s most precise astronomical telescope: it offered 20x magnification. In another four months, thanks to his new device, he had observed craters on our moon and provided the first evidence of moons elsewhere in the solar system (with the discovery of four of Jupiter´s moons). These findings, which overturned the prevailing view that the sun orbited the Earth, are often considered the start of modern science.
Isaac Newton: 1666
After fleeing to the countryside during the Great Plague, Newton formulated the fundamental theories of calculus, optics, and physics, including the laws of motion and gravity. Although he didn´t publish these theories until years later, historians regard his accomplishments as the closest parallel to Einstein´s 1905. Almost all complex mathematical problems solved in the world today rely on Newton´s early studies of mathematics. Some real-world applications include the accurate dropping of bombs in war and calculating volumes of irregular shapes for engineering purposes.
Thomas Edison: 1878
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and the long-distance telephone system in a single year. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell had introduced the telephone, but the system´s range extended only 10 miles. With Edison´s improvements, a New Yorker could call someone in Philadelphia, nearly 100 miles away. The upgraded long-distance system increased the efficiency of business communications, ushering in the Gilded Age.
Pierre and Marie Curie: 1898
The married chemists discovered two elements over six months in 1898, an impressive feat considering that 80 elements of the periodic table had already been found. The Curies announced polonium in July and radium in December, and in the meantime determined that beta rays (now known to be electrons) were negatively charged particles. These discoveries greatly contributed to the development of medical treatments such as radiation to destroy cancerous tumors.
Over the past hundred years, though, no scientist—not Hawking, Gdel, Bohr or Feynman—has achieved another annus mirabilis. Why? For one thing, historians say, the field is more crowded. “There are exponentially larger numbers of scientists now than at the time of Einstein,” says Jim Gates a physics professor at the University of Maryland. With so many people in the same disciplines asking the same questions, most modern scientists work in teams rather than solo. In addition, science is getting more specialized, and investigators now typically concern themselves with narrower fields of inquiry. “The research front is done in tiny wavelengths,” says James McClellan, co-author of Science and Technology in World History.
Einstein tackled and answered many of the greatest physics questions, both big and small, before the individual thinker became obsolete. The next big scientific breakthroughs—solving mysteries of the brain, how life erupted from lifeless matter and how to colonize habitable planets—will most certainly come from teams of researchers who devote their lifetimes to a single cause. We may never again encounter the likes of Einstein—a 26-year-old patent examiner who changed the world in a single year by contemplating physics on the weekends for fun.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.