January 11, 2005

Einstein Fights to Revive a Flagging Science

PARIS (AFP) -- He wrote three ground-breaking works in a "miracle year" a century ago and died 50 years ago this April.

Now, in 2005, Einstein has been recalled to duty -- this time, as poster boy for a UN-backed effort to resuscitate physics, a discipline mired in a worrying decline.

The campaign gets off to a ceremonial start in Paris on Friday, but already Einstein's name and iconic visage are starting to swirl around the globe like atomic particles in Brownian motion.

The reason for the multi-million-dollar PR onslaught: the slow and distressing freefall of a science that dominated the last century.

Across Europe and North America and in parts of Asia, the number of students enrolled in physics at secondary-school and university level has plummeted.

That is leaving a lab population which is steadily greying and -- in a world where, today, brains count far more than gender -- remains heavily dominated by males.

"We are worried. You need to encourage future generations of talent," said Martial Ducloy, chief organiser of a conference, Physics for Tomorrow, which runs in Paris from Thursday to Saturday.

The forum draws on a roster of Nobel laureates to assess the state of the science and pitch a solution for its problems.

"The truth is that youngsters who could be interested in physics are being drawn to other areas, like biology, that seem a lot more glamorous," Ducloy told AFP.

"Physics is perceived as a somewhat difficult science, difficult to access, in which you have to put in years of work before you see the rewards, and is seen as not specially well-paid."

Seeking to replace stuffy with stellar, the International Year of Physics is putting up exhibitions, travelling shows and staging seminars.

Its job is to explain physics in a fun and accessible way to the general public and show there are still many mysteries only physicists can unlock.

And it will highlight the innumerable gifts that fundamental physics has given the world, from the computer to the satellite and laser, knowledge about quasars, black holes, global warming and tsunamis.

The Year dovetails nicely with the century of Einstein's "annus mirabilis," in which, at the age of 26, the German-born genius wrote papers that smashed barriers to knowledge about the physical universe and reshaped our perception of it.

He broke new ground in the laws of motion, enabling experiments to prove that atoms existed. He described the photo-electric effect (for which he won the 1921 Nobel prize), identifying light as particles of energy called photons.

And he set down the special theory of relativity, proposing that distance and time are not absolute.

Ten years later, an even greater achievement followed: the general theory of relativity, which suggested gravity as well as motion can affect time and space.

A solar eclipse in 1919 confirmed his predictions that light would be bent by gravitational pull, thus establishing the first major new theory on gravity since Newton 250 years earlier and catapulting Einstein to world prominence.

As its contribution to the Year of Physics, the Italian tyre company Pirelli is offering 25,000 euros (30,000 dollars) to the multimedia presentation that can explain the special theory of relativity most effectively to the layperson in just five minutes.

Einstein has also inspired a ballet on relativity, called Constant Speed, which will premiere in London in May, as well as an extreme-sport stunt called "the Einstein flip."

The manoeuvre, devised by Cambridge University physicist Helen Czerski, requires a BMX rider to hurtle down a two-metre (7.5 feet) ramp, spin backwards through 360 degrees while simultaneously folding his bike underneath him.

It was used last week to kick off Britain's own Year of Physics campaign -- to add cool, it has been dubbed Einstein Year.

"The real opportunity presented by 2005 is the chance to sell Einstein and physics to the young," the magazine Physics World says, admitting: "Physicists have to realize that physics needs the 'outside world' more than it needs physics."

Einstein himself rued the disconnection between science and the world beyond the lab door.

"Science is a wonderful thing -- if one does not have to earn one's living at it," he once observed acidly.