Without Einstein we wouldn’t have NUKES…or would we?

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Albert Einstein had a remarkable impact on our study of physics and life as we know it, so it’s difficult to imagine what the world would look like if we had never been exposed to his genius. With his equations connected to things like modern GPS and the atomic age, an important debate has ensued: would we better off without him, or lost?

The question of whether Albert Einstein impacted the production of nuclear weapons has been asked frequently—and it’s difficult to answer. As we know, history is a chaotic system. Removing one variable doesn’t automatically give us the knowledge of a different outcome. What we do know is that Einstein was one of the most influential physicists of the 29th century.

Einstein has been associated with the bob through his famous mass-energy equivalence calculation and because of his famous letter to Roosevelt in 1939. But neither E=mc² nor that communication were as central to the development of the atomic bomb as people believe. While his equation can help us understand why atomic bombs work, it doesn’t tell you how they work. In other words, the physics is crucial to making sense of the technology, but the technology does not simply come from Einstein’s discoveries. His certainly paved the path for subsequent discoveries, but he did not have a direct impact on their development.

In fact, some believe that Einstein has deliberately been blamed by the government for the idea—because that makes it pretty hard to argue. Einstein has a reputation for being a genius, so if thought building a bomb was a good idea, who can combat that?

So what true impact did Einstein have on the world we know today? One of the clearest examples is the Global Positioning system (GPS). Einstein’s theory of relativity plays a key role in this multi-billion dollar growth industry. The systems we know today is based on an array of 24 satellites orbiting earth, each carrying an atomic clock. Using a hand-held receiver which detects radio emissions from any of the satellites which happen to be overhead, users of GPS devices can determine latitude, longitude, and altitude pretty accurately.

In a relativistic world, the satellite clocks are moving at 14,000 km/hr in orbits that circle the Earth twice a day—far faster than clocks on the surface of Earth. Einstein’s theory of special relatively argues that rapidly moving clocks tick more slowly. Einstein’s general relatively theory says that gravity curves space and time, resulting in a tendency for orbiting clocks to tick slightly faster. Take a combination of the two, and a GPS satellite clock advances faster than a clock on the ground by about 38 microseconds a day.

GPS accounts for this relativistic offset in the rates of satellite clocks by electronically adjusting the rates and building mathematical corrections into computer chips which solve for the user’s location. Essentially, GPS is an argument for the good of basic physics—and we have Einstein to thank for that.

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