Frontiers of Physics: Feature Index

The story is so well known it has practically become a cliché: When Einstein revolutionized physics in 1905, he was working at a patent office. He was 26 years old.

This wasn't some short-term, temporary gig: he had been there since 1902, working on his new ideas during his spare time, mostly without the benefit of close contact with the established scientific community. The impact of his work was not immediate; he would remain at the patent office for another 4 years, until he turned 30. He didn't gain a permanent post until 2 years after that. Still, he was only 32 years old then, practically a child by today's scientific standards.

So what was one so obviously gifted--who was destined to revolutionize not one but three fields of physics that year--doing working at the patent office? That question could be answered many ways, but here's one: His job as a schoolteacher didn't work out. Here's another: He was working at the patent office because he failed his engineering school entrance exam in 1895.

Einstein's familiar tale makes at least two important points. The first is that, historically, physics--even more perhaps than most fields of science--has been dominated by the young. The second point is that if we had been looking in from the outside on the scientific scene of the first half of the first decade of the 20th century, Einstein wouldn't have shown up on our radar--assuming that radar had been invented at the time. Despite his later views on God and dice, Einstein's success here on earth was hardly assured. Things could have turned out differently.

The first point made by Einstein's story poses an important problem: though theoretical physics is traditionally dominated by young people's ideas, the institutions of the field--the universities, professional societies, funding bodies, and policy committees--are dominated by elders. This has always been true, but today--with extended postdocs, scarce funding for the physical sciences, and faculty who (in the U.S. anyway) continue to occupy their faculty posts at least until death--the problem is more serious than ever. No solution is in sight. That is why, on this 100th anniversary of Einstein's miraculous year, Science's Next Wave has chosen to focus attention on a few young physicists--young by today's academic standards anyway--and some institutions and individuals who promote their fortunes.

The second point made by Einstein's story poses a second problem for today's science: that the rise of tomorrow's brilliant scientists is not assured. Einstein did not emerge with a flawless pedigree from one of the established labs or training programs of the time. He was not the progeny of any of the era's great thinkers. Einstein was unexpected. He came out of nowhere. So where will the next Einstein come from?

Jim Gates, the John S. Toll professor of physics at the University of Maryland, suggests that the next one is likely to emerge from an unexpected place. Youthful but no longer young by Einstein standards, Gates is a rare bird: an African-American theoretical physicist. Even though he earned his Ph.D. at MIT--hardly an institution that's off the beaten track--his cultural and ethnic distinctiveness, along with his deep and broad learning, give him a unique and provocative perspective on the field of theoretical physics. Gates shared his perspective in an interview with MiSciNet's Clinton Parks .

Founded on a fortune made selling Blackberries--the communication devices, not the fruit--Canada's newest major center for theoretical physics makes it seem likely that the next physics superstar will indeed be found on the perimeter. The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is one of the newer and more interesting research institutes extant. Andrew Fazekas, our Canadian editor and correspondent, profiles the institute and talks to its director, Howard Burton.

Speaking of Perimeter: Daniel Gottesman is one of the institute's rising stars. In Perimeter's Quantum Mechanic , writer Jim Kling describes Gottesman's young career and his work helping scientists identify and prepare to fix what is likely to ail quantum computers.

Finally, from Europe, European editor Anne Forde profiles three young European physicists at various stages of their training and careers and queries them about their futures.

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