Einstein's legacy

His ideas continue to have effect even today


Without us realising it, we encounter Albert Einstein in different fields of everyday life. The GPS system in our cars guides us safely through the traffic. Our purchases in the supermarket are registered by a scanner cash register. And we took our latest holiday snaps using our new digital camera.


Even if Einstein himself did not write his most important essays for practical use or personal profit, his abstract thoughts on light, space and time have led to many technological innovations which appear to us today to be quite normal. Whether it be a CD player, a television set or a modern computer, these new “inventions” are often based on one of Albert Einstein’s theories.


Many people associate Einstein with the development of the atomic bomb or nuclear energy. In 1905, Einstein was indeed the first person to prove that atoms actually do exist, not just hypothetically. And in his most famous formula, E = mc², he showed that the mass of atoms contains enormous quantities of energy. But this theory was only of indirect importance for the atomic revolution.


Einstein’s ideas had a much more direct influence on inventions such as the television, for example. It is thanks to his Special Theory of Relativity that we are able to receive such sharp images today. Electrons are accelerated in a television and, according to the Theory of Relativity, the mass of electrons thereby increases measurably. If one did not take this increase in mass into account, the electrons on the screen would show divergences in the millimetre range. All the images would be blurred.


Another type of picture would not be possible without Einstein’s theories, either. Digital cameras can only take pictures because they contain a small sensor which converts light into electricity. The principle can be traced directly back to Einstein, who explained the Photoelectric Effect in 1905. Not only does this work form the basis for the development of all equipment which converts light into electricity – from digital cameras to solar cells – it also earned him the Nobel Prize in November 1921 (awarded 1922).


All technologies which involve the use of laser beams are based on Einstein’s theories. In 1924, Einstein was the first person to recognise the principles of monochrome, bundled laser light. Satellite-assisted positioning systems on earth, so-called GPS, make use of Einstein’s ideas.


Pieces of equipment which can relay their position with an accuracy of less than 30 metres divergence take into account the effects of relativity on time measurement by atomic clocks when these circle the earth at great speed in satellites.


Einstein’s influence on present-day inventions is still huge even 50 years after his death. Physicists are already dreaming of quantum computers. Einstein also played a key role in this technological revolution. In 1935, he recognised that particles can be in different states at the same time. This observation developed into a future-oriented research area, and it is possible that quantum computers will revolutionise the world in the 21st century.


Das Logo des Bundesministeriums für Bildung und ForschungDas Logo des WID
Ein Logo bestehend aus Bild und Schrift. Bild: Eine Schwarz-Weiss-Aufnahme von Einstein. Schrift: Einsteinjahr 2005.