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Storied Theory

Science and stories are not only compatible, they're inseparable, as shown by Einstein's classic 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect

Roald Hoffmann

The Story Is in the Theory

All theories tell a story. They have a beginning, in which people and ideas, models, molecules and governing equations take the stage. Their roles are defined; there is a puzzle to solve. Einstein sets his characters into motion so ingeniously, using entropy to tease out the parallels between moving molecules and the energy of light. The story develops; there are consequences of Einstein's approach. And at the end, his view of light as quantized and particular confronts the reality of the heretofore unexplained photoelectric effect. The postscripted future, of all else that can be understood and all new things that can be made, is implicit.

Perceptive reader Anne Poduska notes that the photoelectric paper "is particularly interesting because of the layering of perspectives (similar to legends being passed from one generation to the next, with each storyteller adding their own flair/details)." Indeed, Einstein uses Planck's development of the radiation law even as the younger physicist claims he will do it differently. He parlays belief in the discreteness of molecules (some of his contemporaries still doubted their existence) into an argument, first cautious, then growing in strength, of the discreteness of light.

A young man of 25, Einstein had mastered the old stories. In this paper he combined the ways others looked at the world, and trusting analogy as much as mathematics, made something new. Science is an inspired account of the struggle by human beings to understand the world. Changing it in the process. How could this be anything but a story?

Thanks to Anne Poduska for her careful reading and suggestions.

© Roald Hoffmann

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