Einstein’s Great Mistake

Like every card-carrying science writer, I was somehow obligated to do an Einstein story (sub. req.) this year, the 100th anniversary of his annus mirabilis. When I asked my favorite physicist, Carl Caves, for help finding a topic of relevance today, he suggested the EPR paradox, and pointed me toward a delightful grad student of his, Bryan Eastin, who’s working on the issues raised in the EPR paper:

To Bryan Eastin, Albert Einstein’s most interesting idea may be one that was wrong.

It was 1935, and Einstein and two colleagues were trying to make sense of the world of quantum physics. They failed? but in such an interesting way that physicists today still wrestle with the questions they raised.

The year 2005 has been declared the “World Year of Physics” in honor of work Einstein did a century ago. They call 1905 Einstein’s annus mirabilis? the miracle year. Four papers written in rapid succession that year laid the foundations for modern physics.

In the years that followed, Einstein’s brilliance made him an icon, his name synonymous with genius.

To really understand the depth of Einstein’s insight, it is instructive to wander into Eastin’s cubicle in a ramshackle wing of the University of New Mexico’s old Physics and Astronomy building.

There, in a tattered three-ring binder, Eastin is working out the implications of what might be considered Einstein’s great mistake. Such was the power of Einstein’s intellect that a new branch of physics? “quantum information theory”? has developed around it.

Eastin, a 27-year-old UNM graduate student, is working on his doctorate in quantum information theory.

Following Einstein down the rabbit hole, Eastin and his colleagues are pointing the way toward a remarkable new type of “quantum computer,” far more powerful than the ones we use today.

“Even when he was wrong,” said Carl Caves, Eastin’s UNM faculty adviser, “he was better than the rest of us.”