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The cornerstones of modern physics.

This paper takes a look at the two cornerstones of modern physics--Quantum Mechanics and The Theory of Relativity (Both Special and General). The differences and similarities for the two subjects are presented. More of their differences and similarities will emerge with new developments in physics. One can't rule out the possibility of the two being unified into one one fine day. That will herald another triumphant moment in physics.


In 1905, Albert Einstein at the age of twenty-six formulated single-handedly, among others, the Theory of Special Relativity together with his other seminal papers on photoelectricity, Brownian motions of atoms and molecular dimensions. The year has been universally declared the Miraculous Year [1]. Ten years later, he came up with the theory of General Relativity--a new and revolutionary framework on gravity. Meanwhile in Europe a group of young physicists played pivotal role in the birth of Quantum Mechanics. Many of them went on to win Nobel prizes for their monumental contributions. Einstein also won the coveted prize not for Relativity but ironically for Photoelectric Effect. Irony has been part of physics in its history. Relativity with its weird 'Twin Paradox', constancy of the speed of light and the interchangebility between mass and energy (E=[mc.sup.2]) enthralls the public and scientists alike. It provides a way to measure particle masses [2]. The Quantum Theory has its fair share of weirdness and bewilderment. Both Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity bring forth new ideas in human thoughts. They are among Joanne Baker's 50 physics ideas [3].

Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity

The quantum world where counterintuition reigns supreme is couched in uncertainty as epitomised by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Things do not behave in a deterministic way as enshrined and expected in classical Newtonian physics. The microscopic world of the electrons was dictated by randomness and indeterminacy. Albert Einstein was appalled by such dictates that he famously declared: 'God does not play dice with the universe.' The famous Danish physicist Neils Bohr sprang to his feet by saying: 'Stop telling God what to do with his dice.' The sparring between the two stalwarts in physics is legendary. According to Trefil [4], there are a couple of things that need to be said about the uncertainty principle: it does not imply that we cannot know either the position or the velocity of a particle, and it does not require the presence of a conscious mind.

Marcus Chown [5] wraps up by saying 'The bitter irony, not lost on Einstein, was that he was the one who, by postulating the existence of the photon, had inadvertently set loose the genie of randomness of physics. The two theories of relativity by Einstein are not couched in randomness however. According to Smoot [6], both implied a radically new cosmology. Many people are of the opinion that with Einstein's theory of relativity, old classical physics is no more in vogue. According to Angier [7], Albert Einstein did not prove that Isaac Newton was wrong. Instead, he showed that Newton's theories of motion and gravity were incomplete, and that new equations were needed to explain the behavior of objects under extreme circumstances, such as when tiny particles travel at or near the speed of light. Table 1 & 2 show the similarities and difference between Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity.

Concluding Remarks

The advent of the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics shows that physics at the beginning of the 20th Century was still very much alive and kicking. This is in contrast with the view of Lord Kelvin who had said there was not much left in physics for new discoveries. What motivates scientists is a lack of information rather than the presence of information, said Scott Strobel as quoted in Angier [7]. The foundation of science can be laid by a single individual or a group of individuals. What matters is that science progresses as a result of their work. That constitutes the joy of physics [8].


We thank Nor Erlina for secretarial assistance.


[1] K. C. Fox and A. Keck, Einstein A to Z, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2003, pg. 174.

[2] K. W. Ford, the Quantum World, Harvard University Press, 2004, pg. 17.

[3] J. Baker, 50 Physics Ideas you Really Need to Know, Quercus, 2007.

[4] J. Trefil, The Nature of Science, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, pg. 197.

[5] M. Chown, We Need to Talk about Kelvin, Faber and Faber, 2009, pg. 17.

[6] G. Smoot, Wrinkles in Time, Harpel Perennial, 2007, pg. 56.

[7] N. Angier, The Canon, A Mariner Book, 2008, pg. 35.

[8] A. W. Wiggins, The Joy of Physics, Prometheus Books, 2007.


School of Applied Physics

Faculty of Science and Technology

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

43600 Bangi, Selangor
Table 1: Similarities between Theory of
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics

Both are considered the cornerstones
of modern physics.

* Both were formulated in the first quarter
of the 20th century.

* Both were creations of top European
physicists in their mid-twenties.

* Both upset the applecarts of classical

* Both are found to have far-reaching
effects on modern-day technology.

* Both are based on theoretical construct
and thought experiments.

* Both have its element of 'otherworldiness'.

Table 2: Differences between Theory of
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics

Theory of Relativity (both Special and
General) was largely the work of a single
individual i.e. Albert Einstein while Quantum
Mechanics was the joint effort of a
group of physicists such as Paul Dirac,
Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and Erwin

Theory of Relativity deals with the
world of very big (cosmos) while Quantum
Mechanics deals with the world of very
small (electrons).

The Earth is considered too small for the
Theory of Relativity and too big for Quantum

Quantum Mechanics is a spawning
ground for Nobel prizes while Relativity
somehow did not get the nod from the
Nobel committee. This is another irony.
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Author:Khoon, Koh Aik
Publication:College Student Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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