WASHINGTON -- One hundred years ago a minor Swiss civil servant, having traveled home in a streetcar from his job in the Bern patent office, wondered: What would the city's clock tower look like if observed from a streetcar racing away from the tower at the speed of light? The clock, he decided, would appear stopped because light could not catch up to the streetcar, but his own watch would tick normally.
``A storm broke loose in my mind,'' Albert Einstein later remembered. He produced five papers in 1905 and for physicists, the world has never been the same. For lay people, it has never felt the same.
In his book ``Einstein's Cosmos,'' Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, makes Einstein's genius seem akin to a poet's sensibility. Einstein, says Kaku, was able to ``see everything in terms of physical pictures'' -- to see ``the laws of physics as clear as simple images.''
Hitherto, space and time were assumed to be absolutes. They still can be for our everyday business, because we and the objects we deal with do not move at the speed of light. But since Einstein's postulate of relativity, measurements of space and time are thought to be relative to speed.
One implication of Einstein's theories did have thunderous practical implications: matter and energy are interchangeable, and the mass of an object increases the faster it moves. In the most famous equation in the history of science, energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. A wee bit of matter can be converted into a city-leveling amount of energy.
In the 1920s, while people were enjoying being told that space is warped and it pushes things down (that is the real ``force'' of gravity), Einstein became an international celebrity of a sort not seen before or since. Selfridges department store in London pasted the six pages of an Einstein paper on a plate glass window for passersby to read. Charlie Chaplin said to him, ``The people applaud me because everyone understands me, and they applaud you because no one understands you.''
The precision of modern scientific instruments makes possible the confirmation of implications of Einstein's theories -- e.g., the universe had a beginning (the Big Bang) and its expansion is accelerating; time slows in a large gravitational field and beats slower the faster one moves; the sun bends starlight from across the sky and there are black holes so dense that they swallow light. Does all this bewilder you? The late Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, said, ``I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.''
Three years ago we learned that the Milky Way galaxy, which is next door, contains a black hole weighing as much as two million suns. ``Thus,'' says Kaku, ``our moon revolves around the earth, the earth revolves around the sun, and the sun revolves around a black hole.'' Can this story have a happy ending?
Science offers no guarantees. Astronomy evicted us from our presumed place at the center of the universe many centuries before we learned that ``center'' is unintelligible in an expanding universe where space and time are warped. And before 19th-century biology further diminished our sense of grandeur by connecting us with undignified ancestors, 18th-century geology indicated that seashells unearthed on mountain tops proved that Earth has a longer, more turbulent and unfinished history than most creation stories suggest. Dec. 26, 2004, brought another geological challenge to the biblical notion of an intervening, caring God.
Einstein's theism, such as it was, was his faith that God does not play dice with the universe -- that there are elegant, eventually discoverable laws, not randomness, at work. Saying ``I'm not an atheist,'' he explained:
``We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is.''
A century on from Einstein's ``miracle year,'' never mind E=mc2. Try this: L=BB+pw+BC/BF. Meaning: Life equals the Big Bang, followed by lots of paper work, ending with either a Big Crunch, as the universe collapses back on itself, or a Big Freeze as it expands forever.
A bad ending? Compared to what? Everything, as has been said since Einstein, is relative.