Posts to the arXiv
Cornell University's arXiv e-print service on the Web is a place to find reports on the latest research almost as soon as it happens. But as television networks are fond of saying, if you haven't seen it before, it is new, so it is appropriate that the arXiv now includes a previously obscure paper by a then up-and-coming young physicist named Albert Einstein.
The paper, "Theoretical Remark on the Superconductivity of Metals," was written in 1922 for a symposium honoring Dutch scientist Kamerlingh Onnes, the discoverer of superconductivity, and published by the University of Leiden in the proceedings of the symposium. And there, apparently, it remained largely unnoticed until this year, when it was rediscovered by Neil Ashcroft, the Horace White Professor of Physics at Cornell, and translated from German into English by Björn Schmekel, then a Cornell graduate student and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley.
The paper contains nothing revolutionary from the point of view of today's researchers in superconductivity, but it is, Ashcroft said, "a totally charming paper," with significant insights for its time. Among other things, Ashcroft said, Einstein correctly predicted that a strong magnetic field would destroy superconductivity, something verified later by experiment.
"It's just wonderful to know that the greatest scientist had an interest in this dramatic phenomenon," added Ashcroft, whose own research partly deals with superconductivity in metallic hydrogen.
The paper was
discovered through a series of serendipitous events. Some years ago
Ashcroft happened to be visiting Leiden when a retiring professor was
cleaning out his office. The professor was about to throw away his personal
collection of the old Leiden Communications (a journal devoted
mainly to low-temperature physics), but Ashcroft arranged to have the
books shipped to Cornell. Reading through these books, Ashcroft found
hints that the Einstein paper existed, and he asked Patricia Viele,
physics and astronomy librarian at Cornell's Edna McConnell Clark Physical
Sciences Library, to try to locate it.Viele located it in a library
in Europe. No English translation seemed to exist, so Ashcroft arranged
for Schmekel to translate it. Schmekel then obtained permission from
Leiden to copyright the English translation and submitted it to the
history of science section of the arXiv, where it can be found at
Ashcroft cautions that this may not be a true first. "Scientists in Germany must surely have known about this paper, and some may have produced translations for English-speaking colleagues," he speculated, adding that he has asked several Europeans to search further.
The arXiv e-print service, maintained by Cornell University Library, is a repository where physicists, mathematicians, astronomers and some biologists post reports of their research as soon as they are available, in advance of publication in professional journals.*Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, November 2005. Copyright © 2005 Cornell University, used by permission.