EINSTEIN ON MEANDERS

Not many people are aware that the renowned physicist Albert Einstein wrote an early piece on the cause of meandering.1 Likewise, not many people know that his son, the famed UC Berkeley Professor Hans A. Einstein, did not begin his career in hydraulics, but rather, turned to it after several years as a structural engineer. We can surmise that the elder Einstein had a keen interest in meandering and encouraged his son to pursue a career in river hydraulics. History tells us that toward the middle of the 20th century, Prof. Einstein made his mark as one of the greatest contributors to the nascent field of sedimentation engineering. His 1950 sediment transport model is the forerunner to the Modified Einstein (1955), Colby (1957) and Colby (1964) methods.2

Einstein's discussion on the cause of meanders is casual, but characteristically insightful. His attribution of secondary currents to the Coriolis force [produced by the Earth's rotation] may have been among the first. His explanation of how meanders form due to a balance between inertial and frictional forces in a direction perpendicular to the motion is masterful. To this date, we are still not 100% sure of the process, but one thing is certain: Einstein's thoughts have helped us come closer to unraveling the mysteries of river meandering.


1 Einstein, A., 1926. The cause of the formation of meanders in the courses of rivers and of the so-called Baer's Law. Read before the Prussian Academy, January 7, 1926. Published in Die Naturwissenschaften, Vol. 14. [English translation in "Ideas and Opinions," by Albert Einstein, Modern Library, 1994].
2 Einstein, H. A., 1950. "The bed-load function for sediment transportation in open channel flows." USDA Soil Conservation Service, Technical Bulletin No. 1026, Washington, D.C., September.
Meander on the Humea river, tributary of the Meta river, Meta department, Colombia

Meander on the Humea river, tributary of the Meta river, Meta department, Colombia.