Albert Einstein – a Genius for all Seasons
Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics).
While best known for his famous formula E = mc2 (which some have dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”), he nevertheless received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for another discovery. The Peace prize was given “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. This was pivotal in establishing quantum theory.
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg in the German Empire on March 14, 1879. His father was Hermann Einstein, a salesman and engineer. His mother was Pauline Einstein. In 1880, the family moved to Munich, where his father and his uncle founded a company that manufactured electrical equipment based on direct current.
Although Jewish, Albert attended a Catholic elementary school for three years from the age of five to eight. At the age of eight, he was transferred to the Luitpold Gymnasium where he received advanced primary and secondary school education until he left Germany seven years later. Albert excelled at the first school that he attended.
Over the years Einstein built models and mechanical devices. He liked doing such in his spare time. He also began to show a talent for mathematics. When Einstein was ten years old, Max Talmud, a poor Jewish medical student from Poland, was introduced to the Einstein family by his brother.
During weekly visits over the next five years, he gave Einstein popular books on science, mathematics and philosophy. These included Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Euclid’s Elements (which Einstein called the “holy little geometry book”).
School and his first essay
His father’s company failed in 1894 because alternating current (AC) had replaced direct current (DC) and unfortunately his entire business was based on direct current. In search of business, the Einstein family moved to Milan Italy, then, a few months later to Pavia. Einstein stayed in Munich to finish his studies at the Luitpold Gymnasium. His father wanted him to pursue electrical engineering, but Einstein resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. His later writings he wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.
At the end of that year, Einstein traveled to Italy to join his family in Pavia. It was during that time in Italy he wrote a short essay entitled “On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field.” Einstein was only fifteen or sixteen at the time.
In late summer 1895, at the age of sixteen, Einstein failed to reach the required standard in several subjects, but obtained exceptional grades in physics and mathematics on the entrance exam for Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich. The Principal of the Polytechnic advised him to attend the Aargau Cantonal School in Aargau, Switzerland, which he did in 1895-96 to complete his secondary schooling.
He acquired Swiss citizenship in February 1901, some five years after he renounced his German citizenship (in order to avoid military service). In September 1896, he passed the Swiss Matura with mostly good grades, including a top grade in physics and mathematical subjects. Though only seventeen, he enrolled in the four-year mathematics and physics teaching diploma program at the ETH Zurich.
Einstein marriage, work
Einstein’s future wife, Mileva Maric, also enrolled at the Polytechnic that same year, the only woman among the six students in the mathematics and physics section of the teaching diploma course.
Over the next few years, Einstein and Maric’s friendship developed into romance. Einstein and Maric married in January 1903. In May 1904, the couple’s first son, Hans Albert Einstein, was born in Bern, Switzerland. Their second son, Eduard, was born in Zurich in July 1910.
In 1914, Einstein moved to Berlin, while his wife remained in Zurich with their sons. They divorced in February 1919, having lived apart for five years. Einstein married Elsa Löwenthal in June 1919, after having had a relationship with her the previous seven years. In 1933, they immigrated to the United States. In 1935, Elsa Einstein was diagnosed with heart and kidney problems and died in December 1936.
After graduating, Einstein searched for a teaching post with no success. With help, he got a job in Bern, at the patent office, as an assistant examiner. There he evaluated patent applications for electromagnetic devices. In 1903, Einstein’s position at the Swiss Patent Office became permanent.
Much of his work at the patent office related to questions about electric signals transmission and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time. Those were two technical problems that show up conspicuously in the thought experiments that eventually led Einstein to his unusual conclusions about the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time.
Einstein completed his thesis in April 1905. He was awarded a PhD by the University of Zurich. His dissertation was entitled “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions”. That same year, which has been called Einstein’s miracle year; he published four groundbreaking papers, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy. These papers brought him to the notice of the academic world. By 1908, he was recognized as a leading scientist.
Based on his new theory of general relativity, in 1911 Einstein calculated that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity. That prediction was claimed confirmed by observations made by a British expedition led by Sir Arthur Eddington during the solar eclipse of 29 May 1919.
International media reports of this made Einstein world famous. In 1921 Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, as relativity was considered still somewhat controversial. He also received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society in 1925.
In early 1933 he undertook his third two-month visiting professorship at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He and his wife Elsa returned by ship to Belgium at the end of March. During the voyage they were informed that their cottage was raided by the Nazis and his personal sailboat had been confiscated. Upon landing in Antwerp he immediately went to the German consulate where he turned in his passport and formally renounced his German citizenship.
The new German government had passed laws barring Jews from holding any official positions, including teaching at universities. A month later, Einstein’s works were among those targeted by Nazi book burnings. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proclaimed, “Jewish intellectualism is dead.” Einstein also learned that his name was on a list of assassination targets, with a “$5,000 bounty on his head.” One German magazine included him in a list of enemies of the German regime with the phrase, “not yet hanged.”
In 1935 Einstein arrived at the decision to remain permanently in the United States and apply for citizenship although he had offers from Universities in other countries. Einstein became an American citizen in 1940.
War and the A-bomb
Einstein and other refugees such as Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, “regarded it as their responsibility to alert Americans to the possibility that German scientists might win the race to build an atomic bomb, and to warn that Hitler would be more than willing to resort to such a weapon.”
A few months before the beginning of World War II in Europe, in the summer of 1939, Einstein was persuaded to lend his prestige by writing a letter along with émigré physicist Szilárd to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alert him of the possibility. The letter also recommended that the U.S. government pay attention to and become directly involved in uranium research and associated chain reaction research. This was after a previous attempt to alert Washington of ongoing Nazi atomic bomb research after the group’s previous warnings were ignored.
His work and death
Einstein died in Princeton Hospital early April 18, 1955 at the age of 76, continuing to work until near the end. Throughout his life, Einstein published hundreds of books and articles including more than 300 scientific papers along with over 150 non-scientific works. In addition to the work he did by himself he also collaborated with other scientists on additional projects including the Bose–Einstein statistics, the Einstein refrigerator and others.
His great intellectual achievements and originality have made the word “Einstein” synonymous with genius. From about 1933 until his death in 1955 Einstein tried unsuccessfully to develop a unified field theory and to refute the accepted interpretation of quantum physics. Einstein was displeased with quantum theory and mechanics, despite its acceptance by other physicists, stating “God doesn’t play with dice.”
During his life Einstein received numerous awards and honors, including the Nobel Prize in Physics. He has been the subject of or inspiration for many novels, films, plays, and works of music. Unfortunately he is a favorite model for depictions of mad scientists and absent-minded professors; his expressive face and distinctive hairstyle have been widely copied and exaggerated. Time magazine’s Frederic Golden wrote that Einstein was “a cartoonist’s dream come true”.