Albert Einstein was a German-born physicist who developed the theory of relativity. He is considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century.
Born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany in 1879, Albert Einstein developed the special and general theories of relativity. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Einstein is generally considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century. He died on April 18, 1955, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany, Albert Einstein grew up in a secular, middle-class Jewish family. His father, Hermann Einstein, was a salesman and engineer who, with his brother, founded Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie, a company that manufactured electrical equipment in Munich, Germany. His mother, the former Pauline Koch, ran the family household. Einstein had one sister, Maja, born two years after him.
Einstein attended elementary school at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. He enjoyed classical music and played the violin. However, he felt alienated and struggled with the rigid Prussian education he received there. He also experienced a speech difficulty, a slow cadence in his speaking where he’d pause to consider what to say next. In later years, Einstein would write about two events that had a marked effect on his childhood. One was an encounter with a compass at age five, where he marveled at the invisible forces that turned the needle. The other was at age 12, when he discovered a book of geometry which he read over and over.
In 1889, the Einstein family invited a poor Polish medical student, Max Talmud to come to their house for Thursday evening meals. Talmud became an informal tutor to young Albert, introducing him to higher mathematics and philosophy. One of the books Talmud shared with Albert was a children’s science book in which the author imagined riding alongside electricity that was traveling inside a telegraph wire. Einstein began to wonder what a light beam would look like if you could run alongside it at the same speed. If light were a wave, then the light beam should appear stationary, like a frozen wave. Yet, in reality, the light beam is moving. This paradox led him to write his first “scientific paper” at age 16, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.” This question of the relative speed to the stationary observer and the observer moving with the light was a question that would dominate his thinking for the next 10 years.
In 1894, Hermann Einstein’s company failed to get an important contract to electrify the city of Munich and he was forced to move his family to Milan, Italy. Albert was left at a relative’s boarding house in Munich to finish his education at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Faced with military duty when he turned of age, Albert allegedly withdrew from school, using a doctor’s note to excuse himself and claim nervous exhaustion, making his way to Milan to join his parents. His parents sympathized with his feelings, but were concerned about the enormous problems that he would face as a school dropout and draft dodger with no employable skills.
Fortunately, Einstein was able to apply directly to the Eidgenössische Polytechnische Schule (Swiss Federal Polytechnic School) in Zürich, Switzerland. Lacking the equivalent of a high school diploma, he failed much of the entrance exam but got exceptional marks in mathematics and physics. Because of this, he was admitted to the school provided he complete his formal schooling first. He went to a special high school run by Jost Winteler in Aarau, Switzerland, and graduated in 1896 at age 17. He became lifelong friends with the Winteler family, with whom he had been boarding, and fell in love with Wintelers’ daughter, Marie. At this time, Einstein renounced his German citizenship to avoid military service and enrolled at the Zurich school.
Marriage and Family
Einstein would recall that his years in Zurich were some of the happiest of his life. He met many students who would become loyal friends, such as Marcel Grossmann, a mathematician, and Michele Besso, with whom he enjoyed lengthy conversations about space and time. He also met his future wife, Mileva Maric, a fellow physics student from Serbia.
After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute, Albert Einstein faced a series of life crises over the next few years. Because he liked to study on his own, he cut classes and earned the animosity of some of his professors. One in particular, Heinrich Weber, wrote a letter of recommendation at Einstein’s request that led to him being turned down for every academic position that he applied to after graduation. Meanwhile, Einstein’s relationship with Maric deepened, but his parents vehemently opposed the relationship citing her Serbian background and Eastern Orthodox Christian religion. Einstein defied his parents and continued to see Maric. In January, 1902, the couple had a daughter, Lieserl, who either died of sickness or was given up for adoption—the facts are unknown.
At this point, Albert Einstein probably reached the lowest point in his life. He could not marry Maric and support a family without a job, and his father’s business had gone bankrupt. Desperate and unemployed, Einstein took lowly jobs tutoring children, but he was unable to hold on to any of them. A turning point came later in 1902, when the father of his lifelong friend, Marcel Grossman, recommended him for a position as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern, Switzerland. About this time, Einstein’s father became seriously ill and just before he died, gave his blessing for him to marry. With a small but steady income, Einstein married Maric on Jan. 6, 1903. In May, 1904 they had their first son, Hans Albert. Their second son, Eduard, were born in 1910.
At the patent office, Albert Einstein evaluated patent applications for electromagnetic devices. He quickly mastered the job, leaving him time to ponder on the transmission of electrical signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization, an interest he had been cultivating for several years. While at the polytechnic school he had studied Scottish physicist James Maxwell’s electromagnetic theories which describe the nature of light, and discovered a fact unknown to Maxwell himself, that the speed of light remained constant. However, this violated Isaac Newton’s laws of motion because there is no absolute velocity in Newton’s theory. This insight led Einstein to formulate the principle of relativity.
In 1905—often called Einstein’s “miracle year”—he submitted a paper for his doctorate and had four papers published in the Annalen der Physik, one of the best known physics journals. The four papers—the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy—would alter the course of modern physics and bring him to the attention of the academic world. In his paper on matter and energy, Einstein deduced the well-known equation E=mc2, suggesting that tiny particles of matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy, foreshadowing the development of nuclear power. There have been claims that Einstein and his wife, Maric, collaborated on his celebrated 1905 papers, but historians of physics who have studied the issue find no evidence that she made any substantive contributions. In fact, in the papers, Einstein only credits his conversations with Michele Besso in developing relativity.
At first, Einstein’s 1905 papers were ignored by the physics community. This began to change when he received the attention of Max Planck, perhaps the most influential physicist of his generation and founder of quantum theory. With Planck’s complimentary comments and his experiments that confirmed his theories, Einstein was invited to lecture at international meetings and he rose rapidly in the academic world. He was offered a series of positions at increasingly prestigious institutions, including the University of Zürich, the University of Prague, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and finally the University of Berlin, where he served as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933.
As his fame spread, Einstein’s marriage fell apart. His constant travel and intense study of his work, the arguments about their children and the family’s meager finances led Einstein to the conclusion that his marriage was over. Einstein began an affair with a cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, whom he later married. He finally divorced Mileva in 1919 and as a settlement agreed to give her the money he might receive if he ever won a Nobel Prize.
Theory of Relativity
In November, 1915, Einstein completed the general theory of relativity, which he considered his masterpiece. He was convinced that general relativity was correct because of its mathematical beauty and because it accurately predicted the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit around the sun, which fell short in Newton’s theory. General relativity theory also predicted a measurable deflection of light around the sun when a planet or another sun oribited near the sun. That prediction was confirmed in observations by British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington during the solar eclipse of 1919. In 1921, Albert Einstein received word that he had received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Because relativity was still considered controversial, Einstein received the award for his explanation of the photoelectric effect.
In the 1920s, Einstein launched the new science of cosmology. His equations predicted that the universe is dynamic, ever expanding or contracting. This contradicted the prevailing view that the universe was static, a view that Einstein held earlier and was a guiding factor in his development of the general theory of relativity. But his later calculations in the general theory indicated that the universe could be expanding or contracting. In 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble found that the universe was indeed expanding, thereby confirming Einstein’s work. In 1930, during a visit to the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, Einstein met with Hubble and declared the cosmological constant, his original theory of the static size and shape of the universe, to be his “greatest blunder.”
While Einstein was touring much of the world speaking on his theories in the 1920s, the Nazis were rising to power under the leadership of Adolph Hitler. Einstein’s theories on relativity became a convenient target for Nazi propaganda. In 1931, the Nazi’s enlisted other physicists to denounce Einstein and his theories as “Jewish physics.” At this time, Einstein learned that the new German government, now in full control by the Nazi party, had passed a law barring Jews from holding any official position, including teaching at universities. Einstein also learned that his name was on a list of assassination targets, and a Nazi organization published a magazine with Einstein’s picture and the caption “Not Yet Hanged” on the cover.
Move to the United States
In December, 1932, Einstein decided to leave Germany forever. He took a position a the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, which soon became a Mecca for physicists from around the world. It was here that he would spend the rest of his career trying to develop a unified field theory—an all-embracing theory that would unify the forces of the universe, and thereby the laws of physics, into one framework—and refute the accepted interpretation of quantum physics. Other European scientists also fled various countries threatened by Nazi takeover and came to the United States. Some of these scientists knew of Nazi plans to develop an atomic weapon. For a time, their warnings to Washington, D.C. went unheeded.
In the summer of 1939, Einstein, along with another scientist, Leo Szilard, was persuaded to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alert him of the possibility of a Nazi bomb. President Roosevelt could not risk the possibility that Germany might develop an atomic bomb first. The letter is believed to be the key factor that motivated the United States to investigate the development of nuclear weapons. Roosevelt invited Einstein to meet with him and soon after the United States initiated the Manhattan Project.
Not long after he began his career at the Institute in New Jersey, Albert Einstein expressed an appreciation for the “meritocracy” of the United States and the right people had to think what they pleased—something he didn’t enjoy as a young man in Europe. In 1935, Albert Einstein was granted permanent residency in the United States and became an American citizen in 1940. As the Manhattan Project moved from drawing board to testing and development at Los Alamos, New Mexico, many of his colleagues were asked to develop the first atomic bomb, but Einstein was not one of them. According to several researchers who examined FBI files over the years, the reason was the U.S. government didn’t trust Einstein’s lifelong association with peace and socialist organizations. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover went so far as to recommend that Einstein be kept out of America by the Alien Exclusion Act, but he was overruled by the U.S. State Department. Instead, during the war, Einstein helped the U.S. Navy evaluate designs for future weapons systems and contributed to the war effort by auctioning off priceless personal manuscripts. One example was a handwritten copy of his 1905 paper on special relativity which sold for $6.5 million, and is now located in the Library of Congress.
On August 6, 1945, while on vacation, Einstein heard the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. He soon became involved in an international effort to try to bring the atomic bomb under control, and in 1946, he formed the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists with physicist Leo Szilard. In 1947, in an article that he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, Einstein argued that the United States should not try to monopolize the atomic bomb, but instead should supply the United Nations with nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of maintaining a deterrent. At this time, Einstein also became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He corresponded with civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois and actively campaigned for the rights of African Americans.
After the war, Einstein continued to work on many key aspects of the theory of general relativity, such as wormholes, the possibility of time travel, the existence of black holes, and the creation of the universe. However, he became increasingly isolated from the rest of the physics community. With the huge developments in unraveling the secrets of atoms and molecules, spurred on by the development to the atomic bomb, the majority of scientists were working on the quantum theory, not relativity. Another reason for Einstein’s detachment from his colleagues was his obsession with discovering his unified field theory. In the 1930s, Einstein engaged in a series of historic private debates with Niels Bohr, the originator of the Bohr atomic model. In a series of “thought experiments,” Einstein tried to find logical inconsistencies in the quantum theory, but was unsuccessful. However, in his later years, he stopped opposing quantum theory and tried to incorporate it, along with light and gravity, into the larger unified field theory he was developing.
In the last decade of his life, Einstein withdrew from public life, rarely traveling far and confining himself to long walks around Princeton with close associates, whom he engaged in deep conversations about politics, religion, physics and his unified field theory.
On April 17, 1955, while working on a speech he was preparing to commemorate Israel’s seventh anniversary, Einstein suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm and experienced internal bleeding. He was taken to the University Medical Center at Princeton for treatment, but refused surgery, believing that he had lived his life and was content to accept his fate. “I want to go when I want,” he stated at the time. “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” Einstein died at the university medical center early the next morning—April 18, 1955—at the age of 76.
During the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey removed Einstein’s brain, seemingly without the permission of his family, for preservation and future study by doctors of neuroscience. His remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location. After decades of study, Einstein’s brain is now located at the Princeton University Medical Center.