Albert Einstein, (born March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany; died April 18, 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey, United States), German-born physicist who developed the special and general theories of relativity and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Einstein is often regarded as the century’s most significant physicist.
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Childhood and schooling
Einstein’s parents were middle-class, secular Jews. His father, Hermann Einstein, was initially a featherbed dealer and eventually ran a moderately successful electrochemical business. His mother, formerly Pauline Koch, managed the family’s affairs. Albert had one sister, Maria (also known as Maja), who was born two years after him.
Einstein would remark that two “wonders” had a profound impact on his formative years. At age five, he encountered a compass for the first time. He was perplexed by the fact that unseen forces may deflect the needle. This would result in a lifetime preoccupation with unseen powers. At the age of 12, he discovered a geometry book, which he consumed and referred to as his “holy little geometry book.”
At the age of 12, Einstein became passionately religious, even creating many songs in praise of God and chanting religious tunes on the way to school. After reading science literature that questioned his religious ideas, this began to shift. This challenge to prevailing authority made a profound and enduring influence. At the Luitpold Gymnasium, Einstein frequently felt alienated and oppressed by a Prussian-style education system that stifled originality and creativity. Even an instructor told him he would never do anything.
Yet another influential figure in Einstein’s life was the young medical student Max Talmud (later Max Talmey), who frequently dined at his home. Talmud became Einstein’s unofficial mentor, teaching him advanced mathematics and philosophy. When Einstein was 16 years old, a major turning point happened. Earlier, Talmud had introduced him to Aaron Bernstein’s children’s science series, Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbucher (1867–68; Popular Books on Physical Science), in which the author envisioned riding beside electricity as it travelled along a telegraph wire. Einstein then posed the issue that would dominate his thinking for the next decade: What would a light beam look like if it were possible to run alongside it? If light were a wave, the light beam would appear immobile, like a wave that has become frozen. However, he knew even as a child that stationary light waves had never been observed, therefore there was a dilemma. Einstein also composed his first “scientific paper” (The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields) at this period.
Einstein’s education was interrupted by his father’s several financial failures. Hermann Einstein travelled to Milan to work with a relative in 1894, after his company failed to secure a significant contract to electrify Munich. Einstein was left in a Munich boardinghouse and expected to complete his schooling. When he turned 16, Einstein was alone, dissatisfied, and repulsed by the thought of military service. Six months later, he ran away and landed on the doorstep of his shocked parents. As a high school dropout and a draught evader with no employable skills, his parents understood the magnitude of the challenges he faced. His chances were not encouraging.
Einstein was able to apply immediately to the Eidgenössische Polytechnische Schule (renamed the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in 1911 after its expansion in 1909 to full university status) in Zürich without the equivalent of a high school certificate if he passed its rigorous admission examinations. His grades revealed that he excelled in mathematics and physics, whereas he performed poorly in French, chemistry, and biology. Due to his outstanding maths scores, he was admitted to the polytechnic on the condition that he first complete his formal education. In 1896, he graduated from a unique high school administered by Jost Winteler in Aarau, Switzerland. During this period, he also surrendered his German citizenship. (He was a stateless individual until he was granted Swiss citizenship in 1901.) He developed lifelong friendships with the Winteler family, with whom he boarded. Einstein’s first love was Winteler’s daughter Marie; his sister Maja eventually married Winteler’s son Paul; and his close buddy Michele Besso married their eldest daughter Anna.
Einstein would recall that his time spent in Zürich was among the happiest of his life. Marcel Grossmann, a mathematician, and Besso, with whom he enjoyed extended discussions on space and time, were among the numerous students who would become his devoted friends. In addition, he met his future wife, Serbian physics student Mileva Maric.
From graduation to the “miracle year” of Albert Einstein’s scientific hypotheses
After receiving his diploma in 1900, Einstein faced one of the toughest challenges of his life. Due to his independent study of complex subjects, he frequently skipped classes, earning him the enmity of several instructors, including Heinrich Weber. Unfortunately, Einstein requested a recommendation letter from Weber. Einstein was ultimately rejected for every academic position for which he applied. Later, he wrote,
Meanwhile, Einstein’s friendship with Maric intensified, despite his parents’ fierce opposition. His mother was particularly opposed to her Serbian heritage (Maric’s ancestors were Eastern Orthodox Christians). However, Einstein resisted his parents, and in January 1902 he and Maric had an unidentified child, Lieserl. (It is usually believed that she perished from scarlet fever or was adopted.)
In 1902, Einstein perhaps reached his lowest moment in life. Without work, he was unable to marry Maric and raise a family, and his father’s firm went bankrupt. Einstein, destitute and unemployed, took menial jobs tutoring youngsters, but was fired from even these positions.
Later the same year, the father of his lifelong friend Marcel Grossmann was able to suggest him for a clerk post at the Swiss patent office in Bern. Einstein’s father became gravely ill around this time and gave his approval for his son to marry Maric shortly before he passed away. Einstein’s remembrance of his father’s death with the belief that he was a failure prompted him to experience a great deal of sorrow for many years.
Einstein felt confident enough to marry Maric on January 6, 1903, after receiving a tiny but stable income for the first time. Hans Albert and Eduard were born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1904 and 1910, respectively. Einstein’s position in the patent office was a godsend in retrospect. He would then have time to ponder about the desire that had consumed him since he was 16 years old: What would occur if you ran parallel to a light beam? During his time at the polytechnic school, he examined Maxwell’s equations, which explain the nature of light, and uncovered a truth that was unknown to James Clerk Maxwell, namely, that the speed of light remains constant regardless of the speed of the observer. However, this violates Isaac Newton’s principles of motion, as there is no absolute velocity in his theory. Einstein formulated the concept of relativity based on this realisation: “the speed of light is constant in any inertial frame”
Other scientists, including Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz, had fragments of the theory of special relativity, but Einstein was the first to integrate the entire theory and recognise that it was a universal law of nature, not a peculiar phantom of etheric motion. Einstein referred to “our theory” in a private letter to Mileva, leading some to infer that she was a co-creator of relativity theory. Mileva abandoned physics after failing her graduate examinations twice, and there is no record of her contribution to the development of relativity. In fact, Einstein only credits his chats with Besso for the development of relativity in his 1905 work.)
There were two cornerstones of physics in the 19th century: Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s theory of light. Einstein was the only person to recognise that they were contradictory and that one must fall.
General relativity and Albert Einstein’s teaching career
Einstein’s 1905 articles were first disregarded by the scientific community. After receiving the attention of one researcher, possibly the most famous physicist of his generation, Max Planck, the inventor of quantum theory, this began to alter.
Due to Planck’s laudatory remarks and experiments that increasingly proved his theories, Einstein was soon invited to speak at international conferences, such as the Solvay Conferences, and he advanced fast in the academic community. The University of Zürich, the University of Prague, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and eventually the University of Berlin, where he served as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933, all offered him posts of growing prestige (although the opening of the institute was delayed until 1917).
Even as his fame spread, Einstein’s marriage was falling apart. Constantly on the road, he spoke at international conferences while immersed in thought on relativity. The couple frequently argued about their children and meagre financial situation. Einstein, convinced that his marriage was hopeless, began an affair with Elsa Lowenthal, his cousin, whom he ultimately married. Elsa was his first cousin on his mother’s side, and his second cousin on his father’s. In 1919, when he eventually divorced Mileva, he agreed to give her whatever money he could receive from a Nobel Prize.
Einstein was preoccupied with a critical shortcoming in his own theory from 1905 to 1915: it made no mention of gravitation or acceleration. His pal Paul Ehrenfest had seen a peculiar fact. If a disc is spinning, its rim is moving faster than its centre; therefore, (according to special relativity), metre sticks put on its circumference should contract. This implied that Euclidean plane geometry could not be applied to the disc. Einstein would devote the next decade to developing a theory of gravity based on the curvature of space-time. Einstein believed that Newton’s gravitational force was a byproduct of a deeper reality: the warping of space and time.
In November 1915, Albert Einstein finished the general theory of relativity, which he regarded as his magnum opus. Einstein delivered six two-hour lectures at the University of Gottingen in the summer of 1915 in which he thoroughly discussed an incomplete version of general relativity that omitted a few essential mathematical features. The mathematician David Hilbert, who had organised the lectures at his institution and been in correspondence with Einstein, subsequently finalised these details and submitted a paper on general relativity five days before Einstein, as if it were his own. Later, they resolved their disagreements and remained close friends. Einstein would write to Hilbert,
Today, physicists refer to the action from which the equations are derived as the Einstein-Hilbert action, but Einstein alone is credited with the theory.
Einstein felt convinced that general relativity was valid due to its mathematical elegance and because it successfully anticipated the precession of Mercury’s perihelion orbit around the Sun (see Mercury: Mercury in tests of relativity). His hypothesis additionally anticipated a measurable light deflection around the Sun. As a result, he offered to help finance an expedition to test the deflection of starlight during a solar eclipse.
Nobel Prize and global fame
World War I disrupted Einstein’s work. He was one of only four German academics to sign a manifesto opposing the country’s involvement into the war. He referred to nationalism with disgust as “the leprosy of humanity.” He would write, “At times like these, one knows what a pitiful sort of animal one is.”
In the upheaval that followed the end of World War I, in November 1918, radical students seized control of the University of Berlin and held numerous professors hostage. Numerous individuals feared that summoning the police to free the authorities would result in a disastrous clash. Einstein, who was held in high regard by both students and teachers, was the obvious choice to settle this conflict. Together with Max Born, Einstein mediated a resolution to the conflict.
Two expeditions were dispatched after the war to test Einstein’s prediction of bent starlight near the Sun. In order to watch the solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, one set sail for the island of Principe, off the coast of West Africa, and the other for Sobral, in northern Brazil. The results were announced during a combined meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society on November 6 in London.
Legacy of Albert Einstein
In other ways, Einstein may have been too much ahead of his time, rather than a relic. During Einstein’s lifetime, the strong force, a crucial component of any unified field theory, remained a total mystery. With the quark model, physicists did not begin to unravel the mystery of the strong force until the 1970s and 1980s. However, Einstein’s contributions continue to earn Nobel Prizes for successive physicists. Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves was recognised with the Nobel Prize in 1993. In 1995, the Nobel Prize was given to those who discovered Bose-Einstein condensates (a new form of matter that can occur at extremely low temperatures). Thousands of black holes have now been identified. New generations of space satellites have continued to validate Einstein’s cosmos. And many leading