Albert Einstein was aGerman-born physicist who developed the general theory of relativity, amongother feats. He is considered the most influential physicist of the 20thcentury.
Born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany in 1879, Albert Einstein had apassion for inquiry that eventually led him to develop the special and generaltheories of relativity. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for physics for hisexplanation of the photoelectric effect and immigrated to the U.S. in thefollowing decade after being targeted by the Nazis. Einstein is generallyconsidered the most influential physicist of the 20th century, with his workalso having a major impact on the development of atomic energy. With a focus onunified field theory during his later years, Einstein died on April 18, 1955,in Princeton, New Jersey.
Backgroundand Early Life
Born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany, AlbertEinstein grew up in a secular Jewish family. His father, Hermann Einstein, wasa salesman and engineer who with his brother founded Elektrotechnische FabrikJ. Einstein & Cie, a Munich-based company that manufactured electricalequipment. 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 inMunich. However, he felt alienated there and struggled with the institution'srigid pedagogical style. He also had what were considered to be speechchallenges, though he developed a passion for classical music and playing theviolin that would stay with him into his later years. Most significantly,Einstein's youth was marked by deep inquisitiveness and inquiry.
Towards the end of the 1880s, Max Talmud, a Polish medicalstudent who sometimes dined with the Einstein family, became an informal tutorto young Albert. Talmud had introduced his pupil to a children’s science textthat inspired Einstein to dream about the nature of light. Thus, during histeens, Einstein penned what would be seen as his first major paper, "TheInvestigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields."
Hermann Einstein relocated the family to Milan, Italy, in themid-1890s after his business lost out on a major contract. Albert was left at arelative's boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling at the LuitpoldGymnasium. Faced with military duty when he turned of age, Albert allegedlywithdrew from classes, using a doctor’s note to excuse himself and claimnervous exhaustion. With their son rejoining them in Italy, his parentsunderstood Einstein's perspective but were concerned about his future prospectsas a school dropout and draft dodger.
Einstein waseventually able to gain admission into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School inZurich, specifically due to his superb mathematics and physics scores on theentrance exam. He was still required to complete his pre-university educationfirst, and thus attended a high school in Aarau, Switzerland helmed by JostWinteler. Einstein lived with the schoolmaster's family and fell in love withWintelers' daughter, Marie. Einstein later renounced his German citizenship andbecame a Swiss citizen at the dawn of the new century.
While attending school in Zurich, Einstein developed lastingfriendships and alliances, also meeting his future wife, Mileva Maric, aSerbian physics student.
After graduating from Polytechnic, Einstein faced majorchallenges in terms of finding academic positions, having alienated someprofessors over not attending class more regularly in lieu of studyingindependently. Meanwhile, Einstein continued to grow closer to Maric, but hisparents were strongly against the relationship due her ethnic background.Nonetheless, Einstein continued to see her, with the two developing a correspondencevia letters in which he expressed many of his scientific ideas. In 1902 thecouple had a daughter, Lieserl, who might have been later raised by Maric'srelatives or given up for adoption. Her ultimate fate and whereabouts remain amystery.
Einstein eventually found steady work in 1902 after receiving areferral for a clerk position in a Swiss patent office. Einstein’s fatherpassed away shortly thereafter, and the young scientist married Milena Maric onJan. 6, 1903. The couple went on to have two sons, Hans and Eduard.
The marriage would not be a happy one, however, with the twodivorcing in 1919 and Maric having an emotional breakdown in connection to thesplit. Einstein, as part of a settlement, agreed to give Maric any fundshe might receive from possibly winning the Nobel Prize in the future. Hehad also begun an affair some time earlier with a cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, whomEinstein wed during the same year of his divorce. He would continue to seeother women throughout his second marriage, which ended with Löwenthal's deathin 1936.
While working at the patent office, Einstein had the time tofurther ideas that had taken hold during his studies at Polytechnic and thuscemented his theorems on what would be known as the principle of relativity.
In 1905—seen by many as a "miracle year" for thetheorist—Einstein had four papers published in the Annalen der Physik, one of the best knownphysics journals of the era. The four papers focused on the photoelectriceffect, Brownian motion, the special theory of relativity (the most widelycirculated of the write-ups) and the matter/energy relationship, thus takingphysics in an electrifying new direction. In his fourth paper, Einstein came upwith the equation E=mc2, suggesting that tiny particles of matter could beconverted into huge amounts of energy, foreshadowing the development of atomicpower.
Famed quantum theoristMax Planck backed up the assertions of Einstein, who thus became a star of thelecture circuit and academia, taking on various positions before becomingdirector of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933.
Relativity and Nobel Prize
In November, 1915,Einstein completed the general theory of relativity, which he considered theculmination of his life research. He was convinced of the merits of generalrelativity because it allowed for a more accurate prediction of planetaryorbits around the sun, which fell short in IsaacNewton’s theory, and for a more expansive, nuancedexplanation of how gravitational forces worked. Einstein's assertions wereaffirmed via observations and measurements by British astronomers Sir FrankDyson and Sir Arthur Eddington during the 1919 solar eclipse, and thus a globalscience icon was born.
In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics though hewasn't actually given the award until the following year due to a bureaucraticruling. Because his ideas on relativity were still considered questionable, hereceived the prize for his explanation of the photoelectric effect thoughEinstein still opted to speak about relativity during his acceptance speech.
In the development of his general theory, Einstein had held onto the belief that the universe was a fixed, static entity, aka a"cosmological constant," though his later theories directlycontradicted this idea and asserted that the universe could be in a state offlux. Astronomer EdwinHubble deduced that we indeedinhabit an expanding universe, with the two scientists meeting at the MountWilson Observatory near Los Angeles in 1930.
While Einstein was travelling and speakinginternationally, the Nazis, led by AdolfHitler, were gaining prominence with violentpropaganda and vitriol in an impoverished post-WWI Germany. The partyinfluenced other scientists to label Einstein's work "Jewishphysics." Jewish citizens were barred from university work and otherofficial jobs, and Einstein himself was targeted to be killed.
Moveto U.S. and Atomic Energy
In 1933, Einstein took on a position at the Institute forAdvanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey and never went back to his native land.It was here that he would spend the rest of his life working on a unified fieldtheory—an all-embracing paradigm meant to unify the varied laws of physics.Other European scientists also left regions threatened by Germany andimmigrated to the states, with there being concern over Nazi strategies tocreate an atomic weapon.
In 1939, Einstein and fellow physicist LeoSzilard wrote to PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt to alert him of thepossibility of a Nazi bomb and to galvanize the United States to create its ownnuclear weapons. The U.S. would eventually initiate the Manhattan Project,though Einstein would not take direct part in its implementation due to hispacifist and socialist affiliations. Einstein was also the recipient of muchscrutiny and major distrust from FBI director J.Edgar Hoover.
Not long after he began his career atPrinceton, Einstein expressed an appreciation for American"meritocracy" and the opportunities people had for free thought, astark contrast to his own experiences coming of age. In 1935, Einstein wasgranted permanent residency in his adopted country and became an Americancitizen a few years later. During WWII, he worked on Navy-based weapons systemsand made big monetary donations to the military by auctioning off manuscriptsworth millions.
Globaland Domestic Activism
After learning of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Einsteinbecame a major player in efforts to curtail usage of the a-bomb. The followingyear he and Szilard founded the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, andin 1947, via an essay for TheAtlantic Monthly, Einstein espoused working with the United Nationsto maintain nuclear weapons as a deterrent to conflict.
Around this time, Einstein also became a memberof the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, seeing theparallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany and African Americans in theUnited States. He corresponded with scholar/activist W.E.B. Du Bois as well as performing artist Paul Robeson and campaigned for civil rights, calling racism a"disease" in a 1946 Lincoln University speech.
After the war, Einstein continued to work onhis unified field theory and key aspects of the theory of general relativity,such as wormholes, the possibility of time travel, the existence of black holesand the creation of the universe. However, he became increasingly isolated fromthe rest of the physics community, whose eyes were set on quantum theory. Inthe last decade of his life, Einstein, who had always seen himself as a loner,withdrew even further from any sort of spotlight, preferring to stay close toPrinceton and immerse himself in processing ideas with colleagues.
FinalYears and Legacy
On April 17, 1955, while working on a speech to honor Israel'sseventh anniversary, Einstein suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He wastaken to the University Medical Center at Princeton for treatment but refusedsurgery, believing that he had lived his life and was content to accept hisfate. "I want to go when I want," he stated at the time. "It istasteless 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 centerearly the next morning—April 18, 1955—at the age of 76.
During the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harveyremoved Einstein's brain, reportedly without the permission of his family, forpreservation and future study by doctors of neuroscience. Einstein's remainswere cremated and his ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location,following his wishes. After decades of study, Einstein's brain is now locatedat the Princeton University Medical Center. A veritable mountain of books havebeen written on the iconic thinker's life, including Einstein:His Life and Universe byWalter Isaacson and Einstein: A Biography by Jürgen Neffe, both from2007. Einstein's own words are presented in the collection TheWorld as I See It.