Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm. He was raised in Munich, where his family owned a small electrical machinery shop. Though he did not even begin to speak until he was three, he showed a great curiosity of nature and even taught himself Euclidean geometry at the age of 12. Albert despised school life, thinking it dull and boring, so when his family decided to move to Milan, Italy, Einstein took the opportunity to drop out of school, only 15 at the time.
After a year with his parents in Milan it became clear to him that he would have to make his own way in the world. He finished secondary school in Arrau, Switzerland, and then enrolled at the Swiss National Polytechnic in Zurich. School there was no less exciting for him than it was before, and Einstein often cut classes, using the time to study physics on his own or practice on his violin. He graduated in 1900, but his professors did not think very highly of him and would not recommend him for a university job.
Einstein worked for two years as a tutor and substitute teacher until in 1902 he found a position as an examiner in the Swiss patent office in Bern. In 1903 he married a fellow classmate at the polytechnic, Mileva Maric. They later divorced after having two sons, and Einstein remarried.
Though Albert had written other papers, the one he became most famous for was called, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which explained a theory that became known as the special theory of relativity. This was Einstein’s third major paper to date, and was published in 1905. Natural philosophers had been trying to understand the nature of matter and radiation since the time of Sir Isaac Newton. Einstein had been considering the problem for over ten years when he realized that lay not in a theory of matter but one of measurement. The crux of his special theory or relativity was that all measurements of time and space depend on judgments as to whether two distant events occur at the same time (the “relative” view of the observer). This realization led him to develop a theory based on two major points. First, the principle of relativity, that physical laws are the same in all inertial reference systems. Second the principle of the invariance of the speed of light, that the speed of light in a vacuum will always remain constant. Using these two postulates, he was able to provide a correct description of physical events in different inertial frames of reference, and did not have to make assumptions about the nature of matter or radiation, nor how they interact.
Not many understood Einstein’s argument when it was first offered. This was not because the work was too mathematically complex or technically obscure, but because of Einstein’s beliefs about the nature of good theories and the relationship between experiment and theory. A good theory, in his opinion, was one where the minimum number of postulates were used to account for the physical evidence. He did not believe that theories could be logically connected to experiment, but that scientific theories were the free creations of a well-tuned intuition, and that the only true source of knowledge was experience. This absence of a large number of postulates in his theories (something common to all of Einstein’s work) made it difficult for his colleagues to comprehend. Albert did, however, have a few important supporters, such as the German physicist Max Planck. While he became better know in the physics community, Einstein continued to work at the patent office. After four years he began to move rapidly upward in the German-speaking academic world, receiving his first academic appointment at the University of Zurich in 1909. By 1913 he had been appointed director the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin.
Albert became an internationally renowned citizen for his work, winning the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921, as well as many other honors and awards from various other scientific societies around the world. Although he was an outspoken pacifist and Zionist, Einstein collaborated with several other physicists to write a letter to President Roosevelt during the second world war, telling him of the possibility of the creation of an atomic bomb, as he realized the threat the Nazis posed to the world. Einstein had left Germany when Hitler first came to power, and for much of the war had preached a doctrine of peace. After the war, Albert pushed hard for the cause of international disarmament and world government. He continued to actively support Zionism, but decline an offer to become president of Israel when offered the position by the state’s leaders. He accentuated the need for the US’s intellectuals to make any sacrifice necessary to preserve political freedom during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Albert Einstein died in Princeton on April 18, 1955, at the age of 76.
“Albert Einstein” Infopedia 2. 1997 ed.
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