Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest mind ever to have walked the face of the earth, was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Germany. As a boy, he hated school, and felt that the regimented and repetitive nature of schooling in Germany at that time had any promise of helping his future. He did not do well in school, mainly because he did not care to learn what was being taught to him. While he seemed to be a bright child, his schoolwork did not interest him, but at the same time the simple compass that his father owned fascinated him. Albert constantly harassed his father and his Uncle Jake with questions concerning how the compass worked, and what caused it to work. The answers about gravitation and magnetism kept him up at nights as he attempted to obtain a better grasp of the meaning of these concepts.
After hearing of his fascination with these scientific concepts, Max Talmey, a family friend, lent young Einstein books on mathematics and natural science. Upon reading these books, Albert was hooked. From that time on, he was constantly reading about science, geometry, and other areas of math. Even with his newfound knowledge, school was still not interesting, and it was actually worse than it had been before. Now, along with his dislike of the teaching methods, his classmates disliked him for being somewhat of a loner, and because he was so much more intelligent than any of them. His lone passion outside of science was playing the violin, which he continued to do throughout his life. His love of the violin stemmed from his love of classical music, which his mother encouraged him to listen to. But because of his difficulties associating with his teachers and fellow students, he dropped out of school at the age of fifteen.
Two years later, however, he was back in school at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, a place that would continue to have a profound effect on his life. Even this did not come easily for him. He failed the entrance exam, only to pass it on his second attempt. Finally, he was able to study his math and science in an atmosphere where a mind like his is usually welcomed. Once again, though, Einstein found himself resented. This time not by the students, but by his professors, and because of this, he was unable to obtain a teaching position at the Institute upon his graduation in 1900. The following year, he became a Swiss citizen, and he also wrote his first scientific essay, which was entitled ‘Consequences of Capillary Phenomena.’ Einstein noted that this was proved the existence of molecules. In 1902, he married Mileva Maric, who had also attended the Polytechnic Institute. They had two sons, Hans Albert, born in 1904, and Edward, born in 1910, but the marriage itself ended with a divorce in 1919. Also in 1902, unable to find a teaching position, Albert was able to find a job in the Swiss patent office. Understandably, this doesn’t seem like much of a job for such a great mind, but it may have been just the job he needed.
The work at the patent office was fairly boring, but it left him the time he needed to do research, and to write on various scientific topics. It was while working at the patent office in 1905 that Einstein published the first version of his famous and revolutionary theory of relativity. This was only the crowning achievement in what proved to be a banner year for Albert. Not only did he publish his paper on general relativity, but also a paper on light quanta, and one on Brownian motion, along with obtaining his Ph.D. from the University of Zurich. This paper was based in an 1827 discovery by botanist Robert Brown. It stated that thermal agitation of a particle suspended in a solution could produce a detectable effect. His theory of special relativity was not widely accepted at first, and it was even rejected by the University of Bern in an application for Einstein to provide teaching services for the University. This caused him to continue to work at the patent office until 1909. Finally, his theory of relativity was beginning to be recognized by the world’s greatest scientific minds, even though it was not fully understood by many of them. This led him to accept a professorship at the German University in Prague.
During his time in Prague, the name Einstein continued to climb the ladder of the great scientists of his time. In 1912, he returned once again to the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, where only 12 years earlier he had been denied any kind of teaching position. Now, he was offered a full professorship, and even though it was tempting for him to turn them down based solely on their turning their collective backs on him, but the opportunity was simply too good to turn down. It was a chance to teach at a prestigious school, and it also enabled him to do research at the Institute during his spare time. Two years later, in 1914, he was on the move yet once again. This time he accepted a job teaching at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, which was considered at that time about as close to the top as you can possibly get as a professor. A few of his colleagues included the great scientific names of Planck, Nernst, and von Laue. The greatest thing for Einstein about the Academy, however, was that they allowed him to devote almost all of his time to research, and had full use of all of the school’s scientific equipment and laboratories. After jumping from job to job for some time, he was finally able to stabilize his professional life, as he continued to work there for twenty years.
During World War I, even though he was a scientist, and working in Germany, Albert gave no assistance to the German government to help the war effort. During his time in Switzerland, not only had he become a Swiss citizen, but at pacifist as well. Einstein had also become interested in the movement to develop a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. This was a way for him to reach back to his roots, for his father was half-German and half-Jewish. Although he never directly said so, the Germans dislike for the Jews may have been another reason that he blatantly refused to do any work for the German military. One of his lesser-known scientific accomplishments came in 1917, when he began to apply his general theory of relativity to the structure of the universe.
Einstein took Newton’s theory of an unending universe, and described it as measurable, but without boundaries. This was corroborated by Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expansion of the universe in 1929, bringing Einstein to enter a joint venture with Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter. Their new model of this has been referred to as the ‘Einstein-de Sitter universe’ ever since. In 1919, the same year that his first marriage ended, he married his cousin Elsa, whose first husband had died. Around the same time, the name Albert Einstein had gone from being well known only in scientific circles to being one of the best known people in the world. This came after two British groups tested his theory that light rays from a star would bend if they passed too close to the sun. They conclusively agreed that Einstein was correct by testing the theory during the solar eclipse of May 1919. Curiously, the theory of relativity and his well known equation E=mc2 were never recognized or awarded by the scientific community. His only major award was the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1921. This awarded was presented based on his work in discovering the law of the photoelectric effect, which has made almost all modern electronics possible. His newfound fame brought him a great number of chances to travel abroad to lecture. Also in 1921, on his first visit to the United States, he received an honorary degree from Princeton University. The purpose of the trip had been to help raise funds for a Jewish University in Jerusalem, but the enormous amount of requests for interviews and lectures forced him to greatly extend his trip. In 1929, he even had the chance to meet the King and Queen of Belgium. The King had an interest in science, and the Queen shared his love of the violin. From this one visit came a lifetime of correspondences, even after the King died in a climbing accident in 1934.
The year 1930 brought about another honorary degree, this one from the University of Cambridge. Einstein continued his research and teaching in Berlin until 1932 when he took a visit to the United States. While he was visiting, he learned that Hitler had taken control of Germany. Being half-Jewish himself, Einstein knew that it would not be a good idea to be perhaps the world’s most famous Jew living in a country where the Nazis were in control. Rather than return and work in an atmosphere where he felt racial and political policies ruled rather than science, and scientists were used to develop weapons rather than do scientific research, Einstein never returned. Upon learning that he was not returning, and had resigned from his professorship in Berlin, Hitler put a bounty on him.
The Germans also attempted to discredit not only Einstein the person, but his theories also. Rather than take any chances living in Germany, he lived for a short time in Belgium, then moved to England. The possibilities were unlimited, as Einstein had offers from at least a dozen world-renowned Universities and research institutes. In 1933, he moved to the United States permanently, and became a US citizen in 1934. Shortly after his decision to move to the US, Albert and his wife were invited to by President Roosevelt to have dinner and stay at the White House. After his move to the States, Albert joined the faculty of Institute For Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In December of 1936 his wife died, but Einstein being himself, he never seemed to let it affect him. During his time working at the Institute in Princeton, he was convinced by several other prominent scientists to write a letter to President Roosevelt revealing to him the possibility of building the atomic bomb. His pacifist background kept reminding him of how he was betraying himself by writing the letter, but after all, it was his theories which had made it possible. After the end of World War II, Einstein became one of the foremost advocates of world peace, and disarmament of all atomic weapons. The end of the war in 1945 also brought his retirement from the Institute. He always maintained a simple lifestyle, never desiring to be famous, or be hounded by journalists, but he usually could not turn them down. Being the simple man he was, he even turned down an invitation from David Ben-Gurion in 1952 to be the President of Israel. His work and his constant demand for interviews always kept him busy, and he lived in New Jersey until his death at the age of 76 on April 18, 1955.
- 100 Great Scientists. Ed. Dr. Jay E. Greene. New York: Washington Square Press, 1964.
- Albert Einstein-The Human Side. Ed. Dukas, Helen and Banesh Hoffmann. Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1979.
- Einstein-A Centenary Volume. Ed. A.P. French. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1979.