'Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.'   Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is perhaps the most famous scientist who ever lived. Almost everyone knows his name, and knows a little bit about the science to which he devoted his life.

Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, and spent his youth in Munich, where his family owned a small shop that manufactured electric machinery. He died in Princeton, U.S.A., April 18, 1955. Between those years, he made an impact on the world of physics that may never be forgotten.

Around 1886 Einstein began his school career in Munich. As well as his violin lessons, which he had from age six to age thirteen, he also had religious education at home. Two years later he entered the Gymnasium (public school), where he studied mathematics, in particular calculus.

In 1895 Einstein failed an important examination that would have let him study electrical engineering at a technical college in Zurich. He chose, instead, to remain in public school, graduating in 1900 as a teacher of mathematics and physics.

He attempted to get into a university, but again was unsuccessful. He also could not find employment as a teacher.

Instead, he got a job in a patent office in Switzerland, where he worked from 1902 until 1909.

As a reviewer of submitted patents, Einstein did not have to work particularly hard. He used the time to think and write about ideas in physics; while in the Bern patent office he completed an amazing range of theoretical physics publications, written in his spare time and mostly on his own. One of these publications allowed him to earn a doctorate from the University of Zurich!

In the first of three papers he wrote in 1905, he examined a phenomenon that had been known for some years, but unexplained. He called it the Photoelectric Effect. Electromagnetic energy, previously thought to be 'waves', seemed to be emitted in small bundles called 'photons'. Einstein's explanation, and his guess that the energy of a photon was related to its frequency by the equation E = hv, would later earn him his only Nobel Prize.

In his spare time, he also related the explanation for Brownian motion to kinetic theory.

Einstein's second 1905 paper proposed what is today called the special theory of relativity. He based his new theory on a reinterpretation of the classical principle of relativity, namely that the laws of physics had to have the same form in any frame of reference. Secondly, Einstein assumed that the speed of light remained constant in all frames of reference. This was a brand new way of looking at things, redefining the ideas first proposed by Isaac Newton, and it was the foundation for his General Theory of Relativity, which he would complete some 10 years later.

Stiil in 1905, Einstein proposed an explanation for the equivalence of energy and matter, describing his most famous equation E=mc2. After 1905, he continued to work on his ideas, attempting to extend his special theory of relativity to explain what happens when objects accelerate. In 1909, he bacame a professor of physics at the University of Bern.

In 1911, Einstein predicted that if his theories were true, light rays from distant stars passing near the very massive sun would be bent due to gravitational attraction. This prediction was confirmed in 1919, during a solar eclipse.

Einstein began his work on the General Theory of Relativity in 1912, with the help of several mathematicians. This explanation of how gravity works, published in 1915, became the foundation for modern relativistic physics, laying the groundwork for our knowledge of black holes.

After the eclipse expeditions in 1919 had confirmed his predictions, Einstein became famous. The London Times ran the headline on November 7th, 1919:

Revolution in science - New theory of the Universe - Newton's ideas overthrown.

In 1920, Einstein's lectures in Berlin were disrupted by demonstrations which were anti-Jewish. There were strong feelings expressed against his works during this period, in Germany, because of his religion.

During 1921, Einstein made his first visit to the United States, and lectured several times on relativity. He is reported to have said:

' I never realised that so many Americans were interested in tensor analysis.'

During the 1920's, Einstein travelled , making many international visits, and lecturing about his theories. After a third visit to the United States, in 1932, he was offered a job at Princeton University. Einstein accepted, and left Germany in December 1932 for the United States. The following month the Nazis came to power in Germany and Einstein was never to return there.

At Princeton, he devoted himself to the task of unifying the laws of physics. He believed that the equations of relativity dealing with gravity, those for quantum mechanics (pertaining to tiny particles), and the already combined laws of electricity and magnetism, all should derive from some basic set of equations.

Although he worked on this problem for the rest of his life, he was unable to make any headway. The idea remains as one of the great unsolved problems in physics. Currently, it is being addressed by many scientists around the world, the foremost of those having been Stephen Hawking, who believed that the problem would be solved in the not too distant future.

In 1940 Einstein became a citizen of the United States, but chose to retain his Swiss citizenship. He made many contributions to peace during his life. In 1944 he made a contribution to the war effort by hand-writing his 1905 paper on special relativity and putting it up for auction. It raised six million dollars, the manuscript today being in the Library of Congress.

The two social movements that received his full support were pacifism and Zionism. During World War I he was one of a handful of German academics willing to publicly decry Germany's involvement in the war. In WWII, he signed a letter urging then President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lead the U.S. into the development of the atomic bomb, (the possibility of which had been predicted by Einstein's own work), before the Nazis built one themselves.

After the war, Einstein was active in the cause of international disarmament and world government. He continued his active support of Zionism, and was actually offered the presidency of the new state of Israel in 1948, but declined.

In the U.S. he spoke out on the need for political freedom. One week before his death Einstein signed his last letter. It was a letter to Bertrand Russell in which he agreed that his name should go on a manifesto urging all nations to give up nuclear weapons. It is fitting that one of his last acts was to argue, as he had done all his life, for international peace.

Einstein's efforts in behalf of social causes have sometimes been viewed as unrealistic. In fact, his proposals were always carefully thought out. Like his scientific theories, they were motivated by sound intuition based on a careful assessment of evidence and observation.

Einstein gave much of himself to political and social causes, but science always came first, because, he often said, only the discovery of the nature of the universe would have lasting meaning.

Einstein died in Princeton on April 18, 1955.

Here are Albert Einstein's words on a number of topics:

  • 'Imagination is more important than knowledge'
  • 'How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought independent of experience, is so admirably adapted to the objects of reality?'
  • 'Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.'
  • 'Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, I assure you that mine are greater.'
  • 'If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.'
  • 'One reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other sciences, is that its laws are absolutely certain and indisputable, while those of other sciences are to some extent debatable and in constant danger of being overthrown by newly discovered facts.'


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