Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics). His work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science.
He is best known to the general public for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc², which has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”.
He published more than 300 scientific papers and more than 150 non-scientific works. On 5 December 2014, universities and archives announced the release of Einstein’s papers, comprising more than 30,000 unique documents
His intellectual achievements and originality have made the word “Einstein” synonymous with “genius”.
He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”, a pivotal step in the development of quantum theory.
Because of Einstein’s travels to the Far East, he was unable to personally accept the Nobel Prize for Physics at the Stockholm award ceremony in December 1922.
He also received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society in 1925.
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg in the German Empire, on 14 March 1879.
His father intended for him to pursue electrical engineering, but Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought was lost in strict rote learning.
Einstein always excelled at math and physics from a young age, reaching a mathematical level years ahead of his peers. The twelve-year-old Einstein taught himself algebra and Euclidean geometry over a single summer.
Einstein also independently discovered his own original proof of the Pythagorean theorem at age 12.
Einstein started teaching himself calculus at 12, and as a 14-year-old he says he had “mastered integral and differential calculus”
He had written a short essay with the title “On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field” at the age of 15.
A family tutor Max Talmud says that after he had given the 12-year-old Einstein a geometry textbook, after a short time “[Einstein] had worked through the whole book. He thereupon devoted himself to higher mathematics… Soon the flight of his mathematical genius was so high I could not follow.”
At age 13, when he had become more seriously interested in philosophy (and music), Einstein was introduced to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Kant became his favorite philosopher, his tutor stating: “At the time he was still a child, only thirteen years old, yet Kant’s works, incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, seemed to be clear to him.”
Near the beginning of his career, Einstein thought that Newtonian mechanics was no longer enough to reconcile the laws of classical mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field. This led him to develop his special theory of relativity during his time at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern (1902–1909).
With a few friends he had met in Bern, Einstein started a small discussion group in 1902, self-mockingly named “The Olympia Academy”, which met regularly to discuss science and philosophy.
He subsequently realized that the principle of relativity could be extended to gravitational fields, and published a paper on general relativity in 1916 introducing his theory of gravitation.
He continued to deal with problems of statistical mechanics and quantum theory, which led to his explanations of particle theory and the motion of molecules.
He also investigated the thermal properties of light and the quantum theory of radiation, the basis of laser, which laid the foundation of the photon theory of light.
In 1917, he applied the general theory of relativity to model the structure of the universe.
Einstein moved to Switzerland in 1895 and renounced his citizenship in the German Kingdom of Württemberg in January 1896, with his father’s approval, to avoid military service.
After being stateless for more than five years, he acquired Swiss citizenship in 1901, which he kept for the rest of his life. Except for over one year in Prague, he lived in Switzerland between 1895 and 1914.
He received his academic diploma from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School (later the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, ETH) in Zürich in 1900.
Between 1902 and 1909, he was employed in Bern as a patent examiner, at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property, the patent office.
In 1900, Einstein’s paper “Folgerungen aus den Capillaritätserscheinungen” (“Conclusions from the Capillarity Phenomena”) was published in the journal Annalen der Physik
In 1905, called Einstien’s annus mirabilis (miracle year), he published four groundbreaking papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy, which attracted the attention of the academic world. That year, at the age of 26, he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Zurich.
By 1908, he was recognized as a leading scientist and was appointed lecturer at the University of Bern. The following year, after giving a lecture on electrodynamics and the relativity principle at the University of Zürich, Alfred Kleiner recommended him to the faculty for a newly created professorship in theoretical physics. Einstein was appointed associate professor in 1909.
Based on calculations Einstein made in 1911, about his new theory of general relativity, light from another star should be bent by the Sun’s gravity. In 1919, that prediction was confirmed by Sir Arthur Eddington during the solar eclipse of 29 May 1919. Those observations were published in the international media, making Einstein world-famous. On 7 November 1919, the leading British newspaper The Times printed a banner headline that read: “Revolution in Science – New Theory of the Universe – Newtonian Ideas Overthrown”
He taught theoretical physics for one year (1908/09) at the University of Bern, for two years (1909–11) at the University of Zurich, and after one year at the Charles University in Prague he returned to his alma mater ETH Zurich between 1912 and 1914, before he left for Berlin, where he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
In 1933, while Einstein was visiting the United States, Adolf Hitler came to power. Because of his Jewish background, Einstein did not return to Germany. He settled in the United States and became an American citizen in 1940.
It was heard that Einstein’s cottage in Germany was raided by the Nazis and his personal sailboat confiscated. The Nazis later sold his boat and converted his cottage into a Hitler Youth camp
Later, Einstein’s works were among those targeted by the German Student Union in the Nazi book burnings, with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proclaiming, “Jewish intellectualism is dead.” One German magazine included him in a list of enemies of the German regime with the phrase, “not yet hanged”, offering a $5,000 bounty on his head.
On the eve of World War II, he endorsed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt alerting FDR to the potential development of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type” and recommending that the US begin similar research. This eventually led to the Manhattan Project.
For Einstein, “war was a disease … [and] he called for resistance to war.” By signing the letter to Roosevelt, some argue he went against his pacifist principles. In 1954, a year before his death, Einstein said to his old friend, Linus Pauling, “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them …”
Einstein supported the Allies, but he generally denounced the idea of using nuclear fission as a weapon.
He signed the Russell–Einstein Manifesto with British philosopher Bertrand Russell, which highlighted the danger of nuclear weapons.
He was affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, until his death in 1955. During this period, Einstein tried to develop a unified field theory and to refute the accepted interpretation of quantum physics, both unsuccessfully.
During the autopsy, the pathologist of Princeton Hospital, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, removed Einstein’s brain for preservation without the permission of his family, in the hope that the neuroscience of the future would be able to discover what made Einstein so intelligent.
Eugene Wigner compared him to his contemporaries, writing that “Einstein’s understanding was deeper even than Jancsi von Neumann’s. His mind was both more penetrating and more original”.
In his late journals Einstein wrote: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”
He has a connection with India as well. In 1924, Einstein received a description of a statistical model from Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, based on a counting method that assumed that light could be understood as a gas of indistinguishable particles. Einstein noted that Bose’s statistics applied to some atoms as well as to the proposed light particles, and submitted his translation of Bose’s paper to the Zeitschrift für Physik. Einstein also published his own articles describing the model and its implications, among them the Bose–Einstein condensate phenomenon that some particulates should appear at very low temperatures. It was not until 1995 that the first such condensate was produced experimentally by Eric Allin Cornell and Carl Wieman using ultra-cooling equipment built at the NIST–JILA laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Bose–Einstein statistics are now used to describe the behaviors of any assembly of bosons. Einstein’s sketches for this project may be seen in the Einstein Archive in the library of the Leiden University.
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