Albert Einstein – A Brief Biography (1879-1955)
Albert Einstein was a German-born physicist, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest physicists of all time.
He is best known for developing the theory of relativity and for his contributions to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics, thereby building and fortifying the two pillars of modern physics.
Albert Einstein was born on 14th March 1879 in Ulm, in the Kingdom of Wurttemberg in the German Empire, to Hermann Einstein and Pauline Koch. The family was secular Ashkenazi Jews.
Einstein’s father was a salesman and engineer. In 1880, the family moved to Munich, where his father and uncle established the Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie, a company that manufactured electrical equipment based on direct current.
In 1884, Albert Einstein, aged 5, began attending a Catholic Elementary School in Munich. He studied there for three years, after which he enrolled at the Luitpold Gymnasium when he was 8 years old, for primary and secondary education.
Einstein would go on to study at the Gymnasium for seven years. In the future, the Gymnasium would be named Albert Einstein Gymnasium in his honor.
Einstein’s father wished for him to study electrical engineering but Einstein despised the teaching method employed at the school, which was based on mindless memorization by repetition, also known as rote learning. He also hated the school’s strict regimen. He would later remark that in such an environment, the spirit of learning and creative thought was lost.
Excelling in Mathematics and Interest in Philosophy
Albert Einstein was said to be good at maths and physics from a very young age. It is said that by the age of 12, he had already taught himself Euclidean geometry and algebra. He also independently discovered his own original proof of the Pythagorean theorem.
Soon his grasp over maths was way ahead of children his age. His interest in algebra and geometry led him to believe that nature could be studied and understood as a mathematical structure.
By the age of 14, Einstein had mastered integral and differential calculus. Around this time, he also became interested in music and philosophy. He was particularly influenced by the writings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Even at such a young age, he was said to have read and understood Kant’s most famous work, Critique of Pure Reason.
Moving to Italy
In 1894, when Albert Einstein was 15, his father’s company lost a bid to supply electrical lighting to the city of Munich as they lacked the capital to convert their equipment from the direct current (DC) standard to the more efficient alternating current (AC) standard. This lost opportunity compelled them to sell the factory.
The Einstein family moved to Italy in search of new business opportunities, first staying in Milan for a few months and then eventually heading to the town of Pavia in northern Italy.
Einstein stayed behind in Munich to complete his studies at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Finally, in December of 1894, he traveled to Pavia to join his family there, after convincing the school to allow him to go by producing a doctor’s note.
While in Italy, the young Einstein wrote a short essay titled On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field.
Failing an Entrance Examination
In 1895, Albert Einstein, aged 16, took an entrance examination for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School. Even though he received good grades in physics and mathematics, he failed to obtain the required grades in the general part of the examination.
Instead, Einstein enrolled at the Argovian Cantonal School in the town of Aarau in Switzerland, at the suggestion of the principal of the Federal Polytechnic School. He attended the school through 1895 and 1896 and managed to complete his secondary schooling.
Passing the Swiss Matura
In 1896, Albert Einstein, aged 16, passed his secondary school exit exam, also called Matura (maturity diploma), with top grades in maths and physics.
The following year, he enrolled at the Federal Polytechnic School for the four-year maths and physics teaching diploma. It was here that he met his future wife Mileva Maric, a 20-year-old Serbian who had also enrolled at the school the same year. Mileva was the only woman out of six students in the maths and physics section of the teaching diploma course.
Einstein and Mileva became close friends and soon developed feelings for each other.
Working at the Swiss Patent Office
In 1900, Albert Einstein, aged 21, passed his maths and physics examinations and was granted a Federal teaching diploma.
But in spite of this achievement, Einstein spent the next two years searching in vain for a teaching post. He was not accepted anywhere, leaving him disappointed and frustrated.
He finally secured a job in Bern at the Swiss Patent Office as an assistant examiner – level III, with the help of his friend Marcel Grossmann‘s father.
At the patent office, Einstein spent his time evaluating patent applications for a variety of devices. In 1903, his position at the office was made permanent, even though he was denied a promotion until he fully mastered machine technology.
During this period, he continued to research and conduct thought experiments, all of which helped him to arrive at his radical conclusions about the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time.
In January 1903, Einstein and Mileva married. The couple would go on to have two sons, Hans and Eduard.
Einstein’s Amazing Year
The year 1905 was one of the best years for Albert Einstein, often referred to as Einstein’s annus mirabilis (amazing year).
In April of 1905, Einstein completed his dissertation titled A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions, along with the professor of experimental physics at Zurich University, Alfred Kleiner. His work was accepted in July and he was awarded a Ph.D.
The same year, Einstein went on to publish four groundbreaking papers in the world of physics. In the first one, he explained the photoelectric effect. In the second one, he explained Brownian motion, which forced reluctant physicists to accept the existence of atoms. In the third, he introduced his theory of special relativity. And in the fourth, he developed the principle of mass-energy equivalence, which was a consequence of the theory of special relativity, and which he expressed in the form of his now-famous equation E = mc2.
The work relating to the fourth paper would lead to the discovery and use of atomic energy.
These four papers greatly contributed to the foundation of modern physics, revolutionizing science’s understanding of the fundamental concepts of space, time, mass, and energy. The papers also made him famous in the scientific and academic community at the mere age of 26.
Beginning of an Academic Career
In 1908, Albert Einstein, aged 29, was appointed lecturer at the University of Bern. He was already revered as a leading scientist by then.
In 1909, Alfred Kleiner recommended him to the faculty of a newly created professorship in theoretical physics. Einstein was soon appointed associate professor at the university.
Two years later, he was appointed as a full professor at the German Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, for which he accepted Austrian citizenship in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It was during his Prague stay that he wrote eleven scientific works on subjects such as radiation, mathematics, and the quantum theory of solids.
From 1912 to 1914, Einstein served as a professor of theoretical physics at the ETH Zurich, where he taught thermodynamics and analytical mechanics and researched the molecular theory of heat, continuum mechanics, and the problem of gravitation along with his mathematician friend Marcel Grossmann.
Moving to Berlin
In July 1913, Albert Einstein became a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Membership of the Academy came with additional perks of a steady salary and professorship without any teaching duties at the Humbolt University of Berlin.
This offer meant that he could finally concentrate solely on research. He was tempted enough to accept the offer. However, it is also said that there was another important reason for his move to Berlin, which was to be close to his cousin Elsa, with whom he had begun having an affair by now.
The following year, after having moved to Berlin with Einstein, Mileva found out about their affair and left Berlin for Zurich along with their sons.
Theory of General Relativity and Worldwide Fame
Before completing his theory of general relativity, Albert Einstein slowly and gradually built up his scientific reputation through a series of groundbreaking discoveries and theories.
In 1911, he used his equivalence principle to calculate the deflection of light from another star by the sun’s gravity. Two years later, he had improved upon those calculations by using Riemannian space-time to represent the gravity field.
In 1915, he finally completed his theory of general relativity, in which he theorized that the observed gravitational attraction between masses results from the warping of space and time by those masses. He further used this theory to calculate the deflection of light from another star by the sun’s gravity and the perihelion precession of mercury.
The deflection predicted by Einstein would be proved correct four years later in 1919 by British astronomer and physicist Sir Arthur Eddington during the solar eclipse of 29th May 1919.
After Eddington’s observations proving Einstein’s theory correct were published in the international media, Einstein instantly achieved worldwide fame and acclaim as nothing he had ever experienced before.
He suddenly became an international celebrity, courted and coveted by universities and governments across the world. The media began referring to him as a Genius and dubbed his discovery a Revolution in Science.
Nobel Prize in Physics
In the year 1922, Albert Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.
As the theory of general relativity was still considered controversial by many, the discovery was not mentioned in his Nobel Prize citation. The citation treated Einstein’s photoelectric work as merely a discovery of the law and not as an explanation, as the idea of photons was still considered outlandish and was not universally accepted until 1924 when the derivation of the Planck Spectrum by Indian mathematician and physicist Satyendra Nath Bose proved it to be correct.
Einstein and Bose’s collaboration contributed to the quantum theory of radiation and formed the foundation of the Bose-Einstein statistics.
By the early 1920s, Albert Einstein had become a highly sought-after scientist-celebrity. Universities across the world invited him to give lectures and receptions and events were held in his honor by politicians and governments.
In April of 1921, upon arriving in New York City, Einstein was welcomed by the Mayor himself. While he toured America, he delivered several lectures at universities such as Princeton and Columbia.
He even visited the white house along with the representatives of the National Academy of Sciences.
The following year, he traveled extensively across Asia on a speaking tour, where he visited Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), Singapore, and even Japan, where he met the Emperor and Empress at the Imperial Palace. On his way back, he visited Palestine, where he was greeted and welcomed like a head of state.
In the year 1925, Einstein visited Latin America, spending a month in Argentina, a week in Uruguay, and a week in Brazil.
Friendship with Chaplin
Einstein’s pacifist beliefs led him to befriend the great Charlie Chaplin and American writer Upton Sinclair, who both shared the same belief and philosophy. All three of them despised war and considered it a futile endeavor. Instead, they advocated for peace and cooperation between nations.
Chaplin and Einstein bonded so well that Chaplin invited Einstein and Elsa (who by then was his wife) to join him as special guests for the premiere of his film City Lights.
Renouncing German Citizenship
In early 1933, while Albert Einstein was visiting America for the third time, his apartment in Berlin was repeatedly raided by the Gestapo. The rise of the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler was becoming a serious concern for Einstein.
In March 1933, Einstein and Elsa returned to Europe and found out that the German Reichstag had passed the Enabling Act, making the government under Hitler a de facto legal dictatorship. They also learned that their cottage had been raided and their personal sailboat had been confiscated.
When they arrived at Antwerp, Belgium, Einstein immediately went and surrendered his passport at the German consulate, thereby renouncing his German citizenship.
The following month, the Nazi government passed laws prohibiting Jews from holding any official positions, which included teaching posts at universities. As a result of such laws, thousands of Jewish scientists were suddenly deprived of their university positions and found themselves unemployed.
Einstein, in spite of his stature and achievements, or perhaps because of it, was not spared from being attacked. His books and works were burnt by the German Student Union, and German Magazines included him in the list of enemies of the regime. Some even declared a bounty on his head.
Helping Fellow Scientists
Since renouncing his German citizenship, Albert Einstein was without a permanent home and work. He took up residency for a few months in De Haan, Belgium, and then went to England on the invitation of British naval officer and commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, with whom he had become good friends a few years ago.
Locker-Lampson accommodated Einstein in his home in Cromer, Norfolk, and even kept bodyguards to protect him. Locker-Lampson then took Einstein to visit Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, and Austen Chamberlain. Einstein requested them to help evacuate and save Jewish scientists from Germany, which Churchill responded to immediately by sending British physicist Frederick Lindemann to Germany to seek out Jewish scientists and place them in British universities.
Einstein also contacted and wrote to leaders of other nations to come to the aid of Jewish scientists. Upon receiving Einstein’s letter, Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu responded favorably by offering asylum and employment to over a thousand Jewish scientists.
Resident Scholar in the US
In late 1933, Albert Einstein received an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, to become a resident scholar. He accepted the offer.
In October, Einstein assumed his position at the Institute.
Two years later, he decided to remain permanently in America in spite of having offers from several universities across Europe. After making his decision, he eventually applied for citizenship, which he would receive in 1940.
Einstein admired the American way of life and appreciated the meritocracy system in American culture in which political power and economic goods are all vested in individual people based on their efforts, achievements, talents, and industry, rather than on their social class or wealth, or family connection, unlike in Europe.
He also admired the right of individuals in America to think and express as they pleased without worrying about social hierarchies and barriers, as a result of which people are allowed to be more creative and enterprising.
Views on Racism
Even though Albert Einstein admired many aspects of American life, he was not blind to the grave issues prevailing in American society. He often criticized the racism existing in America, calling it its worst disease handed down from one generation to the next.
In 1946, Einstein visited Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, which was the first university in America to grant college degrees to African Americans. In his speech after being awarded an honorary degree, he said he did not intend to be quiet about the racism prevalent in America.
Einstein once even paid the college tuition for an African American student at Princeton and became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Princeton to actively campaign for the civil rights of African Americans.
Perhaps his most telling and significant contribution was when he was ready to testify on behalf of civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois during Bois’ trial in 1951. When Einstein offered to be a character witness for Du Bois, the judge decided to drop the case.
Einstein would later remark that being a Jew himself, he could perhaps understand and empathize with how African Americans felt being victims of discrimination.
Religious, Philosophical, and Political Views
Albert Einstein often described himself as a deeply religious nonbeliever, who did not believe in any personal God who concerned himself and judged the actions of human beings. He considered such a view naive.
However, he stated that he was not an atheist, but more of an agnostic. He also did not believe in an afterlife, remarking that one life was more than enough for him.
Einstein’s well-known affiliations with Ethical Culture and non-religious humanist groups such as the New York Society for Ethical Culture, the First Humanist Society of New York, and the Rationalist Association in the UK, point to the fact that he believed in a more humanist and ethical kind of philosophy devoid of any religious rituals and superstitions.
As regards his political views, they often changed with time, and rightly so. Being a founding member of the German Democratic Party, he began leaning more toward socialism later in life, criticizing capitalism.
Einstein also grew to admire Vladimir Lenin, praising his total sacrifice of his own person to commit his entire time and energy to realize social justice. And even though Einstein did not agree with the methods used by Lenin, he believed men such as Lenin were guardians and renewers of mankind’s conscience.
The great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi was another figure whom Einstein admired. He was deeply impressed by Gandhi’s method and philosophy of non-violence and non-cooperation to achieve freedom from the British. He even exchanged letters with Gandhi, describing him as a role model for the generations to come. The two even expressed their mutual desire to meet each other in person, although that day would never arrive.
Einstein was also an advocate of a democratic Global (or World) Government that would check the power of individual nation-states in the framework of a world federation.
On 18th April 1955, Albert Einstein, aged 76, died in the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro after having experienced internal bleeding caused by the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which had previously been reinforced surgically in 1948.
Einstein’s body was cremated in Trenton, New Jersey, and his ashes were scattered at an undisclosed location.
All his personal archives, intellectual assets, and library were inherited by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.
Einstein’s death was mourned by people and prominent personalities all across the world.
Albert Einstein is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential scientists in history.
His name and look have now become synonymous with the word Genius, thereby cementing his legacy as the quintessential genius scientist who changed the world.
Einstein is now a widely admired icon in the scientific world and outside of it, one who stood for peace and was against war and destruction. A year before his death, he would remark that signing the letter and meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to try and convince him to focus on developing atom bombs before the Germans did so, was the one great mistake of his life.
It is said that Einstein’s letter, written along with Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard, and his meeting with Roosevelt were what convinced the President to develop nuclear weapons.
In order to counter his mistake, in 1955, Einstein, along with ten other scientists and intellectuals, including British philosopher Bertrand Russell, signed a manifesto highlighting the dangers of nuclear weapons.
Einstein was more than just a scientist interested only in his chosen field. He was regarded as a world citizen, a pacifist, and a peace activist. He assisted in zionist and humanist causes and often used his influence and stature to highlight and end discrimination and injustice.
On the scientific front, little needs to be said of Einstein’s achievements. He published over 300 scientific papers and over 150 non-scientific ones. At the time of his death, his papers comprised more than 30,000 unique documents.
Although he was unsuccessful in trying to develop a unified field theory and in refuting the accepted interpretation of quantum physics, his work is considered the greatest contribution to modern physics.
One thing is certain, Albert Einstein is one of the greatest human beings to have ever lived.