Albert Einstein: The Life and Legacy of the Great Genius

The life and mind of one of the greatest thinkers and physicists the world has ever known.
John Loeffler
Albert Einstein at his office in the University of BerlinWikimedia Commons

It's hard to understate the genius of Albert Einstein. As one of the world's foremost physicists, his discoveries revolutionized the way we see not just our world but the entirety of the universe. It's little wonder how the name Einstein has come to be synonymous with scientific genius.

He is most well known for his theory of relativity, but his brilliance did not end there. He helped lay the foundations for quantum mechanics with his Nobel Prize-winning work on the photoelectric effect and was instrumental in bringing the world into the atomic age, though was generally opposed to the use of nuclear weapons.

By pushing our understanding of physics far beyond what anyone thought possible or could even imagine at the time, Einstein stands nearly alone in the pantheon of physicists with his unparalleled brilliance.

Early life and career

Albert Einstein As A Child
Albert Einstein as a child, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, to Hermann Einstein and Pauline Koch-Einstein, Ashkenazi Jews living in Ulm, the Kingdom of Württemberg in the southern part of the German Empire.

Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Munich, where his father and uncle founded an electrical equipment manufacturing company. Einstein began receiving a primary education at a Catholic school in 1885 before transferring to the Luitpold-Gymnasium (since renamed the Albert Einstein Gymnasium, for obvious reasons) in 1888.

Einstein was, surprisingly or maybe not so surprisingly, a mediocre student. So mediocre in fact that when Einstein wanted to attend the Eidgenoessische Polytechnische Schule (mercifully renamed ETH in later years) in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1895, he failed the entrance examination and had to attend the Kantonschule in Aarau, Switzerland, to remediate the subject areas whose test scores were insufficient.

Receiving a diploma from the school in 1896, he was able to enroll in ETH soon thereafter with the goal of becoming a math and physics teacher. Again, he was a passable student, but not much more than that, though he did manage to graduate with a diploma in July 1901.

By this point, he had already abandoned his German citizenship and had been formally granted Swiss citizenship in February 1901. He spent several months looking for a job, giving private instruction in math and physics to make ends meet, and taking short-term employment as a teacher from May 1901 to January 1902. 

Swiss patent office

Albert Einstein's turn as the world's most famous patent clerk started with the help of a fellow student, Marcel Grossman, who helped get Einstein a probationary appointment at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, where he had settled after school.

Einstein took up the position in December 1901 and by June 1902, he was promoted to Technical Expert, Third Class, giving him some measure of stability, and allowing him to pursue his research in theoretical physics.

At this time, he was also a founding member of the Akademie Olympia, a scientific society in Bern that greatly helped focus Einstein's work and thinking in the field of physics.

In April 1905, Einstein submitted a doctoral thesis to the University of Zurich titled, "A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions" which he had dedicated to Grossman. It was accepted by the University in July of that year, but by then Einstein was already well on his way to revolutionizing our understanding of the universe.

Albert Einstein's 'Miracle Year'

To say that the year 1905 was a landmark year for science is grossly underselling it. Einstein, still working as a "technical expert" in the Swiss patent office, published four revolutionary scientific papers in a span of just 7 months that would establish him as one of the greatest scientific minds of the time. Einstein later described the period by saying that it was when “a storm broke loose in my mind.”

The first of the papers was "On A Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light," which was the first paper to theorize that electromagnetic radiation, including light, consisted of "quanta".

The paper argued that, in effect, radiation was carried through space by means of measurable particles which we know today as photons. Interestingly, this theory was rejected at first before it was eventually confirmed by Max Planck, who was initially critical of the theory himself. For this discovery, Einstein would win the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics.

The next paper was published on July 18, 1905, titled, “On the movement of small particles suspended in a stationary liquid, as required by the molecular-kinetic theory of heat.” Although it did not revolutionize the principles of physics, Einstein demonstrated through the physical phenomenon of Brownian motion empirical evidence that matter is composed of atoms. Although many scientists already believed this, it was by no means universally accepted. Einstein not only mathematically confirmed the existence of atoms and molecules but also opened a new field in the study of physics, statistical physics.

Einstein wasn't done, however. His next paper, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies", and published in September 1905, was the most groundbreaking. It introduced the idea of Special Relativity, which addresses the problem of objects in different coordinate systems moving relative to each other at constant speeds.

It produced a new conception of space that would lay the groundwork for Einstein's theory of general relativity that would come later, and also established that as an object accelerates towards the speed of light, its mass also increases, which requires more energy to accelerate, which then adds even more mass to the object. As a result, as an object effectively approaches the speed of light, its mass becomes infinite, making the speed of light the effective speed limit for all matter.

His next paper that year, "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend upon its Energy Content?" was published in November 1905, and gave the mathematical proof of special relativity, confirming the equivalence of mass and energy, and introducing arguably the most famous equation in human history, E = mc2.

Finally, in 1907, Einstein published "Planck's Theory of Radiation and the Theory of Specific Heat", which was a foundational work of quantum mechanics.

Einstein's Theories of Special and General Relativity

While Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity was revolutionary in its own right, between 1909 and 1916, Einstein worked on a more general form of this theory that would be published in March 1916 as, "The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity".

This paper was absolutely transformative. While Einstein's work on Special Relativity required an advanced understanding of math and physics, his theory of general relativity was much more accessible, owing to its elegance and (relative) simplicity.

Einstein envisioned gravity not as a force the way Newton described it but describing space and time as a fabric stretching out in all directions. If that space is empty, an object moving through it would travel in a straight line. But if that space has a massive object in the center, like the Sun, then the fabric of space warps toward that center of mass, turning the flat fabric of space into a kind of funnel.

An object passing through that space is affected by the shape of that funnel so that it no longer travels in straight lines through that space but instead gets pulled toward the mass in the center, effectively rolling down the slope of space towards the mass in the center.

Critically, if the speed of something passing through that space is great enough, like light, then it is not pulled into the center mass entirely, but its course is instead refracted as a consequence of the gravitational effect of that massive object.

It was this aspect of Einstein's theory that would help cement his reputation. Convinced that this deflection of light from distant stars could be seen in the gravitational field produced by the sun during a solar eclipse, Einstein sought but failed to verify his theory personally. In 1919, however, English astronomer Arthur Eddington and French astronomer Andrew Crommelin observed the deflection of light at two separate locations during the May 29 eclipse that year.

Confirmation of Einstein's prediction was announced on November 6, 1919, during a meeting in London of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society. Joseph John Thompson, the Royal Society's president, declared that "This is the most important result related to the theory of gravitation since the days of Newton...This result is among the greatest achievements of human thinking."

Confirmation of Einstein's theory of gravitation was printed on the front page of newspapers around the world, establishing him forevermore in the public consciousness as the greatest scientific mind since Isaac Newton, and possibly even greater.

Academic career

The University Of Zurich
The University Of Zurich, Switzerland, one of the places Einstein taught as a professor, Source: Roland zh/Wikimedia Commons

While Einstein was working out his theory of general relativity, he had already established himself in 1905 as a brilliant scientist. He still had trouble landing an academic position for himself, though, being rejected by the University of Bern in 1907 for a professorial position. He was successful on his second go-around a year later, however, and landed a position in 1908, giving his first lecture as a professor at the end of that year.

Devoting himself to his scientific endeavors, he gave up his post with the patent office in 1909 and bounced around between Bern, Zurich, and Prague until 1914, when Planck and German chemist Walther Nernst convinced Einstein to take up a post in Berlin, then the world's epicenter for natural science research.

They offered him a non-teaching professorship at Berlin University, made him a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and made him the head of the yet-to-be-founded Kaiser Wilhelm Insitute of Physics.

World Tour, Einstein's xenophobic views, and enduring anti-Semitic attacks

Albert Einstein and His Second Wife, Elsa, Traveling In 1921
Albert Einstein and His Second Wife, Elsa, Traveling In 1921, Source: Library of Congress

Einstein's global popularity led to invitations to speak from around the world, offers Einstein took up, traveling to the United States, France, Britain, Palestine, and elsewhere.

Einstein traveled to Asia as well, and contrary to his public image as a great humanitarian who decried racism as "a disease of white people," his travel diaries from that time expressed some sweeping and negative generalizations of the people he met in Asia, especially the Chinese.

People are a study in contradictions, and Einstein could both believe that racism was social cancer while holding some particularly abhorrent views himself. And while many of his recently published personal papers were written in the early 1920s, when such opinions would not have been seen as particularly out of the mainstream, this certainly does not absolve him - although he also clearly changed over time.

This is especially true as he himself was the subject of some especially ugly anti-Semitic attacks from those inside the scientific community and among the broader public. There were those in Germany, including Nobel laureates like Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard, who advocated for a "German physics" separate from "Jewish physics".

The Rise of Nazi Germany and Emigration to the United States

Adolf Hitler Announces The 'Peaceful' Annexation Of Austria In The Reichstag
Adolf Hitler announces the 'peaceful' Annexation Of Austria In the Reichstag, March 1938, Source: National Archives

In December 1932, Einstein and his wife Elsa left for the United States for a series of lectures just as the Nazi Party was on the rise, having secured the most seats in the German parliament elections held earlier that year. In January 1933, Adolf Hitler seized power and in response, Einstein cut all ties with any scientific and academic institution in Germany that he had, including resigning from the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He would never again return to Germany.

Now more or less a refugee, Einstein was quickly given a position at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ. He bought a house there, the famous 112 Mercer Street.

In 1940, Einstein was formally granted US citizenship and renounced his German citizenship for the second time – though he retained his Swiss citizenship. He would live the rest of his life in the United States.

Einstein was a committed pacifist, but his horror at the thought of Nazi Germany working on atomic weapons compelled him to sign a letter to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt that raised the alarm, recommending that the United States begin researching atomic weaponry as well.

Though this would be Einstein's only direct involvement in the Manhattan Project, giving his imprimatur to the effort certainly helped make the case for the project, and his famous equation equating mass and energy was fundamental to the project's development.

Later career

Einstein spent the rest of his life pursuing a unified field theory but was unable to make any breakthroughs in this area. His contemporaries had become enamored with some of what he regarded as the stranger aspects of quantum mechanics, which Einstein criticized.

Rejecting the use of probability and randomness in describing quantum effects, Einstein famously declared that, "[God] does not play dice with the universe."

This disagreement and his failure to make major progress in his work on unified field theory led to his isolation from the scientific community in his later years, though Einstein did not appear to be bitter about this fact.

Death and legacy

An Official Portait Of Albert Einstein
Source: Library of Congress

On April 15, 1955, Albert Einstein suffered debilitating pain and was rushed to a hospital in Princeton. He was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his abdominal aorta, and doctors were unable to save him.

Einstein died on April 18, 1955. In accordance with his will, he was cremated that day and his ashes spread at an unknown location. Though his later career proved to be mostly fruitless, he exerted a substantial gravity of his own on those around him, even helping the likes of Niels Bohr refine the principles of quantum mechanics by virtue of his critiques of it.

Einstein's work redefined the universe as we know it and gave us the clearest, most elegant model to date to help even the layman understand it. The foundation he laid for theoretical physics has led to the discovery of gravitational lensing and the greatest cosmological monsters of all, black holes.

Albert Einstein, like Isaac Newton and other great minds before him, surely stood on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, but few giants have ever stood as tall as Einstein and it may be centuries before we see so revolutionary a scientific figure.

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