Albert Einstein was among the greatest scientists and most creative thinkers who ever lived. His theories changed the way physicists think about the universe, treating energy and matter as interchangeable and linking space with time and gravitation. His status as an icon of genius, coupled with his spiritual and compassionate nature, made him an important voice in world affairs as well.
Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany. His family soon moved to Munich, where Einstein's early schooling took place. The regimentation of nineteenth-century German education held little appeal for the imaginative, curious boy, and his teachers were not particularly impressed by his promise. However, two of his uncles encouraged his fascination with mathematics and science, while his mother arranged for him to study the violin, an interest that would remain with him all his life. Einstein completed his formal education at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, studying physics and mathematics. After graduation he obtained employment in the Swiss patent office at Bern and married Mileva Maric, whom he had met at the university. In 1905 he became a Swiss citizen.
The patent office was a quiet place, affording Einstein plenty of time to think. He occupied himself with theoretical physics, and in 1905 he published several papers in the prestigious journal Annalen der Physik. The first, entitled "A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions," prompted the University of Zurich to award a Ph.D. to the patent clerk. With the remaining papers Einstein revolutionized three branches of physics.
One of his papers explained Brownian motion, the irregular movements of microscopic particles in a liquid or gas, in terms of the atomic theory of matter. Another modeled light as a stream of tiny massless particles, or quanta, thereby explaining the photoelectric effect, in which light hitting metal causes it to release electrons. Understanding the photoelectric effect made possible the electric eye, television, and many other inventions. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for this work in 1921.
Einstein's third major development of 1905 was the special theory of relativity. He showed that time was not absolute; rather, it depended on the speed at which one's frame of reference moved in relation to the speed of light, c. For example, a space traveler making a long journey at an appreciable fraction of c would return to Earth noticeably younger than a homebound twin sibling. Finally, another paper that year put forth the famous equation E = mc2, relating matter and energy.
In 1909 the University of Zurich offered Einstein a professorship. He also taught at Prague and at his alma mater, the Federal Polytechnic Institute. In 1914 he was lured to the University of Berlin by Max Planck (1858-1947) and resumed his German citizenship. Mileva Einstein, vacationing with the couple's two sons in Switzerland, was unable to return to Berlin because of the outbreak of World War I, and eventually this separation led to divorce. Einstein later married his second cousin, Elsa.
Einstein published his general theory of relativity, describing gravity in terms of a curvature in spacetime, in 1916. He remained in Berlin until 1933, holding positions as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute and member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. This allowed him to concentrate on research, along with giving occasional lectures at the University of Berlin. With the rise of Nazism, Einstein fled to the United States, where he had been invited to join the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. He remained there for the rest of his life, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died on April 18, 1955.
The great scientist lived modestly in Princeton, being completely indifferent to money. Internationally famous and greatly respected, his opinion was often sought on world affairs. He had been forced to compromise his lifelong pacifism when he thought Adolf Hitler might obtain an atomic bomb, and he urged President Roosevelt to launch the Manhattan Project to build a bomb as a deterrent. He was profoundly saddened when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II, and thereafter advocated international law as the only way to prevent aggression between nations. Einstein supported Zionism and was offered the presidency of Israel in 1952, but he did not consider himself well suited for the job and thus declined the offer.
In his scientific work, Einstein spent his later life on a quest for an ultimate unified theory of physics. This effort was handicapped by his discomfort with quantum mechanics, in which physical quantities such as the position and velocity of atomic particles are considered as statistical probabilities that cannot be absolutely determined. Although he was not conventionally pious or observant in any orthodox sense, Einstein was deeply religious in his nature, compassionate, and a champion of the underprivileged. Many who had the good fortune to meet him felt that simply to be in his presence was a spiritual experience, as wisdom and kindness seemed to radiate from him. Quantum mechanics offended his sense of the order and beauty in the universe. "Subtle is the Lord," he once remarked, "but malicious He is not."