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Albert Einstein

See Also: Albert Einstein's Wit and Wisdom

Albert Einstein was an influential 20th century theoretical physicist, and one of the most famous scientists of all time. His expressive face and “wild” hairstyle are instantly recognizable and have become part of pop culture, as portrayed in caricatures of mad scientists and absent-minded professors. Einstein’s association with great intelligence has made the name “Einstein” synonymous with genius, often in ironic expressions such as “Nice job, Einstein!” Like many creative geniuses throughout history, Einstein was largely self-educated. While it is common knowledge that Einstein had difficulty in school, and although technically he wasn’t actually homeschooled, Einstein self- taught himself in every sense, particularly in the field of mathematics.

Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany on March 14, 1879, the first child of Hermann Einstein and his wife Pauline. His younger sister was named Maja. Albert’s father was a salesman and his mother was a musician. Both of his parents were Jewish, but they did not actively practice their religion. Albert spent his early life in Munich, where his father and uncle operated a small manufacturing company that produced electrical equipment based on direct current. Albert’s interest in science was stimulated by Uncle Jakob, an engineer, and Max Talmud, a medical student who ate dinner once a week at the Einsteins’ home.

As a young boy, Albert was a slow learner and his parents worried about their son’s intellectual development. Some have pondered whether he may have had dyslexia or Asperger’s syndrome. Albert didn’t start speaking until he was 4 years old and he wasn’t fluent until age 9. Einstein later credited his theory of relativity to this slowness: “The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have.”

From an early age, Albert had a brilliant curiosity and was fascinated by the laws of nature. He recalled experiencing a deep feeling of wonder when puzzling over a pocket compass that his father showed him. The needle’s invariable northward swing, guided by an invisible force, profoundly impressed young Einstein. Albert was only 5 at the time, but realizing that something in “empty” space acted upon the needle, he later described the experience as one of the most revelatory of his life. The compass convinced him that there had to be “something behind things, something deeply hidden,” inspiring a lifelong quest to investigate the mysteries of the natural world.

Despite his natural inquisitiveness, Albert was unhappy in school. According to a story that he later told his son Hans Albert, “his teachers reported that . . . he was mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams.” Einstein attributed his school problems to a disdain for compulsion, a tendency to do things his own way, and an unwillingness to do the work required by his teachers. He wrote that the spirit of discovery and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning. Biographer Albrecht Fölsing, author of Albert Einstein: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1997), described him as an exceptionally bright, self-motivated learner who could get good scores when he wanted to, but refused to waste his time with school activities in which he saw little value.

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Einstein was 15 years old when he left school “with poor grades in history, geography, and languages.” Although uninterested in other subjects, Albert had an innate ability to understand complicated mathematical concepts by learning them through independent study. He had settled into his own program of self-education by age 10, in which his real studies were done at home. Uncle Jakob lent him a book of algebra and sent him math puzzles to solve. Albert’s parents purchased his textbooks in advance so that he could read them over summer vacation. At age 12 he taught himself Euclidian geometry (the study of points, lines, and surfaces), having been greatly impressed by its clear and certain proofs. By the age of 15, Albert had mastered differential and integral calculus (a higher form of mathematics used to solve problems in physics and engineering).

When he wasn’t reading or thinking, Einstein preferred to spend his free time playing with blocks, construction model sets, building houses out of cards, or going on long walks in the mountains where he had freedom to let his mind wander. Einstein’s other favorite pastime was playing the violin, an instrument that he studied from ages 6 to 13, and which he continued to play throughout his life. Einstein was especially fond of Mozart music because it helped him to think. Hazel Cheilek, orchestra director at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, explains, “Einstein said he got some of his greatest inspirations while playing violin. It liberated his brain so that he could imagine.” Thus, the “Mozart Effect” owes its roots to Albert Einstein.

Einstein’s parents wanted him to pursue a career in electrical engineering. Without a high school diploma, Einstein applied to the Polytechnic Institute at Zurich, Switzerland. He failed the entrance examination although he got exceptional marks in the mathematics and physics sections. Einstein described himself as “a conscientious but unassuming young man who had acquired his meagre store of pertinent knowledge of the essentials through self study...Eager for deeper understanding but endowed with few prerequisites and burdened with a poor memory.” It was around this time that Albert first performed his famous thought experiment, visualizing himself traveling alongside a beam of light.

On the advice of the principal at the institute, the Einsteins sent Albert to the Cantonal School in Aarau, Switzerland to finish secondary school. In 1896 he graduated at age 17, renounced his German citizenship to avoid military service, and was automatically enrolled in the mathematics program at the Polytechnic Institute. Einstein did not enjoy the methods of instruction at this school, either; and realizing that he was more interested in physics than mathematics, he regularly skipped lectures and spent considerable time learning physics on his own. Einstein passed his exams and was able to graduate by studying the notes of a classmate; but after graduation, he could not find a job. This was probably due to a lack of good references since he had not earned the respect of his professors.

For two years, Einstein worked as a tutor and substitute teacher while seeking a better position. In 1902 he was hired by the Swiss Patent Office. As an assistant examiner, Einstein was responsible for evaluating all of the new patent applications for electromagnetic devices. In 1903 he married Mileva Maric, who had been his classmate at the Polytechnic Institute. They had one daughter, born prior to their marriage and given up for adoption, and two sons. The couple eventually divorced, and Einstein later married his cousin Elsa after she had nursed him through an illness. Einstein went on to receive a Ph.D. from Zurich University in 1905, for which he published three theoretical papers of great importance to the development of 20th-century physics.

In his paper on Brownian motion, Einstein developed a mathematical formula to explain that the visible motion of particles suspended in liquid was due to the invisible motion of the molecules of the liquid. This theory was later confirmed by experiment. Einstein’s second paper, on the photoelectric effect, contained a revolutionary hypothesis concerning the nature of light. Einstein predicted that under certain circumstances light can be considered as consisting of particles, or photons. He also suggested that, when photons of light strike certain metals, electrons are released from these metals in the form of electrical energy. This phenomenon is called the photoelectric effect, and it became the basis for the photoelectric cell - and led to the invention of television. To explain the photoelectric concept, Einstein utilized an idea called quantum theory that had been proposed in 1900 by the German physicist Mac Planck. Einstein’s paper was the first use of the quantum theory outside of Planck's own work.

For his third paper, Einstein wrote “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which contained a groundbreaking idea that greatly influenced modern science. In 1916 he republished a more complete version of this theory, called a “Special Theory of Relativity.” Einstein’s theory showed that matter and energy are really two different forms of the same thing. From a certain point of view, we can say that all matter is in motion. Since energy is another name for matter in motion, matter is just another way of saying that something has energy. If a piece of matter starts moving faster, its energy will increase. Since matter and energy are the same, its mass will also increase. If its velocity should equal the velocity of light, both its mass and energy would become infinitely large. Since this is impossible, we say that no object can travel at the speed of light, except light. All of the other things get compressed; only the speed of light remains the same. This is because energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc2.

There are many kinds of energy (light, heat, sound, electrical, atomic, etc.), and Einstein tried to explain how all of these different kinds of energy are related to matter and to each other. For example, the speed of an object depends on how it is being viewed. A car may be moving at 60 MPH in relation to the pavement which is standing still, but the car will be moving only 20 MPH compared with another car moving in the same direction at 40 MPH. In this sense, all motion is relative. Einstein’s theory concluded that time, weight, and mass are not constant; that all measurements of time and space depend on judgments. Einstein also predicted the bending of starlight in the vicinity of a massive body such as the sun. The confirmation of this latter phenomenon during a solar eclipse in 1919 spread Einstein’s fame worldwide.

Einstein’s mathematical formulas suggested that when even a little bit of mass is changed into energy, a whole lot of energy is released. This provided the key to unlocking the knowledge of atomic energy and the power within the atom. In the years since Einstein announced his theory of relativity, new technology enabled many physicists to study atomic particles, proving that Einstein’s ideas were correct and that a small piece of matter can be changed into a huge amount of energy. The truth of this bold new idea became reality with the explosion of the first atomic bomb in 1945. Einstein initially favored construction of the atomic bomb by the U.S. to ensure that Hitler did not do so first. He even sent a letter dated August 2, 1939, to President Roosevelt encouraging him to initiate such a program. Roosevelt responded by setting up a committee for the investigation of using nuclear weapons, which in a few years was superseded by the Manhattan Project.

Although he had encouraged the United States to build the atom bomb to defeat Adolf Hitler, Einstein was saddened when he learned that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. After the war, Einstein dedicated himself to the cause of world peace and worked diligently to find ways to control such weapons. He lobbied for nuclear disarmament along with a ban on nuclear tests and bombs. For the rest of his life, Einstein urged mankind to use atomic energy for peaceful purposes - such as atomic power - and not warfare.

Einstein had moved to the U.S. immediately after Adolf Hitler came to power, and he became a U.S. citizen in 1940. Einstein worked as a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He was one of the world’s greatest thinkers, yet he never learned how to drive a car. Einstein’s work, like that of all scientists, was based on the theories and achievements of great thinkers and scientists before him. Similarly, his contributions have become part of the foundation of knowledge for future scientists, as college students of physics, mathematics, and chemistry study how our universe operates. The ninety-ninth element in the periodic table, which was discovered shortly after Einstein's death in 1955, was named “einsteinium” in his honor.

Einstein spent much of his life trying to find a balance between science and spirituality, becoming more philosophical in his later years. Though Einstein disdained religious rituals and did not have a personal relationship with God, he did believe in a superior intelligence that manifested itself in the beauty of nature and he considered himself to be a deeply religious man. By his 50’s, Einstein had expressed what he called the “spirit manifest in the laws of the universe,” and spoke of his sincere belief in a “God who reveals Himself in the harmony of all that exists.” Einstein declared that he was not an atheist, stating “…there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.”

In an interview for Time magazine, Einstein explained how he believed that man could never understand the nature of God: “The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

In addition to his scientific pursuits, Einstein was an outspoken advocate of pacifism, democracy, internationalism, human rights and human dignity. He was a lifelong supporter of Jewish causes, especially cultural Zionism. Although Einstein did not observe Jewish traditions, he appreciated the core beliefs of Judaism and the fact that Jews have been united throughout the centuries by a reverence for truth, a democratic ideal of social justice, and a desire for personal independence. While some philosophers have attributed to Einstein the relativist idea that moral and ethical truth exists only in the eye of the beholder, Einstein never held such a view and in fact believed just the opposite. All of Einstein’s theories, including relativity, were based upon a quest for absolutes. The foundation of morality, he believed, was living in a way that benefited humanity. Thus, Einstein transformed the image of the scientist from an insensitive laboratory geek to a public personality deeply concerned about the fate of mankind.

See Also: Albert Einstein's Wit and Wisdom

References: (Timeline of Albert Einstein's Life) (Einstein: Image and Impact, from the AIP Center for History of Physics),9171,1607298-1,00.html (TIME magazine article, “Einstein and Faith.”) (The Young Einstein: The Advent of Relativity, by Lewis Pyenson.) (Albert Einstein biography, from Zephyrus Education.) (Famous Right Brains, by Barbara Pytel) (Nobel Prize winners who hated school.) (Homeschooled Scientists) (Albert Einstein Study Guide from SparkNotes.)

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