Albert Einstein:Perfectly Extraordinary Genius

Albert Einstein was a German-born physicist who developed the general theory of relativity. He is considered one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century.

Brief

Born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany in 1879, Albert Einstein had a passion for inquiry that eventually led him to develop the special and general theories of relativity. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect and immigrated to the U.S. in the following decade after being targeted by the Nazis. Einstein is generally considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century, with his work also having a major impact on the development of atomic energy. With a focus on unified field theory during his later years, Einstein died on April 18, 1955, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Early Life

Born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany, Albert Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish family. His father, Hermann Einstein, was a salesman and engineer who with his brother founded Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie, a Munich-based company that manufactured electrical equipment. His mother, the former Pauline Koch, ran the family household. Einstein had one sister, Maja, born two years after him.
Einstein attended elementary school at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. However, he felt alienated there and struggled with the institution’s rigid pedagogical style. He also had what were considered to be speech challenges, though he developed a passion for classical music and playing the violin that would stay with him into his later years. Most significantly, Einstein’s youth was marked by deep inquisitiveness and inquiry.

Towards the end of the 1880s, Max Talmud, a Polish medical student who sometimes dined with the Einstein family, became an informal tutor to young Albert. Talmud had introduced his pupil to a children’s science text that inspired Einstein to dream about the nature of light. Thus, during his teens, Einstein penned what would be seen as his first major paper, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.”

Switzerland Native

Hermann Einstein relocated the family to Milan, Italy, in the mid-1890s after his business lost out on a major contract. Albert was left at a relative’s boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Faced with military duty when he turned of age, Albert allegedly withdrew from classes, using a doctor’s note to excuse himself and claim nervous exhaustion. With their son rejoining them in Italy, his parents understood Einstein’s perspective but were concerned about his future prospects as a school dropout and draft dodger.
Einstein was eventually able to gain admission into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, specifically due to his superb mathematics and physics scores on the entrance exam. He was still required to complete his pre-university education first, and thus attended a high school in Aarau, Switzerland helmed by Jost Winteler. Einstein lived with the schoolmaster’s family and fell in love with Wintelers’ daughter, Marie. Einstein later renounced his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen at the dawn of the new century.

Marriage and Family

While attending school in Zurich, Einstein developed lasting friendships and alliances, also meeting his future wife, Mileva Maric, a Serbian physics student.
After graduating from Polytechnic, Einstein faced major challenges in terms of finding academic positions, having alienated some professors over not attending class more regularly in lieu of studying independently. Meanwhile, Einstein continued to grow closer to Maric, but his parents were strongly against the relationship due her ethnic background. Nonetheless, Einstein continued to see her, with the two developing a correspondence via letters in which he expressed many of his scientific ideas. In 1902 the couple had a daughter, Lieserl, who might have been later raised by Maric’s relatives or given up for adoption. Her ultimate fate and whereabouts remain a mystery.
Einstein eventually found steady work in 1902 after receiving a referral for a clerk position in a Swiss patent office. Einstein’s father passed away shortly thereafter, and the young scientist married Milena Maric on Jan. 6, 1903. The couple went on to have two sons, Hans and Eduard.
The marriage would not be a happy one, however, with the two divorcing in 1919 and Maric having an emotional breakdown in connection to the split. Einstein, as part of a settlement, agreed to give Maric any funds he might receive from possibly winning the Nobel Prize in the future. He had also begun an affair some time earlier with a cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, whom Einstein wed during the same year of his divorce. He would continue to see other women throughout his second marriage, which ended with Löwenthal’s death in 1936.

Magical Year

While working at the patent office, Einstein had the time to further ideas that had taken hold during his studies at Polytechnic and thus cemented his theorems on what would be known as the principle of relativity.
In 1905—seen by many as a “miracle year” for the theorist—Einstein had four papers published in the Annalen der Physik, one of the best known physics journals of the era. The four papers focused on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, the special theory of relativity (the most widely circulated of the write-ups) and the matter/energy relationship, thus taking physics in an electrifying new direction. In his fourth paper, Einstein came up with the equation E=mc2, suggesting that tiny particles of matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy, foreshadowing the development of atomic power.

Famed quantum theorist Max Planck backed up the assertions of Einstein, who thus became a star of the lecture circuit and academia, taking on various positions before becoming director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933.

Relativity and Nobel Prize

In November, 1915, Einstein completed the general theory of relativity, which he considered the culmination of his life research. He was convinced of the merits of general relativity because it allowed for a more accurate prediction of planetary orbits around the sun, which fell short in Issac Newton’s theory, and for a more expansive, nuanced explanation of how gravitational forces worked. Einstein’s assertions were affirmed via observations and measurements by British astronomers Sir Frank Dyson and Sir Arthur Eddington during the 1919 solar eclipse, and thus a global science icon was born.
In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics though he wasn’t actually given the award until the following year due to a bureaucratic ruling. Because his ideas on relativity were still considered questionable, he received the prize for his explanation of the photoelectric effect though Einstein still opted to speak about relativity during his acceptance speech.
In the development of his general theory, Einstein had held on to the belief that the universe was a fixed, static entity, aka a “cosmological constant,” though his later theories directly contradicted this idea and asserted that the universe could be in a state of flux.  Astronomer Edwin Hubble deduced that we indeed inhabit an expanding universe, with the two scientists meeting at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles in 1930.
While Einstein was travelling and speaking internationally, the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, were gaining prominence with violent propaganda and vitriol in an impoverished post-WWI Germany. The party influenced other scientists to label Einstein’s work “Jewish physics.” Jewish citizens were barred from university work and other official jobs, and Einstein himself was targeted to be killed.

U.S. and Atomic Energy

In 1933, Einstein took on a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey and never went back to his native land. It was here that he would spend the rest of his life working on a unified field theory—an all-embracing paradigm meant to unify the varied laws of physics. Other European scientists also left regions threatened by Germany and immigrated to the states, with there being concern over Nazi strategies to create an atomic weapon.
In 1939, Einstein and fellow physicist Lio Szilard wrote to Prez  F.D. Roosevelt to alert him of the possibility of a Nazi bomb and to galvanize the United States to create its own nuclear weapons. The U.S. would eventually initiate the Manhattan Project, though Einstein would not take direct part in its implementation due to his pacifist and socialist affiliations. Einstein was also the recipient of much scrutiny and major distrust from FBI director J.E. Hoover.
Not long after he began his career at Princeton, Einstein expressed an appreciation for American “meritocracy” and the opportunities people had for free thought, a stark contrast to his own experiences coming of age. In 1935, Einstein was granted permanent residency in his adopted country and became an American citizen a few years later. During WWII, he worked on Navy-based weapons systems and made big monetary donations to the military by auctioning off manuscripts worth millions.

Global and Domestic Activism

After learning of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Einstein became a major player in efforts to curtail usage of the a-bomb. The following year he and Szilard founded the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, and in 1947, via an essay for The Atlantic Monthly, Einstein espoused working with the United Nations to maintain nuclear weapons as a deterrent to conflict.

Around this time, Einstein also became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, seeing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany and African Americans in the United States. He corresponded with scholar/activist W.E.B Du Bois as well as performing artist Paul Robeson and campaigned for civil rights, calling racism a “disease” in a 1946 Lincoln University speech.
After the war, Einstein continued to work on his unified field theory and key aspects of the theory of general relativity, such as wormholes, the possibility of time travel, the existence of black holes and the creation of the universe. However, he became increasingly isolated from the rest of the physics community, whose eyes were set on quantum theory. In the last decade of his life, Einstein, who had always seen himself as a loner, withdrew even further from any sort of spotlight, preferring to stay close to Princeton and immerse himself in processing ideas with colleagues.

Final Years and Legacy

On April 17, 1955, while working on a speech to honor Israel’s seventh anniversary, Einstein suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He was taken to the University Medical Center at Princeton for treatment but refused surgery, believing that he had lived his life and was content to accept his fate. “I want to go when I want,” he stated at the time. “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” Einstein died at the university medical center early the next morning—April 18, 1955—at the age of 76.
During the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey removed Einstein’s brain, reportedly without the permission of his family, for preservation and future study by doctors of neuroscience. Einstein’s remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location, following his wishes. After decades of study, Einstein’s brain is now located at the Princeton University Medical Center. A veritable mountain of books have been written on the iconic thinker’s life, including Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson and Einstein: A Biography by Jürgen Neffe, both from 2007. Einstein’s own words are presented in the collection The World as I See It

Did You Know?

1. Einstein didn’t fail math as a child.

Underachieving school kids have long taken solace in the claim that Einstein flunked math as a youth, but the records show that he was actually an exceptional, if not reluctant, student. He scored high grades during his school days in Munich, and was only frustrated by what he described as the “mechanical discipline” demanded by his teachers. The future Nobel Laureate dropped out of school at age 15 and left Germany to avoid state-mandated military service, but before then he was consistently at the top of his class and was even considered something of a prodigy for his grasp of complex mathematical and scientific concepts. When later presented with a news article claiming he’d failed grade-school math, Einstein dismissed the story as a myth and said, “Before I was 15 I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”

2.No one knows what happened to his first daughter.

In 1896, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and enrolled at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich. There, he began a passionate love affair with Mileva Maric, a fellow physicist-in-training originally from Serbia. The couple later married and had two sons after graduating, but a year before they tied the knot, Maric gave birth to an illegitimate daughter named Lieserl. Einstein never spoke about the child to his family, and biographers weren’t even aware of her existence until examining his private papers in the late-1980s. Her fate remains a mystery to this day. Some scholars think Lieserl died from scarlet fever in 1903, while others believe she survived the sickness and was given up for adoption in Maric’s native Serbia.

3.It took Einstein nine years to get a job in academia.

Einstein showed flashes of brilliance during his years at the Zurich Polytechnic, but his rebellious personality and penchant for skipping classes saw his professors give him less than glowing recommendations upon his graduation in 1900. The young physicist later spent two years searching for an academic position before settling for a gig at the Swiss patent office in Bern. Though menial, the job turned out to be a perfect fit for Einstein, who found he could breeze through his office duties in a few hours and spend the rest of the day writing and conducting research. In 1905—often called his “miracle year”—the lowly clerk published four revolutionary articles that introduced his famous equation E=mc2 and the theory of special relativity. While the discoveries marked Einstein’s entrance onto the physics world stage, he didn’t win a full professorship until 1909—nearly a decade after he had left school.

4.He offered his wife his Nobel Prize as part of their divorce settlement.

After his marriage to Mileva Maric hit the rocks in the early 1910s, Einstein left his family, moved to Berlin and started a new relationship with his cousin, Elsa. He and Maric finally divorced several years later in 1919. As part of their separation agreement, Einstein promised her an annual stipend plus whatever money he might receive from the Nobel Prize—which he was supremely confident he would eventually win. Maric agreed, and Einstein later handed over a small fortune upon receiving the award in 1922 for his work on the photoelectric effect. By then, he had already remarried to Elsa, who remained his wife until her death in 1936.

5.A solar eclipse helped make Einstein world famous.

  In 1915, Einstein published his theory of general relativity, which stated that gravitational fields cause distortions in the fabric of space and time. Because it was such a bold rewriting of the laws of physics, the theory remained controversial until May 1919, when a total solar eclipse provided the proper conditions to test its claim that a supermassive object—in this case the sun—would cause a measurable curve in the starlight passing by it. Hoping to prove Einstein’s theory once and for all, English astronomer Arthur Eddington journeyed to the coast of West Africa and photographed the eclipse. Upon analyzing the pictures, he confirmed that the sun’s gravity had deflected the light by roughly 1.7 arc-seconds—exactly as predicted by general relativity. The news made Einstein an overnight celebrity. Newspapers hailed him as the heir to Sir Isaac Newton, and he went on to travel the world lecturing on his theories about the cosmos. According to Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson, in the six years after the 1919 eclipse, more than 600 books and articles were written about the theory of relativity.

6.The FBI spied on him for decades.

Shortly before Hitler rose to power in 1933, Einstein left Berlin for the United States and took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His support for pacifist, civil rights and left-wing causes had already drawn suspicion from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and after his arrival on American shores, the Bureau launched what would eventually become a 22-year surveillance campaign. Agents listened to the physicist’s phone calls, opened his mail and rooted through his trash in the hope of unmasking him as a subversive or a Soviet spy. They even investigated tips that he was building a death ray. The project came up empty handed, but by the time Einstein died in 1955, his FBI file totaled a whopping 1,800 pages.

7.Einstein urged the building of the atomic bomb—and later became a proponent of nuclear disarmament.

In the late-1930s, Einstein learned that new research had put German scientists on a path toward creating the atom bomb. The prospect of a doomsday weapon in the hands of the Nazis convinced him to set aside his pacifist principles and team up with Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who helped him write a letter urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt to conduct atomic research. Though Einstein never participated directly in the Manhattan Project, he later expressed deep regrets about his minor role in brining about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger,” he told Newsweek. He went on to become an impassioned advocate of nuclear disarmament, controls on weapons testing and unified world government. Shortly before his death in 1955, he joined with philosopher Bertrand Russell in signing the “Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” a public letter that stressed the risks of nuclear war and implored governments to “find peaceful means for the settlement of all disputes between them.”

8.He was asked to be president of Israel.

Though not traditionally religious, Einstein felt a deep connection to his Jewish heritage and often spoke out against anti-Semitism. He was never a staunch Zionist, but when head of state Chaim Weizmann died in 1952, the Israeli government offered to appoint him as the nation’s second president. The 73-year-old wasted little time in declining the honor. “All my life I have dealt with objective matters,” Einstein wrote in a letter to the Israeli ambassador, “hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official function.”

9.Einstein’s brain was stolen after his death.

Einstein died in April 1955 from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He had requested that his body be cremated, but in a bizarre incident, Princeton pathologist Thomas Harvey removed his famous brain during his autopsy and kept it in the hope of unlocking the secrets of his genius. After winning a reluctant approval from Einstein’s son, Harvey later had the brain cut into pieces and sent to various scientists for research. A handful of studies have been conduced on it since the 1980s, but most have either been dismissed or discredited. Perhaps the most famous came in 1999, when a team from a Canadian university published a controversial paper claiming Einstein possessed unusual folds on his parietal lobe, a part of the brain associated with mathematical and spatial ability.

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