March 14, 2013
In his 2007 biography of Albert Einstein, Walter Isaacson wrote: “Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness to break classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to nurture the creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person stands out as a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from oppression whose wild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity, and extraordinary brilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius.”
On Mar. 14, 1879, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Kingdom of Württemberg, in the German Empire.
His family moved to Munich the following year where his father and uncle started making direct current electrical equipment. The company failed in 1894, a casualty of the current conflict that saw Nicolas Tesla’s alternating current victorious over direct current electricity distribution. Einstein remained in Munich to complete his studies, and in 1895, started school in Switzerland. He renounced his Württemberg citizenship to avoid compulsory military service in 1896, and gained Swiss citizenship in 1901.
Einstein struggled to find a teaching position after graduating from ETH Zurich, but the father of a classmate helped him get a job as an assistant examiner at the Swiss Office of Intellectual Property reviewing patent applications. While working as an examiner, primarily evaluating questions of electrical signals and transmission, Einstein also examined his approach to physics, researching and writing papers. In 1905, he completed his doctoral thesis, “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions,” and was awarded a doctorate from the University of Zurich.
He also published four seminal papers in 1905, which came to be called his “Annus Miribilis” (miracle year) papers; he described his breakthrough thinking on the photoelectric effect (the paper was the first description of light as composed of discrete particles, later named photons), Brownian motion (he devised formulae that predicted kinetic motion), special relativity (which reconciled several theories and led to his fourth paper), and the equivalence of mass and energy (which is described by his famous equation). The papers made him a rising star, and got him a position as a lecturer at the University of Bern.
In 1907, he began evolving his general theory of relativity with a simple “thought experiment” of how gravity would be incorporated into the framework he proposed in 1905; he imagined an observer in free fall. After eight years of thinking, he presented to the Prussian Academy of Science what came to be called the Einstein field equations, which detail how space and time is influenced by matter and are the core of his general theory of relativity.
One of his general theory calculations was that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity. An expedition led by Sir Arthur Eddington to observe a solar eclipse on May 29, 1919, confirmed Einstein’s theory, and rocked the world of science. The popular press breathlessly grabbed the story with headlines like:
“Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe, Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” – Times of London.
“Lights all askew in the Heavens, Men of Science more or less agog over Eclipse Observations.” – New York Times.
Einstein’s fame reached far beyond the halls of academia.
In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, not for his theories on relativity, they were still too controversial, but for his 1905 work on the photoelectric effect.
In February 1933, while on a trip to the United States, Einstein decided not to return to Germany, and took a short-term position at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. On his return to Europe at the end of March, he learned that the Nazis had raided his home. Einstein was a non-observant Jew, but he was targeted by the new government. He renounced his German citizenship, and returned to the U.S. and a position at Princeton University.
He abandoned his lifelong pacifism and urged Western governments to prepare for Germany’s aggression.
When a group of Hungarian scientists could not get the American government’s attention in 1939 about the German research on an atomic bomb, Einstein agreed to sign a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt warning him of the threat.
Einstein became an American citizen in 1940.
He died on April 17, 1955.