Albert Einstein Led Revolution in Physics in the 20th Century. He was one of the greatest scientists in world history, and was universally recognized for his playful sense of humor, commitment to world peace, and his genius. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. This theory explains gravitation as distortion of the structure of spacetime by matter, affecting the inertial motion of other matter.
Einstein’s earlier work on the special theory of relativity in 1905 dealt only with systems in unaccelerated motion with respect to each other. It showed that two observers moving at high speed will disagree about measurements of time and length intervals, that mass and energy are equivalent, and that the speed of light is the limiting speed of all bodies with mass.
In 1911, he asserted the equivalence of inertia and gravitation, and went on to complete his mathematical formulation of the general theory of relativity that included gravitation as a determinant of the curvature of the space-time continuum. At that time, he also contributed to the theory of statistical mechanics and radiation.
In the 1920’s, Einstein set out to build a unified field theory, which attempted to explain electromagnetism, gravitation and subatomic phenomena in one set of laws. But he never succeeded in developing such a theory.
He continued working on the probabilistic interpretation of quantum theory, becoming one of the leading figures in this field, though he considered it only a temporarily useful structure. He contributed to statistical mechanics with his development of the quantum theory of a monatomic gas, and also completed work in connection with atomic transition probabilities and relativistic cosmology.
Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, Einstein lived as a boy in Munich and Milan. He only began to talk at age 3, and had trouble with language in elementary school. His parents were told he would never become a professional and that he should attend a trade school. In fact, his teachers thought he was “borderline retarded.” Young Albert moved to a different school, which de-emphasized rote memorization and stressed creative thinking. His academic performance improved dramatically.
He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich in 1900. Unable to find a teaching post, he worked from 1902–09 as an examiner at the patent office in Bern, obtaining a doctorate at the University of Zürich in 1905.
While working at the patent office and in his spare time, Einstein produced most of his ground-breaking work on the special theory of relativity, the photoelectric effect, and the motion of atoms, on which he based his explanation of the Brownian movement of molecules.
He also investigated the thermal properties of light with low radiation density, and his observations laid the foundation of the photon theory of light. He realized the inadequacies of Newtonian mechanics and his special theory of relativity grew out of an attempt to reconcile the laws of mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field.
By 1909, his work attracted the attention of leading scientists, and he was offered an adjunct professorship at the University of Zürich. He resigned that position in 1910 to become a full professor at the German University in Prague, and two years later returned to Zurich to accept the chair of theoretical physics at the Federal Institute of Technology.
In 1913, he was invited by the Prussian Academy of Sciences to become professor of physics and director of theoretical physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He assumed these posts the following year and resumed his German citizenship. On May 29, 1919, Einstein’s general theory of relativity was confirmed by a total eclipse of the sun, and he won international fame.
He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in theoretical physics, particularly the photoelectric effect.
From German to American Citizenship
In the 1920’s, Einstein lectured in Europe, America and the Far East, and was awarded fellowships and memberships in the best scientific academies in the world. He won many awards, such as the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1925 and the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1935.
He remained in Berlin until the early 1930s. After his property was confiscated by the Nazi regime and he was deprived of his German citizenship because he was Jewish, he emigrated to America and was appointed professor of theoretical physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
As a pacifist and socialist, he was active in the cause of world peace. But in 1939, he wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt stressing the urgency of investigating the use of atomic energy in bombs. In 1940, he became an American citizen.
After World War II, he was a prominent figure in the world government movement, and was offered the presidency of the state of Israel, which he did not accept. He helped to establish the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In retirement, Einstein continued working on the unification of the basic concepts of physics, taking the opposite approach, geometrization, of most physicists.
Author of 100 Books
Einstein’s books include: Special Theory of Relativity (1905); General Theory of Relativity (1916); Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1918); Investigations on Theory of Brownian Movement (1926); About Zionism (1930); Why War? (1933); My Philosophy (1934); The World as I See It (1934); The Evolution of Physics (1938); Out of My Later Years (1950); Ideas and Opinions (1954); and Einstein on Peace (1960).
Einstein had a clear view of the problems of physics and was determined to solve them. He had his own strategy and could visualize all the stages toward his goal. He saw his main achievements as stepping stones to the next advance. He wanted his theories to possess the simplicity and beauty that he thought appropriate to an interpretation of the universe.
He received honorary doctorate degrees in philosophy, science and medicine from many American and European universities. He spent much of his time in intellectual solitude, and liked to listen to music, play the violin, and go sailing. He was married twice and was the father of three children.
“Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love,” he observed. “How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love? Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
He died on April 18, 1955, in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1999, Time magazine named him “person of the century.”