Where would modern physics be without the genius of Albert Einstein? His work has provided the basis for understanding more of the basic laws of physics. His work on the general theory of relativity remains one of the seminal pieces of thinking about the Universe.
Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm in Germany, and he began his schooling in munich in 1886. He began to study the violin at age 6 and continued playing through most of his life until his death in 1955.
His love was mathematics, and he began the study of calculus at age 12. He failed an entrance exam that would have enabled him to study for a diploma in electrical engineering at age 16, and decided to devote himself to becoming a teacher of mathematics and physics. He attended a school in Zurich and graduated in 1900. He renounced his German citizenship in 1896, and was granted Swiss citizenship in 1901.
He taught in a series of schools for 2 years, then took a position with the Swiss Patent Office in Bern in 1902, where he remained until 1909. He continued his studies on his own during this time, publishing a number of papers on theoretical physics. He earned his doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1905, writing a thesis entitled “On a new determination of molecular dimensions.”
In a series of three papers, all written in 1905, Einstein solidified his reputation as a premier thinker. He first used Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis to describe the electromagnetic radiation of light. He then proposed what would come to be called the special theory of relativity. He based the theory on a reinterpretation of the principle of relativity or that all laws of physics had to have the same form in any frame of reference. He also assumed that the speed of light remained constant in all frames of reference.
In his third paper that year, Einstein showed how mass and energy were equivalent and went on to discuss statistical mechanics. He continued working within these areas for the next two years and made important contributions to quantum theory. However, he wanted to extend the theory of relativity to include phenomena involving acceleration. He showed that gravitational mass was equivalent to inertial mass.
He left the Patent Office in 1909 and accepted a series of positions at universities, first the university of Bern as a lecturer, then at the University of Zurich as a physics professor. In 1911, he was appointed a full professor at Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague, and while there made a series of preliminary predictions about how a ray of light from a distant star would bend slightly in the direction of the Sun as it passed the Sun. This ultimately led to the first experimental evidence in support of his theory.
In 1912, Einstein began a new phase of gravitational research, and called this work his general theory of relativity. During this phase, he returned to the University of Zurich, then moved back to Germany in 1914 and was offered the directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin. In 1915, he published his definitive theory of general relativity to broad acclaim within the scientific community. When the British Eclipse Expedition confirmed his predictions in 1919, the acclaim spread to the popular community as well through the press.
In 1920, his lectures were interrupted by a series of what were certainly anti-Jewish demonstrations. His colleagues, both German and non-German, Jewish and non-Jewish were vocal in their support of him and his work. He first visited the US in 1921 and was surprised with both the interest in and support of his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 but not for his work on general relativity. Rather it was awarded for work he had done in 1905 on the photoelectric effect.
In 1928, Einstein suffered a physical collapse brought on by the workload he assumed and his travel. He was unable to work and travel for most of that year, andspent some time in the hospital. By 1930, he was working again with colleagues, expanding and refining elements of his theory.
In December of 1932, he visited the US and was offered a position at Princeton. He would have spent 7 months a year in Berlin and 5 months a year at Princeton. The next month, the Nazi’s came to power, and he never returned to Germany. In 1935 he applied for and was granted permanent residency status, and continued at Princeton, while also traveling and lecturing.
While at Princeton, he worked very hard attempting to unify the laws of physics. However the issues he was dealing with were both minute and profound and he found he lacked the stamina he once had. He was a very visible fixture on the Princeton campus and continued to play his violin for students and others.
As his theories had contributed to physics, so did he personally try to contribute to world peace and became a leading advocate. In 1944, he handwrote his 1905 paper on special relativity and had it auctioned off. The proceeds went to the war effort. It raised $6 million and the manuscript in now in the Library of Congress.
By 1949, he was not well. He wrote his will in 1950 and left his scientific papers to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he had served on the board of governors. In 1952, a strange event occurred. The first President of Israel died and the Israeli Parliament offered Einstein the post of second President. He turned it down and was embarrassed by it. He mentioned that while he considered it an honor, turning down such and offer was sure to cause offence and he did not want that.
In the last week before his death, he sent a letter to the British philosopher and peace activist, Bertrand Russell agreeing that his name could be used on a manifesto urging all nations to give up nuclear weapons. This was especially fitting as aspects of his work had ultimately led to the development of these weapons, plus the last signing of his name before his death was to urge peace in the world. He died and was cremated on April 18, 1955, and his ashes were scattered at an undisclosed place.