“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.”
– Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879 in the city of Ulm in the German state of Württemberg. His parents, a middle-class Jewish couple named Hermann and Pauline, moved shortly thereafter to Munich, where the young Albert would begin his formal schooling. Contrary to legend, Einstein received adequate grades, but he was exceptional less for his academic achievements than for his willful nature and disgust with rote learning and blind obedience to authority. “Your presence in the class destroys the respect of the students,” was the verdict of his high school Greek grammar teacher, Joseph Degenhart.
Degenhart wasn’t the only authority figure Einstein would anger. In 1893, Einstein’s parents moved to Italy after Hermann’s electrical business failed. Albert followed six months later after persuading a doctor to diagnose him with “neurasthenic exhaustion,” necessitating his withdrawal from school. Partly to assuage his upset parents, Albert promised to embark on a course of self-study and take the entrance examination for the ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). He failed, however, due to his undeveloped language skills, and the ETH rector advised him to obtain his maturity certificate, i.e. high school diploma, at the school in Aarau.
Upon receiving his Matura in 1896, Einstein enrolled in a four-year teacher’s training program at ETK, with a focus on physics and mathematics. He graduated with average marks (4.91 out of 6), but was unable to find a job – in part because one professor gave him negative references for cutting classes, using his friends’ lecture notes and telling jokes when he did attend class. In 1902, after two years of working as a temporary teacher, Albert secured a job in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, which was run by a former classmate’s father.
1905 was one of the most important years in Einstein’s life. He received his PhD from the University of Zurich, but that was the least of his accomplishments. Several papers he wrote were published in Annalen der Physik, Germany’s most important physics journal. They would prove to be some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, eventually earning Einstein the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.
The topics of Einstein’s 1905 papers included:
• The particulate nature of light. Physicist James Clerk Maxwell had proven in the 1860s and 70s that light is an electromagnetic wave. Yet the photoelectric effect (when light strikes a metal, electrons are emitted) suggested otherwise. Einstein provided evidence that light is not only a wave, but also interacts with matter as discreet packets of energy, which today we call photons.
• Brownian motion, i.e. the movement of particles in liquid first noted by English botanist Robert Brown. Einstein showed how the irregular, random motions of particles of matter in water could be used to gauge the dimensions of the water molecules whose movement caused the particles to move.
• Special theory of relativity. Einstein had been troubled for some time by discrepancies between mechanical and electromagnetic theories of science. His famous equation, E=mc2, means that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Thus at or near the speed of light, neither time nor weight nor mass is constant. The equation implied the equivalence of mass and energy, thereby reconciling mechanical and electromagnetic worldviews.
Einstein’s academic life began in 1908 with a position as privatdozent at the University of Bern. This was followed by positions in Zurich and Prague. He was named director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1914.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity was published in 1915. In it, Einstein proposed that gravity is a distortion by matter of the structure of space and time. This distortion affects the inertial motion of other matter. Despite much skepticism, the theory was proven in 1919 by observations made during a solar eclipse. The Nobel Prize followed two years later.
In 1932, prompted by the rise of Adolf Hitler, Einstein moved to the United States, where he would become Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton. He retired from this position in 1945 and passed away ten years later on April 18, 1955, at the age of 76. His many years spent in pursuit of a “unified field theory” were not as fruitful as his earlier work, but Einstein had already made an indelible mark on both history and the public imagination. In 1999, Time Magazine named Albert Einstein Person of the Century.