Albert Einstein
Posted: 18 March 2011 in Scientists
Albert Einstein

Einstein’s parents, Hermann Einstein and Pauline Koch, were married in his mother’s home town of Cannstatt, in Germany, on 8 August 1876. They then moved to Ulm, his father’s home town, where Hermann set up a business in partnership with his cousin. Pauline gave birth to Albert on 14 March 1879. and to his sister, Maria, on 18 November 1881. In between times the family had moved to Munich. Although his parents were non observant Jews, in 1885 Einstein began his schooling at a Catholic elementary school. Three years later he moved to the Luitpold Gymnasium, to continue his childhood education, until he left in 1894.

His father’s business was failing, and, in consequence, early in 1894 he moved the rest of his family to Milan in Italy, hoping business might be better there. But business continued to be poor, and the company finally failed in 1896. After starting another business, which also failed, Hermann returned to Germany in 1902, and died of heart failure later that year.

His father had left Albert living in Munich with relatives in 1894, in order for him complete his education at the Gymnasium. After some disagreement with the school’s authorities, Einstein left the Gymnasium, and travelled to Italy to spend some time with his family. He sat the entrance exam for the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, but failed. His father then sent him to Aarau in Switzerland, where he completed his elementary education before training as a teacher in mathematics and physics (two subjects in which he had previously excelled). Einstein’s secondary schooling ended in 1896, and then, in order to pursue his intended career, he entered Eidgenoessische Polytechnische Schule to train as a teacher. Graduating in 1900, he was unsuccessful in trying to obtain employment at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, which by this time renamed itself the ETH Zurich. After failing to persuade any other university to give him a job, Einstein moved to Bern in 1902, and tried to earn a living as a private tutor.

Then in June, he obtained a position as a junior clerk at the Swiss patent office, after being recommended by a friend. With a group of like minded friends Einstein became a founding member of a group which they christened the Akademie Olympia. In the company of these friends, Einstein spent his evenings discussing questions of philosophy and physics. In 1903 Einstein married a mathematician by the name of Mileva Mirac, by whom he had previously fathered an illegitimate child. It is unknown what became of that first child. Possibly he was put up for adoption; possibly he died in infancy. Their first legitimate son, Hans Albert, was born on 8 May 1904.

In April 1905 Einstein submitted a doctoral thesis to the University of Zurich, and was awarded a PhD. That year he also published four other papers, the most famous of them appearing on 26 September. Titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” this paper introduced the world to the Special Theory of Relativity. In December he published a further paper pointing out one of the implications of Special Relativity, and gave it the eye catching title, “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” – answering his own question in the affirmative. This paper contained the famous equation e=mc2. With the publication of his other two papers in 1905, one of which contributed to the development of quantum physics, this prodigious output brought Einstein to the notice of the scientific world for the first time.

With his new found fame he now had little difficulty in obtaining a teaching post at any of the major universities, and in 1908 Einstein resigned his post at the Swiss patent office to become a lecturer at the University of Bern. The following year he was offered a more senior post at the University of Zurich, and resigned his post in Bern to become a middle ranking member of the academic staff in Zurich. The year 1910 saw Mileva give birth to Einstein’s second son, Eduard. Universities were now falling over themselves to persuade Einstein that he should join them, and by 1914 he held a professorial chair at Berlin University, as well as a research position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Along the way passed through ETH Zurich, which had previously refused him employment.

In spite of his meteoric rise in academia, or perhaps because of it, Einstein’s domestic life had not been going well, and in the Summer of 1914 Mileva returned to Zurich with their two sons, leaving Einstein in Berlin. A divorce followed in February 1919.

In 1907 the mathematician Hermann Minwoski had shown that the theory of Special Relativity could be described in terms of a four dimensional geometry involving hyperbolic functions and a special metric. The concept of spacetime was thus born. Einstein utilised this idea in developing his General Theory of Relativity, which demonstrated, amongst other things, that the presence of a gravitational field would have an effect on the passage of time, and also that rays of light would be deflected by gravitional field of any large object. Published in 1915, the theory was verified during a total eclipse of the sun in 1919, when the light from a distant star was observed to be deflected by the sun’s gravity. This confirmation of his theory brought renewed acclaim for Einstein and, even outside of scientific circles, he became a household name.

During the 1920s Einstein travelled widely. During one lecture tour he visited Princeton, where he was later to hold a professorial chair. In 1928 his punishing schedule took its toll on him, and he had a physical collapse. He recovered after being ordered to take things easy for a while. The abysmal year 1933 saw the Nazi party come to power in Germany, and Einstein left Germany to take up the offer of a professorial position at Princeton University. After giving a lecture tour of Europe in 1935, Einstein returned to the USA, and never again saw the country in which he was born and brought up. He was granted permanent residency in the USA in 1935, and he became an American citizen in 1940.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

During his time in Princeton Einstein worked on a problem which is still befuddling physicists today; namely how to combine gravitation and electro magnetism in a single unified theory, instead of having two separate theories. In 1939, a few weeks after World War II broke out in Europe, he was a signatory to a letter warning the American President, Franklin D Roosevelt, about the possibility of Germany developing an atomic bomb with enormous explosive power. It is thought that this letter was primarily responsible for the Manhattan Project being set up, with the aim of developing an atomic bomb before the Nazis were able to do so.

By the late 1940s Einstein was unwell, and although he briefly recovered after spending some time in hospital his health continued to deteriorate. A week before his death in 1955, he agreed that his name should go on a document urging all nations to give up nuclear weapons. As we all know, in the world of Realpolitik, that never happened. He died on 18 April.


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