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Today is the 140th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist was one of the greatest thinkers of our time. Born in Germany, his teachers labeled him stupid when he refused to study what he didn’t find interesting.

When he was just 26 years old he wrote his paper on Special Theory of Relativity and also three others that year that were revolutionary, including the one that included: E = mc2.

As a Jew, the Nobel Prize winning physicist fled the Nazi regime in 1933 and emigrated to the US.

Biography

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879 to April 18, 1955) was a German mathematician and physicist who developed the special and general theories of relativity. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. In the following decade, he immigrated to the U.S. after being targeted by the Nazis.

His work also had a major impact on the development of atomic energy. In his later years, Einstein focused on unified field theory. With his passion for inquiry, Einstein is generally considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century.

As a physicist, Einstein had many discoveries, but he is perhaps best known for his theory of relativity and the equation E=MC2, which foreshadowed the development of atomic power and the atomic bomb.

Theory of Relativity

Einstein first proposed a special theory of relativity in 1905 in his paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” taking physics in an electrifying new direction. By November 1915, Einstein completed the general theory of relativity. Einstein considered this theory the culmination of his life research.

He was convinced of the merits of general relativity because it allowed for a more accurate prediction of planetary orbits around the sun, which fell short in Isaac Newton’s theory, and for a more expansive, nuanced explanation of how gravitational forces worked. Einstein’s assertions were affirmed via observations and measurements by British astronomers Sir Frank Dyson and Sir Arthur Eddington during the 1919 solar eclipse, and thus a global science icon was born.

Einstein’s E=MC2

Einstein’s 1905 paper on the matter/energy relationship proposed the equation E=MC2: energy of a body (E) is equal to the mass (M) of that body times the speed of light squared (C2). This equation suggested that tiny particles of matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy, a discovery that heralded atomic power.

Famed quantum theorist Max Planck backed up the assertions of Einstein, who thus became a star of the lecture circuit and academia, taking on various positions before becoming director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933.

In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, since his ideas on relativity were still considered questionable. He wasn’t actually given the award until the following year due to a bureaucratic ruling, and during his acceptance speech he still opted to speak about relativity.

In the development of his general theory, Einstein had held onto the belief that the universe was a fixed, static entity, aka a “cosmological constant,” though his later theories directly contradicted this idea and asserted that the universe could be in a state of flux. Astronomer Edwin Hubble deduced that we indeed inhabit an expanding universe, with the two scientists meeting at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles in 1930.

In 1933, Einstein took on a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. At the time the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, were gaining prominence with violent propaganda and vitriol in an impoverished post-WWI Germany. The party influenced other scientists to label Einstein’s work “Jewish physics.” Jewish citizens were barred from university work and other official jobs, and Einstein himself was targeted to be killed. Meanwhile, other European scientists also left regions threatened by Germany and immigrated to the U.S., with concern over Nazi strategies to create an atomic weapon. After moving, Einstein never went back to his native land. It was at Princeton that Einstein would spend the rest of his life working on a unified field theory—an all-embracing paradigm meant to unify the varied laws of physics. 

Not long after he began his career at Princeton, Einstein expressed an appreciation for American “meritocracy” and the opportunities people had for free thought, a stark contrast to his own experiences coming of age. In 1935, Einstein was granted permanent residency in his adopted country and became an American citizen a few years later. During World War II, he worked on Navy-based weapons systems and made big monetary donations to the military by auctioning off manuscripts worth millions. 

In 1939, Einstein and fellow physicist Leo Szilard wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alert him of the possibility of a Nazi bomb and to galvanize the United States to create its own nuclear weapons. The U.S. would eventually initiate the Manhattan Project, though Einstein would not take direct part in its implementation due to his pacifist and socialist affiliations. Einstein was also the recipient of much scrutiny and major distrust from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

After learning of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Einstein became a major player in efforts to curtail usage of the a-bomb. The following year he and Szilard founded the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, and in 1947, via an essay for The Atlantic Monthly, Einstein espoused working with the United Nations to maintain nuclear weapons as a deterrent to conflict. 

In the late 1940s, Einstein became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), seeing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany and African Americans in the United States. He corresponded with scholar/activist W.E.B. Du Bois as well as performing artist Paul Robeson and campaigned for civil rights, calling racism a “disease” in a 1946 Lincoln University speech. 

After World War II, Einstein continued to work on his unified field theory and key aspects of the theory of general relativity, such as wormholes, the possibility of time travel, the existence of black holes and the creation of the universe. However, he became increasingly isolated from the rest of the physics community, whose eyes were set on quantum theory. In the last decade of his life, Einstein, who had always seen himself as a loner, withdrew even further from any sort of spotlight, preferring to stay close to Princeton and immerse himself in processing ideas with colleagues.

Since Einstein’s death, a veritable mountain of books have been written on the iconic thinker’s life, including Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson and Einstein: A Biography by Jürgen Neffe, both from 2007. Einstein’s own words are presented in the collection The World As I See It.

In 2018, readers were allowed a glimpse into some of the unfiltered private thoughts of the renowned academic with the publication of The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922-1923. The diaries contained unflattering analyses of the people he came across, including the Chinese and Sri Lankans, a surprise coming from a man known for vehemently denouncing racism in his later years.

Around that time, a team of scientists confirmed one aspect of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, that the light from a star passing close to a black hole would be stretched to longer wavelengths by the overwhelming gravitational field. Tracking star S2, their measurements showed that the star’s orbital velocity increased to more than 25 million kph as it neared the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, its appearance shifting from blue to red as its wavelengths stretched to escape the gravitational pull.