Albert Einstein: One of the Smartest People to Live

One of the smartest people ever to live, Albert Einstein, changed our society's development forever with his views, theories, and developments. Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany on March 14, 1879. He was the only son of Hermann and Pauline Kech Einstein. He spent his youth in Munich, where his family owned a small electrical equipment plant. He did not talk until the age of three and by the age of nine, was still not fluent in his native language. (Discovering World History) His parents were actually concerned the he might be somewhat mentally retarded.

His parent's concerns aside, even as a youth Einstein showed a brilliant curiosity about nature and an ability to understand difficult mathematical concepts. At the age of 12 he taught himself Euclidian Geometry. Einstein hated the dull regimental and unimaginative spirit of school in Munich. (Albert Einstein's Early Life) His parents wisely thought to transfer him out of that environment.

Although Einstein's family was Jewish, he was sent to a Catholic elementary school from 1884 to 1889. He was then enrolled at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. In 1894, Hermann Einstein's business failed and the family moved to Pavia, near Milan, Italy. Einstein was left behind in Munich to allow him to finish school. Such was not to be the case, however, since he left the gymnasium after only six more months. Einstein's biographer, Philip Frank, explains that Einstein so thoroughly despised formal schooling that he devised a scheme by which he received a medical excuse from school on the basis of a potential nervous breakdown. He then convinced a mathematics teacher to certify that he was adequately prepared to begin his college studies without a high school diploma. Other biographies, however, state that Einstein was expelled from the gymnasium on the grounds that he was a disruptive influence at the school. (Discovering World History)

In 1895, Einstein thought himself ready to take the entrance examination for the Eldgenossiche Technische Hochschule (ETH: Swiss Federal Polytechnic School, or Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), where he planned to major in electrical engineering. When he failed that examination, Einstein enrolled at a Swiss cantonal high school in Aarau. He found the more democratic style of instruction at Aarau much more enjoyable than his experience in Munich and soon began to make rapid progress. He took the entrance examination for ETH a second time in 1896, passed, and was admitted to school, although other sources state that he was admitted without examination on the basis of his diploma from Aarau. ETH had little appeal to Einstein, however. He rarely attended classes and hated studying for examinations, although he did graduate with a secondary teaching degree in 1900. He became a teacher of mathematics and physics in secondary school. (Albert Einstein's Early Life)

As a teacher Einstein was unable to find a regular teaching job. Instead he was a tutor in a private school in Schaffhausen. With his extra time in 1901, Einstein published his first scientific paper, "Consequences of Capillary Phenomena. In 1902 he was hired at the patent office until 1909. During this period of time, he was wed to his first wife Mileva Marie and had two sons and a daughter. There are no records of his daughter due to the fact that she was given up for adoption, they simply did not want her. (Discovering World History)

In 1905, during a single year, Einstein produced a series of three consecutive papers. These are among the most important in twentieth-century physics, and perhaps in all of the recorded history of science for they revolutionized the way scientists look at the nature of space, time, and matter. (Discovering World History) The series of three papers dealt with the nature of particle movement known as Brownian motion, the quantum nature of electromagnetic radiation as demonstrated by the photoelectric effect, and the special theory of relativity (Discovering Science).

The first paper of the series, "On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquid Demanded by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat, dealt with a phenomenon first observed by Scottish Botanist Robert Brown in 1827. Brown stated that tiny particles, such as dust particles, move about with a zigzag motion when suspended in water. The visible movement of particles was created by the random movement of molecules that make up the liquid. Einstein derived a mathematical formula that predicted the distance traveled by the particles and their relative speed. This formula was later confirmed by French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin in 1908. Einstein's work on the Bownian movement is regarded as the first experimental evidence of the existence of molecules. (Discovering Science)

The second paper, "On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light, dealt with another puzzle in physics, the photoelectric effect. First observed by Heinrich Hertz in 1888, the photoelectric involves the release of electrons from a metal that happens when light is shined on the metal. The puzzling aspect of the photoelectric effect was that the number of electrons released is not a function of the light's intensity, but of the color of the light. Einstein assumed that light traveled in tiny particle bundles called quanta of energy. The energy of any given light quantum (also known as a photon), Einstein said, is a function of its wavelength. Therefore, when light falls on a metal, electrons in the metal absorb specific energy, giving it enough energy to escape from the surface of the metal. The number of electrons released will be determined not by the intensity of the light, but by its energy. Einstein's hypothesis was confirmed by several experiments and laid the foundation for the field of quantitative photoelectrical chemistry and quantum mechanics. As recognition for this work, Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics. (Discovering Science)

The third and final paper of the consecutive 1905 papers by Einstein, almost certainly the one for which he became best known, details his special theory of relativity. In essence, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies discuss the relationship between measurement made by observers in two separate system moving at constant velocity with respect to each other. (Discovering Science)

Einstein's work on relativity was by no means the first in the field. The French physicist Jules Henri Poincare, the Irish physicist George Francis FritzGerald, and the Dutch physicist Hendrick Lorentz had already analyzed in some detail the problem attacked by Einstein in his 1905 paper. Each had developed mathematical formulas that described the effect of motion on various types of measurement. Still there is no doubt that Einstein provided the most complete analysis of this subject. He began to make two assumptions. First, that the laws of physics are the same in all frames of reference. Second, he declared that the velocity of light is always the same, regardless. (Discovering Science)

Using these two assumptions, Einstein uncovered an unexpected extensive description of the properties of bodies that are in uniform motion. He developed a mathematics relationship between the length of an object and its velocity that had previously been suggested by both Fitzgerald and Lorentz. Einstein's theory was revolutionary, for previously scientists had believed that basic quantities of measurement such as time, mass, and length were absolute and unchanging. Einstein's work establish the opposite--that these measurements could change, depending on the relative motion of the observer. (Discovering Science)

In addition to his masterpieces on the photoelectric effect, Brownian movement, and relativity, Einstein wrote two more papers in 1905. One, "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Its Energy Content?, which dealt with an extension of his earlier work on relativity. He came to the conclusion in this paper that the energy and mass of a body are closely interrelated. Two years later he specifically stated that the relationship in a formula, E=mc2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared), that is now well known to both scientists and non-scientists alike. His fifth and final paper, the most modest of the five, was "A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. It was this paper that Einstein submitted as his doctoral dissertation for which the University of Zurich awarded him a Ph.D. in 1905. (Discovering Science)

Fame did not come to Einstein immediately as a result of his five papers. He did, indeed, submit his paper on relativity to the University of Bern in support of his application to become a privatdozent, or unsalaried instructor, but the paper and application were rejected. His work was too important to be ignored, a second application three years later was accepted. Einstein spent only a year before he took up employment as a professor of physics at the University of Zurich in 1909. (Discovering World History)

When Einstein, in his youth moved from Germany to Italy, he also gave up his German citizenship. He was unhappy with his native land and severed all formal connections with it: in addition, by renouncing his citizenship, he later returned to Germany without being accused as a draft dodger. As a result, Einstein remained without an official citizenship until he became Swiss at age 21. (Discovering world History)

Since the outbreak of WWI, Einstein was opposed to war, and used his notoriety to lecture against it during the 1920s and 1930s. With the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the early 1930s, Einstein's position became difficult. Although he was a renewed German citizen, the two social movements which received his full support were pacifism1 and Zionism2. When Hitler came to power, Einstein decided to leave Germany for the United States in anticipation of Nazi persecution (Discovering World History). He took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, while he continued public support of Pacifist and Zionist goals which made him the target of vicious attacks by anti-semitic and right-wing elements in Germany ("Albert Einstein). In addition he was demanded as a speaker and wrote extensively on many topics, especially on peace. The growing fascism and anti-semiticism of Hitler's regime convinced Einstein to sign his name to a letter written by American physicist Leo Szilard informing President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the possibility of an atomic bomb. This letter led the formation of the Manhattan Project for the worlds first nuclear weapons. Einstein himself did not participate in the project. (Discovering World History) We can only assume that this was due to ethical concerns.

His highly principled nature was evident again in 1952. After the death of Israel's first president Einstein was invited to succeed him as president. He declined the offer. Despite the many other honors given to Einstein, he died a humble man. At the time of his death he was the world's most widely admired scientist and his name was synonymous with genius (Discovering World History). Einstein was truly one of the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century and his contributions to science and mathematics have yet to be fully explored.

Work Cited

  • "Albert Einstein." Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. Online. 1993-1996.
  • "Albert Einstein's Early Life." 1998 (28 March 2000).
  • Bernstein, Jeremy. Einstein. Fontana: ?, 1973.
  • Discovering World History. "Albert Einstein (1879-1955)." Online. Gale Research, 1997.
  • Discovering Science. "Albert Einstein (1879-1955)." Online. Gale Research, 1997.
  • "General Theory of Relativity." 1998. (28 March 2000).
  • Glasston, Samuel. Albert Einstein. Encarta 97 Encyclopedia 1993-1996.
  • "Later Life." 1998. (28 March 2000)
  • Seeing, Carl. Albert Einstein: A documentary Biography. Staples Press, 1956.