Albert Einstein 1879-1955
German-born American physicist and philosopher.
Einstein is generally acknowledged as the preeminent scientist of the twentieth century who challenged and disproved fundamental ideas concerning the physical universe. Specifically, Einstein's theory of relativity reconfigured notions of time, space, and matter that had been formulated by Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Ranked with Archimedes, Galileo Galilei, and Newton, Einstein is crucial for the ideas he contributed to science as well as those he helped abolish; there is not an area of intellectual life that has not been affected by his theories.
Born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, Einstein was not an especially remarkable student; in fact, his parents, who ran a company that made and sold electrical equipment, even suspected that he was mentally retarded. In 1895 his family moved to Milan, Italy, leaving him behind to finish school. Instead, Einstein stopped attending school and independently engaged in studying mathematics and other scientific disciplines. In 1896 he was admitted to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. His subsequent job at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern left him time to continue scientific investigations of his own, which resulted in a series of papers, one of which was accepted as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Zurich in 1905. His discoveries proving the existence of molecules and light's dual nature—as a wave or a particle—were eclipsed by his Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein served as a professor of physics at universities in Zurich and Czechoslovakia. In 1914 he was appointed professor at the University of Berlin and director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. There he developed the General Theory of Relativity and adopted his lifelong pacifist position. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921, in addition to many other awards. His pacifism and Zionism led to friction with the increasingly powerful National Socialists; he left Germany in 1933, settling in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the Institute for Advanced Study until his retirement in 1945. With the advent of World War II, Einstein recognized the threat posed by Germany's hegemonic ambitions and advanced scientific knowledge, and actively encouraged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb. Though he remained politically active for the last part of his life, much of it was given over to work on what he termed the grand unified theory of physics, a formulation that would define the properties of energy and matter. He was unable to achieve this goal before his death at 76 on April 18, 1955.
Because of the revolutionary nature of his scientific theories, Einstein became known beyond the sphere of science. Although many fellow scientists dismissed the Principle of Relativity when it was first published, by the time he published Über die spezielle und die allgemeine Relativitdtstheorie (Relativity, the Special and the General Theory: A Popular Exposition), the validity and importance of his work was recognized. By 1919, British astronomers had confirmed Einstein's prediction that gravity could bend light: pictures of a solar eclipse showed that the positions of star images changed in response to the gravitational effects of the sun. By the early 1930s, Einstein expanded his concerns beyond science, publishing such works as About Zionism, Cosmic Religion, with Other Opinions and Aphorisms and Why War?, which he wrote with Sigmund Freud. While Einstein was not directly involved in producing the atom bomb, his work was seminal to its development and he encouraged the bomb's use, tempering his support with the qualification that it should not be used on people. A committed pacifist, his Essays in Humanism and Ideas and Opinions reflect his determination to limit the development of nuclear arms. Later he chaired the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which encouraged peaceful use of atomic energy.
Jamie Sayen has written that Einstein "came to play a critical role in the public life of his epoch as the preeminent moral figure of the Western world." Even with his stature as a spokesman for peace and humanism, he is primarily regarded as a scientist and a philosopher. Einstein once remarked: "Politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity." Nonetheless, Einstein's theories—particularly the idea of relativity—have influenced virtually every aspect of twentieth-century intellectual life, from scientific study to literary criticism.