Why is it that Albert Einstein, a theoretical physicist, is one of the most recognized and beloved individuals of the twentieth century? To most, it is something about his expressive face and distinctive hairstyle that warms the soul of people around the world. His formula for mass-energy equivalence E = mc2 , arguably the world’s most famous equation, comes to mind often too, further embedding Einstein into our subconscious as an icon. So popular is Einstein in our culture that his name is easily synonymous with the word ‘genius’. Almost everyday I am reminded of Einstein, during my travels on my way home, when I pass by a vivid and interesting example of street art of the genius himself. I often wonder why the artist chose Albert Einstein to celebrate upon the facade of this building? Only recent I found out that the owners of the building were greatly inspired by Einstein which matched their own core values.
His infectious qualities are celebrated by people from all walks of life; particularly those with a fleeting interest in science and importantly by physicists around the world. This year we celebrated 100 years of general relativity, not only because it’s importance to the nature of gravity, but because Einstein was a man ahead of his time. He stands easily alongside Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, as one of only a few great individuals, who have altered our understanding of the universe.
Albert Einstein wasn’t always the genius the world had come to know. He struggled as a child to find his place, nicknamed the ‘dopey one’, until a compass and mathematics text-book sparked his interest in geometry. Later as a youth, unimpressed by his Munich boarding school, he ran away from a life of rigid education, that obviously did not stimulate his appetite for science and mathematics. Having struggled at first to qualify for a higher education, his curious and superior intellect in physics and mathematics helped him to eventually enrol at university in Zürich. His years in Zürich have often been described as his happiest, where he also met his first wife Mileva Maric. After four productive years of study, Einstein was rewarded with a teaching degree in 1900, but it would be a little while longer before he would receive his Ph D from the university of Zürich in 1905 for his dissertation “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions.”
It was during this period between 1900 and 1905, as he continued his studies towards a Ph D, that his mundane job at the Swiss patent office allowed him enough free time to question and think about the big theories of the day. The reputed inconsistencies of both motion and the behaviour of light were personal projects Einstein sought to solve. He achieved measurable success in these areas when he put forward his new theories in four ground breaking scientific research papers known as the Annus Mirabilis. Amongst his results, the special theory of relativity described how absolutely nothing could move faster than the speed of light. It eventually led him to view that energy (E) and mass (m) are the same thing; consequently bound together by their relationship with the speed of light. ( E = mc2 )
It is mind-blowing to think that the wider scientific community were largely unaware of his theories in the first decade of the twentieth century. If not, for the endeavours of German scientist and father of quantum theory, Max Planck, Einstein’s work may have remained unread for longer? However, Planck immediately recognised the significance of Einstein’s work and helped publicise them until they were widely accepted in Germany.
In November 1915, Einstein created arguably his boldest theory yet – the general theory of relativity. It showed that gravity as well as motion could affect time and space. Interestingly, calculations made by Einstein, that the Sun’s gravity could bend the light of stars, was successfully confirmed by Eddington’s solar eclipse experiment in 1919.
Imagine the impact that something so unlikely like general relativity would be right. Almost overnight Issac Newton’s own theory of gravity was superseded. Einstein’s predictions were so mind-blowing that, for example, it led to the investigation on the theory of black holes. Following this spectacular success, Einstein’s fame skyrocketed, and in 1921, he received the Nobel Prize for physics.
With Einstein’s name finally made, he successfully visited the United States twice. During his second visit, while he was lecturing in California, Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Years earlier with the rise of the Nazi party, they condemned Einstein and his ‘Jewish physics’, so he wisely decided to stay in the United States with his second wife Elsa Lowenthal. He became an US citizen and worked the rest of his life at the University of Princeton.
During his time in America, he openly spoke about many social issues and his concerns over the rise of the Nazi’s. He put aside his pacifist views and supported the war against Hitler. He famously co-wrote a letter encouraging the US to work on their own atomic bomb programme before the Nazi’s got their hands on it. After the war, he strongly opposed ‘the bomb’ after the devastation it caused in Japan and shifted to a view that favoured restrictions on its development.
In 1955, Albert Einstein died aged seventy-six in Princeton, New Jersey. He published hundreds of scientific papers, but the one thing that alluded him most in his life was trying to formulate a unified field theory. If it is any consolation, generations of scientists are still today equally frustrated trying to figure out the secrets of the universe.
Photo Credits: The wonderful street artwork of Albert Einstein is by Vincent Moloney. He is a creator of artwork, film and cartoons. You can see his amazing work via his website. This photograph was taken by Robert Horvat, with Vincent’s blessing.