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Albert Einstein
1879 - 1955

 

 

With just a pen and paper, he peeked farther behind Nature's curtain than anyone had since Newton — then spent the rest of his years living it down. Now, when we think of genius, we see his face

By FRANK PELLEGRINI for Time Magazine
 


Everything's relative. Speed, mass, space and time are all subjective. Nor are age, motion or the wanderings of the planets measures that humans can agree on anymore; they can be judged only by the whim of the observer. Light has weight. Space has curves. And coiled within a pound of matter, any matter, is the explosive power of 14 million tons of TNT. We know all this, we are set adrift in this way at the end of the 20th century, because of Albert Einstein.

We tend not to blame Einstein for the bomb, any more than we blame Nobel for dynamite. It wasn't the gentle theorist but the generals of the world who forged e=mc2 into the most terrible dagger in human history, and hoisted that Damoclean blade irretrievably over our heads in 1946. By then, the world had already iconized him: the greatest seer since Newton; science's poetic soul. Genius, in person. In a few thunderclaps of elegance he contained our world and the cosmos in the same equation, and changed forever the way the rest of saw the heavens and ourselves.

The light came on in 1905. Pushed to the fringe of physics by his prickly pacifism and an academic career that seemed designed to annoy his professors, the future emblem of genius was, at the time — the very words have become an Algeresque cliché — just a Swiss patent clerk. Preternaturally confident and suitably unkempt, the 26-year-old Einstein sent three papers, papers scrawled in his spare time, to the premier journal, "Annalen der Physik," to be published "if there is room." They all made the same issue, and they did exactly what he imagined they would: change the world. One was an update of Max Planck's quantum theory of radiation; light, declared Einstein, travels as both a wave and as particles called quanta, mostly because it has to. Another concerned Brownian motion, an until-then unexplained phenomenon involving bouncing molecules. (The patent clerk explained it.) The third, wrote Einstein matter-of-factly in a letter to a friend, "modifies the theory of space and time." Its import: Everything's relative. He could have retired right then and still been the savior of science in the 20th century.

Physics is built on the basic and rather wistful hypothesis that Mother Nature doesn't know much math. Remainders and constants are men's crumbs, not hers -- to a theoretical physicist, the Ten Commandments are too numerous by nine. By 1905, Newton's three were showing cracks under the scrutiny of stronger telescopes and better astronomy; the ether, an omnipresent invisible jello, was supposed to spackle Newton's world smooth again. To Einstein, the ether was just a remainder, and he got rid of it. Nothing can move faster than light, he said, and matter and energy are equivalent: E=mc2. The physicist Louis de Broglie called Einstein's contributions that year "blazing rockets which in the dark of the night suddenly cast a brief but powerful illumination over an immense unknown region." The new view was breathtaking.

Einstein himself, though, would remain in that unknown a while longer. In 1916, he folded special relativity into general relativity: Light had mass, and space and time were simply space-time. Oh, and the universe was quite possibly shaped like a saddle. World-shaking stuff. But war, seemingly Einstein's constant companion, obscured him three more years until British astronomer Arthur Eddington got out and proved it during a solar eclipse: He spotted a star that should have been hidden behind the sun. Light had turned a corner, and so had we. No one really understood what Einstein was talking about — which is only a slight exaggeration even today — but it sure sounded great. Order in the cosmos, even if only one man could see it, was an appetizingly lofty prospect after the all-too-earthbound carnage of World War I. And this fellow Einstein, with his halo of unruly hair and Labrador eyes, was just the gentle genius we were looking for.

Celebrity annoyed Einstein — he would once list his occupation as "artist's model" — but while his theory made the rounds at cocktail parties, the physicist himself discovered that Americans wanted desperately to hear what else he had to say. So he spoke up. His gave speeches and met with heads of state, made enemies of Hitler (and later McCarthy) with his ardent blend of pacifism, Zionism and Communism. (Eventually the sound of his voice got too loud for him; with so much made of every trip, Einstein never left the U.S. after 1935.) His every bon mot was duly recorded for posterity, and his personal quirks (such as very rarely wearing socks) were eagerly added to the fast-growing legend. Not Einstein the physicist anymore; Einstein, the Einstein.

Did the man have flaws? Eager excavators have found that he was unkind to his first wife, Serbian physicist Mileva Maric, and distant at best with his second wife, Elsa, and their son. The famous absentmindedness, so jolly in his later years, was not so benign when it came to human contact. Should we be surprised at this from a man who did not speak until age 3, slouched his way through school, and grew up to find a universe that no others had? Surprised that he was more than a little aloof?

In 1929, TIME noted in a cover story on the physicist that "Albert Einstein's theories have altered human existence not at all." That would not last — the fields of electronics, quantum physics and space travel all bear his fingerprint now (though we're still waiting to see those twins in spaceships wearing watches). But that the atom could be split and its power unleashed — that one was the first to leap off the theoretician's blackboard. In 1939, America's most celebrated pacifist warned Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a letter that the Germans were nearing the nuclear age. America — this the physicist knew from experience from his days in Germany — had better get there first. It did. By 1946 Einstein's epiphany and the Manhattan Project would wreak, in the name of good, the most horrible destruction of our age in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Einstein knew what he and his visions had done; after the war he made a tearful apology to visiting Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa. Pacifist, deep-thinking Einstein, who loved children, was the father of the bomb.

At Princeton, he was more like a kindly uncle. When he arrived in 1935, and was asked what he would require for his study, he replied: "A desk, some pads and a pencil, and a large wastebasket — to hold all of my mistakes." His salary request had to be raised by Princeton administrators to avoid embarrassment. He played the violin, helped children with their homework, and did indeed, as the story goes, have some trouble remembering his address. He spent the balance of his life there, carving out a quiet spot within his legend and grappling with another chilling science that he had fathered but could not love: quantum physics.

Einstein, though not religious, was a believer. "I want to know how God created this world... I want to know his thoughts; the rest are details." And he had a good idea of what those thoughts were. Subtle but not malicious, non-interventionist but certainly present, Einstein's God didn't "play dice with the universe." Quantum physics, guided by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, held that matter lived only as a probability, an approximation, an illusion of order in a chaotic universe. This Einstein could not bear, and he resisted the colder world bitterly until he became, in his own words, "a fossil" among his colleagues. "Stop telling God what to do," Niels Bohr told him, but Einstein couldn't. He spent his last two decades wrestling vainly for a "Unified Field Theory" — the final theory — a cause that Steven Weinberg, among others, has taken up today, so far without success.

Do we see too little beauty in the universe, or did Einstein imagine too much? ("It didn't pan out," he once told a colleague, two weeks after casually mentioning he was on the verge of his "greatest discovery ever.") A half-century after his death, we have his eyes in a jar in New Jersey and his brain (minus a few bits chipped off for analysis) in another jar in Lawrence, Kansas. We have the advances he left us, which have touched nearly every branch of the sciences, and we have the the bomb. But probably above all, in our heads we keep his vision (however vaguely) — the rhyming world is the one we keep on rooting for. Einstein got us closer to nature's truths than anyone had before, and he knew how much he had left unsolved. Once, Uncle Einstein sent this reply, along with a page full of diagrams, to a 15-year-old girl who had written for help on a homework assignment: "Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are much greater." Everything's relative.
 


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The German-born American physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) revolutionized the science of physics. He is best known for his theory of relativity.

In the history of the exact sciences, only a handful of men - men like Nicolaus Copernicus and Isaac Newton - share the honor that was Albert Einstein's: the initiation of a revolution in scientific thought. His insights into the nature of the physical world made it impossible for physicists and philosophers to view that world as they had before. When describing the achievements of other physicists, the tendency is to enumerate their major discoveries; when describing the achievements of Einstein, it is possible to say, simply, that he revolutionized physics.

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, but he grew up and obtained his early education in Munich. He was not a child prodigy; in fact, he was unable to speak fluently at age 9. Finding profound joy, liberation, and security in contemplating the laws of nature, already at age 5 he had experienced a deep feeling of wonder when puzzling over the invisible, yet definite, force directing the needle of a compass. Seven years later he experienced a different kind of wonder: the deep emotional stirring that accompanied his discovery of Euclidean geometry, with its lucid and certain proofs. Einstein mastered differential and integral calculus by age 16.


Education in Zurich

Einstein's formal secondary education was abruptly terminated at 16. He found life in school intolerable, and just as he was scheming to find a way to leave without impairing his chances for entering the university, his teacher expelled him for the negative effects his rebellious attitude was having on the morale of his classmates. Einstein tried to enter the Federal Institute of Technology (FIT) in Zurich, Switzerland, but his knowledge of nonmathematical disciplines was not equal to that of mathematics and he failed the entrance examination. On the advice of the principal, he thereupon first obtained his diploma at the Cantonal School in Aarau, and in 1896 he was automatically admitted into the FIT. There he came to realize that his deepest interest and facility lay in physics, both experimental and theoretical, rather than in mathematics.

Einstein passed his diploma examination at the FIT in 1900, but due to the opposition of one of his professors he was unable to subsequently obtain the usual university assistantship. In 1902 he was engaged as a technical expert, third-class, in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Six months later he married Mileva Maric, a former classmate in Zurich. They had two sons. It was in Bern, too, that Einstein, at 26, completed the requirements for his doctoral degree and wrote the first of his revolutionary scientific papers.


Academic Career

These papers made Einstein famous, and universities soon began competing for his services. In 1909, after serving as a lecturer at the University of Bern, Einstein was called as an associate professor to the University of Zurich. Two years later he was appointed a full professor at the German University in Prague. Within another year and a half Einstein became a full professor at the FIT. Finally, in 1913 the well-known scientists Max Planck and Walter Nernst traveled to Zurich to persuade Einstein to accept a lucrative research professorship at the University of Berlin, as well as full membership in the Prussian Academy of Science. He accepted their offer in 1914, quipping: "The Germans are gambling on me as they would on a prize hen. I do not really know myself whether I shall ever really lay another egg." When he went to Berlin, his wife remained behind in Zurich with their two sons; after their divorce he married his cousin Elsa in 1917.

In 1920 Einstein was appointed to a lifelong honorary visiting professorship at the University of Leiden. During 1921-1922 Einstein, accompanied by Chaim Weizmann, the future president of the state of Israel, undertook extensive worldwide travels in the cause of Zionism. In Germany the attacks on Einstein began. Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, both Nobel Prize-winning physicists, began characterizing Einstein's theory of relativity as "Jewish physics." This callousness and brutality increased until Einstein resigned from the Prussian Academy of Science in 1933. (He was, however, expelled from the Bavarian Academy of Science.)


Career in America

On several occasions Einstein had visited the California Institute of Technology, and on his last trip to the United States Abraham Flexner offered Einstein - on Einstein's terms - a position in the newly conceived and funded Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. He went there in 1933.

Einstein played a key role (1939) in mobilizing the resources necessary to construct the atomic bomb by signing a famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt which had been drafted by Leo Szilard and E.P. Wigner. When Einstein's famous equation E mc2 was finally demonstrated in the most awesome and terrifying way by using the bomb to destroy Hiroshima in 1945, Einstein, the pacifist and humanitarian, was deeply shocked and distressed; for a long time he could only utter "Horrible, horrible." On April 18, 1955, Einstein died in Princeton.


Theory of Brownian Motion

From numerous references in Einstein's writings it is evident that, of all areas in physics, thermodynamics made the deepest impression on him. During 1902-1904 Einstein reworked the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; this work formed the immediate background to his revolutionary papers of 1905, one of which was on Brownian motion.

In Brownian motion (first observed in 1827 by the Scottish botanist Robert Brown), small particles suspended in a viscous liquid such as water undergo a rapid, irregular motion. Einstein, unaware of Brown's earlier observations, concluded from his theoretical studies that such a motion must exist. Guided by the thought that if the liquid in which the particles are suspended consists of atoms or molecules they should collide with the particles and set them into motion, he found that while the particle's motion is irregular, fluctuating back and forth, it will in time nevertheless experience a net forward displacement. Einstein proved that this net forward displacement of the suspended particles is directly related to the number of molecules per gram atomic weight. This point created a good deal of skepticism toward Einstein's theory at the time he developed it (1905-1906), but when it was fully confirmed many of the skeptics were converted. Brownian motion is to this day regarded as one of the most direct proofs of the existence of atoms.


Light Quanta and Wave-Particle Duality

The most common misconceptions concerning Einstein's introduction of his revolutionary light quantum (light particle) hypothesis in 1905 are that he simply applied Planck's quantum hypothesis of 1900 to radiation and that he introduced light quanta to "explain" the photoelectric effect discovered in 1887 by Heinrich Hertz and thoroughly investigated in 1902 by Philipp Lenard. Neither of these assertions is accurate. Einstein's arguments for his light quantum hypothesis - that under certain circumstances radiant energy (light) behaves as if it consists not of waves but of particles of energy proportional to their frequencies - were absolutely fundamental and, as in the case of his theory of Brownian motion, based on his own insights into the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. Furthermore, it was only after presenting strong arguments for the necessity of his light quantum hypothesis that Einstein pursued its experimental consequences. One of several such consequences was the photoelectric effect, the experiment in which high-frequency ultraviolet light is used to eject electrons from thin metal plates. In particular, Einstein assumed that a single quantum of light transfers its entire energy to a single electron in the metal plate. The famous equation he derived was fully consistent with Lenard's observation that the energy of the ejected electrons depends only on the frequency of the ultraviolet light and not on its intensity. Einstein was not disturbed by the fact that this apparently contradicts James Clerk Maxwell's classic electromagnetic wave theory of light, because he realized that there were good reasons to doubt the universal validity of Maxwell's theory.

Although Einstein's famous equation for the photoelectric effect - for which he won the Nobel Prize of 1921 - appears so natural today, it was an extremely bold prediction in 1905. Not until a decade later did R.A. Millikan finally succeed in experimentally verifying it to everyone's satisfaction. But while Einstein's equation was bold, his light quantum hypothesis was revolutionary: it amounted to reviving Newton's centuries-old idea that light consists of particles.

No one tried harder than Einstein to overcome opposition to this hypothesis. Thus, in 1907 he proved the fruitfulness of the entire quantum hypothesis by showing it could at least qualitatively account for the low-temperature behavior of the specific heats of solids. Two years later he proved that Planck's radiation law of 1900 demands the coexistence of particles and waves in blackbody radiation, a proof that represents the birth of the wave-particle duality. In 1917 Einstein presented a very simple and very important derivation of Planck's radiation law (the modern laser, for example, is based on the concepts Einstein introduced here), and he also proved that light quanta must carry momentum as well as energy.

Meanwhile, Einstein had become involved in another series of researches having a direct bearing on the wave-particle duality. In mid-1924 S.N. Bose produced a very insightful derivation of Planck's radiation law - the origin of Bose-Einstein statistics - which Einstein soon developed into his famous quantum theory of an ideal gas. Shortly thereafter, he became acquainted with Louis de Broglie's revolutionary new idea that ordinary material particles, such as electrons and gas molecules, should under certain circumstances exhibit wave behavior. Einstein saw immediately that De Broglie's idea was intimately related to the Bose-Einstein statistics: both indicate that material particles can at times behave like waves. Einstein told Erwin Schrödinger of De Broglie's work, and in 1926 Schrödinger made the extraordinarily important discovery of wave mechanics. Schrödinger's (as well as C. Eckart) then proved that Schrödinger's wave mechanics and Werner Heisenberg's matrix mechanics are mathematically equivalent: they are now collectively known as quantum mechanics, one of the two most fruitful physical theories of the 20th century. Since Einstein's insights formed much of the background to both Schrödinger's and Heisenberg's discoveries, the debt quantum physicists owe to Einstein can hardly be exaggerated.


Theory of Relativity

The second of the two most fruitful physical theories of the 20th century is the theory of relativity, which to scientists and laymen alike is synonymous with the name of Einstein. Once again, there is a common misconception concerning the origin of this theory, namely, that Einstein advanced it in 1905 to "explain" the famous Michelson-Morley experiment (1887), which failed to detect a relative motion of the earth with respect to the ether, the medium through which light was assumed to propagate. In fact, it is not even certain that Einstein was aware of this experiment in 1905; nor was he familiar with H.A. Lorentz's elegant 1904 paper in which Lorentz applied the transformation equations which bear his name to electrodynamic phenomena. Rather, Einstein consciously searched for a general principle of nature that would hold the key to the explanation of a paradox that had occurred to him when he was 16: if, on the one hand, one runs at, say, 4 miles per hour alongside a train moving at 4 miles per hour, the train appears to be at rest; if, on the other hand, it were possible to run alongside a ray of light, neither experiment nor theory suggests that the ray of light - an oscillating electromagnetic wave - would appear to be at rest. Einstein eventually saw that he could postulate that no matter what the velocity of the observer, he must always observe the same velocity c for the velocity of light: roughly 186,000 miles per second. He also saw that this postulate was consistent with a second postulate: if an observer at rest and an observer moving at constant velocity carry out the same kind of experiment, they must get the same result. These are Einstein's two postulates of his special theory of relativity. Also in 1905 Einstein proved that his theory predicted that energy E and mass mare entirely interconvertible according to his famous equation, Emc2.

For observational confirmation of his general theory of relativity, Einstein boldly predicted the gravitational red shift and the deflection of starlight (an amended value), as well as the quantitative explanation of U. J. J. Leverrier's long-unexplained observation that the perihelion of the planet Mercury precesses about the sun at the rate of 43 seconds of arc per century. In addition, Einstein in 1916 predicted the existence of gravitational waves, which have only recently been detected. Turning to cosmological problems the following year, Einstein found a solution to his field equations consistent with the picture (the Einstein universe) that the universe is static, approximately uniformly filled with a finite amount of matter, and finite but unbounded (in the same sense that the surface area of a smooth globe is finite but has no beginning or end).


The Man and His Philosophy

Fellow physicists were always struck with Einstein's uncanny ability to penetrate to the heart of a complex problem, to instantly see the physical significance of a complex mathematical result. Both in his scientific and in his personal life, he was utterly independent, a trait that manifested itself in his approach to scientific problems, in his unconventional dress, in his relationships with family and friends, and in his aloofness from university and governmental politics (in spite of his intense social consciousness). Einstein loved to discuss scientific problems with friends, but he was, fundamentally a "horse for single harness."

Einstein's belief in strict causality was closely related to his profound belief in the harmony of nature. That nature can be understood rationally, in mathematical terms, never ceased to evoke a deep - one might say, religious - feeling of admiration in him. "The most incomprehensible thing about the world," he once wrote, "is that it is comprehensible." How do we discover the basic laws and concepts of nature? Einstein argued that while we learn certain features of the world from experience, the free inventive capacity of the human mind is required to formulate physical theories. There is no logical link between the world of experience and the world of theory. Once a theory has been formulated, however, it must be "simple" (or, perhaps, "esthetically pleasing") and agree with experiment. One such esthetically pleasing and fully confirmed theory is the special theory of relativity. When Einstein was informed of D.C. Miller's experiments, which seemed to contradict the special theory by demanding the reinstatement of the ether, he expressed his belief in the spuriousness of Miller's results - and therefore in the harmoniousness of nature - with another of his famous aphorisms, "God is subtle, but he is not malicious."

This frequent use of God's name in Einstein's speeches and writings provides us with a feeling for his religious convictions. He once stated explicitly, "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men." It is not difficult to see that this credo is consistent with his statement that the "less knowledge a scholar possesses, the farther he feels from God. But the greater his knowledge, the nearer is his approach to God." Since Einstein's God manifested Himself in the harmony of the universe, there could be no conflict between religion and science for Einstein.

To enumerate at this point the many honors that were bestowed upon Einstein during his lifetime would be to devote space to the kind of public acclamation that mattered so little to Einstein himself. How, indeed, can other human beings sufficiently honor one of their number who revolutionized their conception of the physical world, and who lived his life in the conviction that "the only life worth living is a life spent in the service of others"? When Einstein lay dying he could truly utter, as he did, "Here on earth I have done my job." It would be difficult to find a more suitable epitaph than the words Einstein himself used in characterizing his life: "God is inexorable in the way He has allotted His gifts. He gave me the stubbornness of a mule and nothing else; really, He also gave me a keen scent."

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008