Developer of Relativity and Quantum Theories
Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, and was a quiet child. When he did speak he would say things twice, first softly to himself, as if he were practicing or testing the sounds, then out loud. An ordinary student, he did not impress his teachers in the strict German schools; one said that he would never amount to anything. He entered the Swiss Polytechnic School on his second try. After graduation he was unsuccessful obtaining a teaching position there, so he took a job as a junior official in the Patent Office in Bern.
The work at the patent office was easy, so he continued his own work in physics and mathematics. In March of 1905 his first paper was published, demonstrating that light energy was transferred in separate, tiny bursts or shocks, called quanta, an idea first suggested by MAX PLANCK and published in 1900. Two months later came his paper on the motion of dust particles suspended in a liquid, confirming mathematically that atoms are real and are not merely a theoretical model.
In June 1905 he published his revolutionary paper on the special theory of relativity, explaining that measures of distance, time, and mass are not absolute but that they depend on the motion of the observer. As unbelievable as it seems, the faster an object travels in space, the slower an object travels in time. Another implication of the theory is that matter is frozen or crystalline energy; as represented by E = mc2, perhaps the most famous equation of all time.
The quality of Einstein’s work earned him significant attention, and from 1909 to 1913 he taught in Bern, Zurich, Prague, and then Berlin as better positions continually came to him. During his 20 years in Berlin he published his next great paper, in 1915, a general version of the relativity theory Its remarkable claim is that space tells matter how to move, and matter tells space how to curve. In 1919, only four years after the general theory was announced, scientists observing a total eclipse of the Sun confirmed that light from distant stars bent slightly in the curved space around the Sun, just as Einstein had predicted.
In 1921 he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on quantum theory; although his work on relativity was overlooked; the Nobel committee thought it was too impractical. During the 1920s he traveled and taught extensively; in 1933 Hitler’s rise to power forced him to relocate to the United States. He lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study there for the rest of his life.
Einstein was a fine writer, able to deafly communicate his ideas to readers who have only a little background in science. After moving to the United States in 1938, he completed The Evolution of Physics, one of his most famous volumes, written with his longtime friend Leopold Infeld.
When he died on April 18, 1955, he was the best known scientist in the world.
Albert Einstein’s Legacy
While Einstein was not responsible for the practical development of nuclear power or nuclear weapons, he made the essential theoretical discovery behind them, that mass is really stored energy. He also helped to develop the theoretical foundation for quantum theory; one of the most important scientific theories of the twentieth century.
Physicists in the nineteenth century had neatly categorized the universe and had segregated space from time, matter from energy, and particles from waves. In every case Einstein showed that what was previously thought to be separate was actually intertwined. Relativity makes it dear that moving rapidly through space flows the passing of time, and that matter is crystalline energy in storage. Quantum theory shows that waves of light are grainy and lumpy, while electrons are diffuse and wavy: Our view of the universe and the tools scientists used to study it were profoundly changed by his work
Nuclear weapons and unclear energy would not have been possible without Einstein’s work. The atomic bombs detonated over Japan in World War II each released the energy stored in just over one gram of matter, equal to the mass of about one paper clip. And the potential energy possible from chain reactions created in a nuclear reactor, using a relatively small core of uranium, can light entire cities.
Einstein’s work on quantum theory has revolutionized our most basic understanding of nuclei, atoms, and the relationship between cause and effect. Quantum theory has led to practical discoveries as well. In 1948 scientists at Bell Laboratories were testing quantum theory by investigating the motion of electrons in the element germanium. Their work led directly to the development of the transistor and eventually to the integrated circuits used in all computers. Ironically, Einstein himself never fully appreciated the range and power of quantum theory.
Albert Einstein – 1879-1955