Albert Einstein revolutionized Physics

Albert Einstein during a lecture in 1921

On March 14, 1879German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was born, who has become an iconic figure for physics as well as science of the 20th century. He is best known for his theories on special and general relativity, as well as for the discovery of the photoelectric effect – for which he received the Nobel Prize – and he developed what has been named the most famous equation in history, the mass energy equivalence. Of course our history of science and technology (and art) blog wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Albert Einstein’s birthday. We already had several articles mentioning Einsteins work (The annus mirabilis 1905) or influence (relativity theory, nuclear fission, quantum physics, etc.). Thus, it is high time to take a closer look at the life of the most prominent scientist ever that has even become a popular icon.

Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg in the German Empire on 14 March 1879 as son of Hermann Einstein, a salesman and engineer and Pauline Einstein. In 1880, the family moved to Munich, where his father and his uncle founded Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie, a company that manufactured electrical equipment based on direct current. At age ten, Einstein was introduced to popular books on science, mathematical texts and philosophical writings by Max Talmud, a poor Jewish medical student from Poland and friend of the Einstein family. Among these books also were Immanuel Kant‘s Critique of Pure Reason, and Euclid‘s Elements (which Einstein called the “holy little geometry book”).

Already at an early age, Einstein began to wonder about the world and its fundamental physical laws. A fundamental question arose in him, when considering how a light beam would look like if you could run alongside it at the same speed. If light were a wave as physics had proposed, then the light beam should appear stationary, i.e. it should look like a frozen wave. But the light beam is moving, which leads to a new paradox and to the very first “scientific paper” of Einstein already written at age 16: “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.” Nevertheless, this very question of the relative speed to the stationary observer and the observer moving with the light would dominate his thinking over the next decade and lead to his groundbreaking theory of relativity.

In 1894, in search of new business the Einstein family moved to Italy and Albert continued his education at Aarau, Switzerland and in 1896 he entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich to be trained as a teacher in physics and mathematics. In 1901, the year he gained his diploma, he acquired Swiss citizenship. Because Einstein often prefered to study on his own, he had cut classes about what some of his professors became very angry. Among them, Heinrich Friedrich Weber, wrote a letter of recommendation at Einstein’s request that was responsible for denying him for every academic position that he applied to after graduation. Thus, Einstein had to accepted a position as technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, where his lifelong friend Marcel Grossmann had recommended him.

1905 should become Einstein’s so-called “miracle year“(annus mirabilis): he submitted a paper for his PhD and had four groundbreaking papers published in the best known journal of Physics, the Annalen der Physik. The four papers are dealing with the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy. All of them have altered the course of modern physics and finally brought Einstein to the attention of the academic world – but this is already another story.

Einstein was offered a series of positions at increasingly prestigious institutions, including the University of Zürich, the University of Prague, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and finally the University of Berlin, where he served as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933. In February 1933 while on a visit to the United States, Einstein decided not to return to Germany due to the rise to power of the Nazis. He took up a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, which would last until his death in 1955. There, he soon developed a close friendship with German mathematician Kurt Gödel, who accompanied him on long walks together discussing their work. During this period in Princeton, Einstein tried to develop a unified field theory and to refute the accepted interpretation of quantum physics, both unsuccessfully.

Albert Einstein’s life and work is much too comprehensive to fit entirely in one single daily blog post. Therefore, you should stay tuned to read more about the famous physicist and his role in science. Of course, Einstein’s work is not easy to understand for the laymen. But at yovisto, you have the possibility – besides many other lecture’s about Einstein and his work – to learn more esp. about the big picture of his work in Prof. Ramamurti Shankar’s lecture “Einstein for the Masses“.

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