Albert Einstein is one of the most recognized and well-known scientists of the century. His theories solved centuries-old problems in physics and rocked even non-physicists’ view of the world.
Einstein’s early years did not mark him as a genius. His parents worried because he was so slow to learn to speak.
Although his family was Jewish, he attended a Catholic elementary school, where he did not excel. Because of failed business ventures, the family moved several times during Einstein’s childhood, finally to Italy when he was 15.
He was supposed to remain in Germany and finish school. He left, however (historians debate whether he was expelled or arranged to be excused for illness), and joined his family in Italy.
He also renounced his Germany citizenship then, which freed him from military service. He belonged to no country until he became a Swiss citizen in 1921.
From Italy, he went to Switzerland to finish high school and attend the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
He didn’t care for such organized education; he hated having to attend classes regularly and take exams. He graduated with a teaching degree, but couldn’t find a job.
Finally, he got a post at the Swiss patent office in Bern, in 1902. He worked there for seven years, which turned out to be the most productive period of his life.
In 1903 Albert Einstein married a former classmate, Maria Maric, though his parents disapproved. They’d had a daughter Liserl in 1902, but she was given up for adoption. They later had two sons.
1905 was a huge year for Einstein.
He published five papers in the German Yearbook of Physics, three or them groundbreaking. The first was on the motion of particles suspended in liquid.
He developed a mathematical formula to explain that the visible motion of the particles was due to the invisible motion of the molecules of the liquid.
His second paper was on the photoelectric effect, or the release of electrons from a metal when light shines on it. Albert Einstein used the very recent ideas of Max Planck to explain the phenomenon.
That is, he explained it in terms of quanta, or packets of energy. This was the first use of the theory outside of Planck’s own work. Einstein received the Nobel Prize in physics for this paper.
Last and perhaps most famous, Einstein published his special theory of relativity. This resulted in the shocking conclusion that time is not constant. Neither is weight or mass. When moving at high speeds, all of these things get compressed; only the speed of light remains the same.
That happens because, said Einstein, energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc2.
In the following years, Einstein held positions at universities in Zurich, Prague, and Berlin.
In 1914, Albert Einstein was in Berlin. War broke out, and his wife and two sons returned to Switzerland. The couple’s relationship had grown increasingly distant, and after the war, the two were never reunited.
They officially divorced in 1919. Some historians now believe that Maria Maric was instrumental in Einstein’s early work, especially the mathematical calculations.
In his letters to her he mentioned “our papers,” and in one even wrote, “How happy and proud I will be when both of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a successful end.”
As he gained greater prestige and scientific positions, she gained greater household responsibilities and their collaboration ended.
When he received the Nobel Prize, however, Einstein gave the cash award to Maria Maric. Soon after their divorce, Einstein married his cousin Elsa.
Meanwhile, he kept grappling with the ideas of physics. There were problems with his special theory, and he knew it.
It was extremely radical. To account for gravity, time and space must be curved around massive objects. The math was very complex and the whole idea so strange that most people didn’t accept it.
But Einstein suggested three ways it could be proven. One was to make observations of starlight during a solar eclipse. Conveniently, a solar eclipse occurred in 1919 and astronomers made the observations that proved the general theory of relativity.
Albert Einstein became a celebrity. Much of the world had just caught its breath after a long and horrifying war, and perhaps in relief, latched on to this amazing human achievement.
Einstein himself had always opposed the war.
He spoke against it during the First World War, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Hitler was rising to power in Germany, and though Einstein had renewed his German citizenship, he was considered suspect as both a Jew and a pacifist.
It may be, too, that the absolutist Nazi party found that his relativity theories conflicted with what they considered pure physics.
He was in California when Hitler took power in 1933, and he never returned to Germany. He took a position at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he remained for the rest of his life.
By the 1920s, Einstein’s major contributions to physics were behind him.
He debated quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle with Niels Bohr, which helped Bohr clarify the concept, but it was a theory that Einstein never quite accepted.
He spent his later years in search of a unified field theory, or one basic equation to explain all of the forces of nature.
He wrote on many topics, especially peace, but rising fascism in the years before World War II made him sign a 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, warning him that the Germans could create an atomic weapon. This led FDR to set up the Manhattan Project, an effort to secretly develop an atomic bomb.
Though Einstein’s formula E = mc2 was key to the project, Einstein was considered a security risk and was not involved.
In 1940 Einstein renounced his German citizenship for the second time and became a U.S. citizen.
He became a supporter of disarmament and of a Jewish state. In 1952 the young nation of Israel offered Einstein the presidency, but he declined.
The ninety-ninth element in the periodic table was discovered shortly after Einstein’s death in 1955, and it was named “einsteinium.”
“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”
*This article was originally published at www.pbs.org.