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Albert Einstein

Inventors and scientists

Albert Einstein
March 14, 1879, Ulm, Württemberg, Germany
April 18, 1955, Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.

German-born physicist Albert Einstein developed the special and general theories of relativity. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Einstein is generally considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century.

Albert Einstein

Special Relativity

In 1902 Einstein reached perhaps the lowest point in his life.  He  could  not  marry  Meliva  Maric,  whom  he  loved, and support a family without a job. Desperate and unemployed, Einstein took lowly jobs. The turning point came later that year, when the father of his lifelong friend, Marcel Grossman, was able to recommend him for a position as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern.

Einstein married Maric on Jan. 6, 1903. Their children, Hans Albert and Eduard, were born in Bern in 1904 and 1910, respectively. In hindsight, Einstein’s job at the patent office was a blessing. He would quickly finish analyzing patent applications, leaving him time to daydream about the vision that had obsessed him since he was 16: What will happen if you race alongside a light beam?

Einstein  had  studied  Maxwell’s  equations,  which describe the nature of light, and discovered that the speed of light remained the same no matter how fast one moved. This violated Newton’s laws of motion, however, because there is no absolute velocity in Isaac Newton’s theory. This insight led Einstein to formulate the principle of relativity: “The speed of light is a constant in any inertial frame (constantly moving frame).”

During 1905, often called Einstein’s “miracle year,” he published four papers in the Annalen der Physik, each of which would alter the course of modern physics:

  • “Über einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt” (“On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”), in which Einstein applied the quantum theory to light in order to explain the photoelectric effect. If light occurs in tiny packets (later alled photons), then it should knock out electrons in a metal in a precise way.

  • “Über die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen” (“On the Movement of Small Particles  Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat”), in which Einstein offered the first experimental proof of the existence of atoms. By analyzing the motion of tiny particles suspended in still water, called Brownian motion, he could calculate the size of the jostling atoms and Avogadro’s number.

  • “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper” (“On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”), in which Einstein laid out the mathematical theory of special relativity.

  • “Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energieinhalt abhängig?” (“Does the Inertia of a  Body Depend Upon Its  Energy Content?”), submitted almost as an afterthought, which showed that relativity theory led to the equation E = mc2 . This provided the first mechanism to explain the energy source of the Sun and other stars.

Einstein was the first to assemble the whole theory together and to realize that it was a universal law of nature, not a curious figment of motion in the ether.

General Relativity

At first Einstein’s 1905 papers were ignored by the physics community. This began to change after he received the attention of just one physicist, perhaps the most influential physicist of his generation, Max Planck, the founder of the quantum theory. Soon, owing to Planck’s laudatory comments and to experiments that gradually confirmed his theories, Einstein rose rapidly in the academic world.

One of the deep thoughts that consumed Einstein from 1905 to 1915 was a crucial flaw in his own theory: It made no mention of gravitation or acceleration. For the next 10 years, Einstein would be absorbed with formulating a theory of gravity in terms of the curvature of space-time. To Einstein, Newton’s gravitational force was actually a by-product of a deeper reality: the bending of the fabric of space and time. In November 1915 Einstein finally completed the general theory of relativity, which he considered to be his masterpiece.

Einstein was convinced that general relativity was correct because of its mathematical beauty and because it accurately predicted the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. His theory also predicted a measurable deflection of light around the Sun. As a consequence, he even offered to help fund an expedition to measure the deflection of starlight during an eclipse of the Sun.

Delayed Confirmation

After World War I, two expeditions were sent to test Einstein’s  prediction of deflected starlight near the Sun. One set sail for the island of Principe, off the coast of West Africa, and the other to Sobral in northern Brazil in order to observe the solar eclipse of May 29, 1919. On Nov. 6, 1919, the results were announced in London at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.

The headline of The Timesof London read, “Revolution in Science New Theory of the Universe Newton’s Ideas Overthrown Momentous Pronouncement Space ‘Warped.’” Almost immediately, Einstein became a worldrenowned physicist, the successor to Isaac Newton.

In 1921 Einstein received the Nobel Prize for Physics, but for the photoelectric effect rather than for his relativity theories. During his acceptance speech, Einstein startled the audience by speaking about relativity instead of the photoelectric effect. Einstein also launched the new science of cosmology. His equations predicted that the universe is dynamic expanding or contracting. This contradicted the prevailing view that the universe was static, so he reluctantly introduced a “cosmological term” to stabilize his model of the universe. In 1929 astronomer Edwin Hubble found that the universe was indeed expanding, thereby confirming Einstein’s earlier  work. In 1930, in a visit to the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles, Einstein met with Hubble and declared the cosmological constant to be his “greatest blunder.” Recent satellite data, however, have shown that the cosmological constant is probably not zero but actually dominates the matterenergy content of the entire universe. Einstein’s “blunder” apparently determines the ultimate fate of the universe.

Coming to America

Inevitably, Einstein’s fame and the great success of his theories created a backlash. The rising Nazi movement found a convenient target in relativity, branding it “Jewish physics” and sponsoring conferences and book burnings to denounce Einstein and his theories.

In December 1932 Einstein decided to leave Germany forever (he would never go back). It became obvious to Einstein that his life was in danger. Einstein settled at the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J., which  soon  became a mecca for physicists from around the world.

Personal Sorrow

The 1930s were hard years for Einstein. His son Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered a mental breakdown in 1930. His beloved wife, Elsa Löwenthal, whom he married after having divorced Mileva in 1919, died in 1936. To his horror, during the late 1930s, physicists began seriously to consider whether his equation E=mc2 might make an atomic bomb possible. Then, in 1938–39, a group of physicists showed that vast amounts of energy could be unleashed by the splitting of the uranium atom.

Einstein was granted permanent residency in the United States in 1935 and became an American citizen in 1940, although he chose to retain his Swiss citizenship. During the war, Einstein’s colleagues were asked to journey to the desert town of Los Alamos, N.M., to develop the first atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. Einstein, the man whose equation had set the whole effort into motion, was never asked to participate because the U.S. government feared Einstein’s lifelong association with peace and socialist organizations. Instead, during the war Einstein was asked to help the U.S. Navy evaluate designs for future weapons systems. Einstein also helped the war effort by auctioning off priceless personal manuscripts. In particular, a handwritten copy of his 1905 paper on special relativity was sold for $6.5 million. It is now located in the Library of Congress.

Einstein was on vacation when he heard the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. Almost immediately he was part of an international effort to try to bring the atomic bomb under control, forming the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists.

Professional Isolation

Although Einstein continued to pioneer many key developments in the theory of general relativity-such as wormholes, higher dimensions, the possibility of time travel, the existence of black holes, and the creation of the universe-he was increasingly isolated from the rest of the physics community. Because of the huge strides made by quantum theory in unraveling the secrets of atoms and molecules, the majority of physicists were working on the quantum theory, not relativity. Einstein tried to find logical inconsistencies in the quantum theory, particularly its lack of a deterministic mechanism. Einstein would often say that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

In 1935 Einstein’s most celebrated attack on the quantum  theory  led  to  the  EPR  (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen) thought experiment. According to quantum theory, under certain circumstances two electrons separated by huge distances would have their properties linked, as if by an umbilical cord. Under these circumstances, if the properties of the first electron were measured, the state of the second electron would be known instantly-faster than the speed of light. This conclusion, Einstein claimed, clearly violated relativity. (Experiments conducted since then have confirmed that the quantum theory, rather than Einstein, was correct  about the EPR experiment. In essence, what Einstein had actually shown was that quantum mechanics is nonlocal; i.e., random information can travel faster than light. This does not violate relativity, because the information is random and therefore useless.)

The other reason for Einstein’s increasing detachment from his colleagues was his obsession, beginning in 1925, with discovering a unified field theory-an all-embracing theory that would unify the forces of the universe, and thereby the laws of physics, into one framework. In his later years he stopped opposing the quantum theory and tried to incorporate it, along with light and gravity, into a larger unified field theory.

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