March 14th is the birthday of possibly the most influential of scientists, Albert Einstein. I’ve written about him before in Relatively Simple, in which I tried to simplify his most famous theory. You might wonder why a physicist is included in articles about nature – well, Einstein’s discoveries have helped us to understand the cosmos, which is nature in its entirety. So today I thought I’d pay tribute to the great man by giving you a short version of his life story.
Albert was born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany. He went to school in Munich, though he struggled there despite his intelligence and inquisitiveness (it’s now thought he may have been on the autistic spectrum). Aged around 10, Albert became the pupil of a Polish medical student who awoke an interest in science. When still a teenager, Albert wrote his first scientific paper, The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.
In the 1890s the Einstein family emigrated from Germany to Switzerland. Due to his amazing performance in maths and science exams, Albert was accepted into Swiss Federal University, despite not having finished his secondary schooling. While at university he missed many lectures because he was pursuing his own investigations – he still graduated though.
After university Einstein found it difficult to get academic work. His professors had taken a dislike to Einstein’s independent learning style (again, a possible sign of autism). Instead, this talented scientist found himself working as a clerk in a patent office!
When he was not at his mundane job, Einstein continued his scientific investigations at home. In 1905 he had four more scientific papers published – on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, matter and energy, and (most famous by far) the special theory of relativity. This put young Einstein on the physics map and he became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics.
Einstein became famous worldwide and embarked on lecturing tours across the globe. Whilst he was on one of these, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Einstein was of Jewish heritage (though a religious agnostic) and so decided not to return to his homeland. Instead he took up residence in the USA, where he warned that Germany was working on a nuclear bomb. This led to the USA, the UK and Canada working on creating their own nuclear weapons, though Einstein would not help in the project – he was a lifelong pacifist.
After the war, Einstein worked to promote civil rights in America, as well as trying to fathom out wormholes, time-travel and the origins of the universe. He also worked alongside the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to outlaw nuclear weapons. He died in 1955 and is remembered as one of science’s greatest thinkers.