Recognized in his own time as one of the most creative intellects in human history, Albert Einstein, in the first 15 years of the 20th century, advanced a series of theories that for the first time asserted the equivalence of mass and energy and proposed entirely new ways of thinking about space, time, and gravitation. His theories of relativity and gravitation were a profound advance over the old Newtonian physics and revolutionized scientific and philosophic inquiry.
Herein lay the unique drama of Einstein's life. He was a self-confessed lone traveller; his mind and heart soared with the cosmos, yet he could not armour himself against the intrusion of the often horrendous events of the human community. Almost reluctantly he admitted that he had a "passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility." His celebrity gave him an influential voice that he used to champion such causes as pacifism, liberalism, and Zionism. The irony for this idealistic man was that his famous postulation of an energy-mass equation, which states that a particle of matter can be converted into an enormous quantity of energy, had its spectacular proof in the creation of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the most destructive weapons ever known.
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879. The following year his family moved to Munich, where Hermann Einstein, his father, and Jakob Einstein, his uncle, set up a small electrical plant and engineering works. In Munich Einstein attended rigidly disciplined schools. Under the harsh and pedantic regimentation of 19th-century German education, which he found intimidating and boring, he showed little scholastic ability. At the behest of his mother, Einstein also studied music; though throughout life he played exclusively for relaxation, he became an accomplished violinist. It was then only Uncle Jakob who stimulated in Einstein a fascination for mathematics and Uncle Cdsar Koch who stimulated a consuming curiosity about science.
By the age of 12 Einstein had decided to devote himself to solving the riddle of the "huge world." Three years later, with poor grades in history, geography, and languages, he left school with no diploma and went to Milan to rejoin his family, who had recently moved there from Germany because of his father's business setbacks. Albert Einstein resumed his education in Switzerland, culminating in four years of physics and mathematics at the renowned Federal Polytechnic Academy in Z|rich.
After his graduation in the spring of 1900, he became a Swiss citizen, worked for two months as a mathematics teacher, and then was employed as examiner at the Swiss patent office in Bern. With his newfound security, Einstein married his university sweetheart, Mileva Maric, in 1903.
Early in 1905 Einstein published in the prestigious German physics monthly Annalen der Physik a thesis, "A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions," that won him a Ph.D. from the University of Z|rich. Four more important papers appeared in Annalen that year and forever changed man's view of the universe.
The first of these, "\ber die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wdrme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Fl|ssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen" ("On the Motion--Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat--of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid"), provided a theoretical explanation of Brownian motion. In "\ber einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt" ("On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light"), Einstein postulated that light is composed of individual quanta (later called photons) that, in addition to wavelike behaviour, demonstrate certain properties unique to particles. In a single stroke he thus revolutionized the theory of light and provided an explanation for, among other phenomena, the emission of electrons from some solids when struck by light, called the photoelectric effect.
Einstein's special theory of relativity, first printed in "Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Kvrper" ("On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies"), had its beginnings in an essay Einstein wrote at age 16. The precise influence of work by other physicists on Einstein's special theory is still controversial. The theory held that, if, for all frames of reference, the speed of light is constant and if all natural laws are the same, then both time and motion are found to be relative to the observer.
In the mathematical progression of the theory, Einstein published his fourth paper, "Ist die Trdgheit eines Kvrpers von seinem Energieinhalt abhdngig?" ("Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?"). This mathematical footnote to the special theory of relativity established the equivalence of mass and energy, according to which the energy E of a quantity of matter, with mass m, is equal to the product of the mass and the square of the velocity of light, c. This relationship is commonly expressed in the form E = mc2.
Public understanding of this new theory and acclaim for its creator were still many years off, but Einstein had won a place among Europe's most eminent physicists, who increasingly sought his counsel, as he did theirs. While Einstein continued to develop his theory, attempting now to encompass with it the phenomenon of gravitation, he left the patent office and returned to teaching--first in Switzerland, briefly at the German University in Prague, where he was awarded a full professorship, and then, in the winter of 1912, back at the Polytechnic in Z|rich. He was later remembered from this time as a very happy man, content in his marriage and delighted with his two young sons, Hans Albert and Edward.
In April 1914 the family moved to Berlin, where Einstein had accepted a position with the Prussian Academy of Sciences, an arrangement that permitted him to continue his researches with only the occasional diversion of lecturing at the University of Berlin. His wife and two sons vacationed in Switzerland that summer and, with the eruption of World War I, were unable to return to Berlin. A few years later this enforced separation was to lead to divorce. Einstein abhorred the war and was an outspoken critic of German militarism among the generally acquiescent academic community in Berlin, but he was primarily engrossed in perfecting his general theory of relativity, which he published in Annalen der Physik as "Die Grundlagen der allgemeinen Relativitdtstheorie" ("The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity") in 1916. The heart of this postulate was that gravitation is not a force, as Newton had said, but a curved field in the space-time continuum, created by the presence of mass. This notion could be proved or disproved, he suggested, by measuring the deflection of starlight as it travelled close by the Sun, the starlight being visible only during a total eclipse. Einstein predicted twice the light deflection that would be accountable under Newton's laws.
His new equations also explained for the first time the puzzling irregularity--that is, the slight advance--in the planet Mercury's perihelion, and they demonstrated why stars in a strong gravitational field emitted light closer to the red end of the spectrum than those in a weaker field.
While Einstein awaited the end of the war and the opportunity for his theory to be tested under eclipse conditions, he became more and more committed to pacifism, even to the extent of distributing pacifist literature to sympathizers in Berlin. His attitudes were greatly influenced by the French pacifist and author Romain Rolland, whom he met on a wartime visit to Switzerland. Rolland's diary later provided the best glimpse of Einstein's physical appearance as he reached his middle 30s:
||Einstein is still a young man, not very tall, with a wide and long face, and a great mane of crispy, frizzled and very black hair, sprinkled with gray and rising high from a lofty brow. His nose is fleshy and prominent, his mouth small, his lips full, his cheeks plump, his chin rounded. He wears a small cropped mustache. (By permission of Madame Marie Romain Rolland.)|
Einstein's view of humanity during the war period appears in a letter to his friend, the Austrian-born Dutch physicist Paul Ehrenfest:
||The ancient Jehovah is still abroad. Alas, he slays the innocent along with the guilty, whom he strikes so fearsomely blind that they can feel no sense of guilt. . . . We are dealing with an epidemic delusion which, having caused infinite suffering, will one day vanish and become a monstrous and incomprehensible source of wonderment to later generations. (From Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden [eds.], Einstein on Peace; Simon and Schuster, 1960.)|
It would be said often of Einstein that he was naove about human affairs; for example, with the proclamation of the German Republic and the armistice in 1918, he was convinced that militarism had been thoroughly abolished in Germany.
International fame came to Einstein in November 1919, when the Royal Society of London announced that its scientific expedition to Prmncipe Island, in the Gulf of Guinea, had photographed the solar eclipse on May 29 of that year and completed calculations that verified the predictions made in Einstein's general theory of relativity. Few could understand relativity, but the basic postulates were so revolutionary and the scientific community was so obviously bedazzled that the physicist was acclaimed the greatest genius on Earth. Einstein himself was amazed at the reaction and apparently displeased, for he resented the consequent interruptions of his work. After his divorce he had, in the summer of 1919, married Elsa, the widowed daughter of his late father's cousin. He lived quietly with Elsa and her two daughters in Berlin, but, inevitably, his views as a foremost savant were sought on a variety of issues.
Despite the now deteriorating political situation in Germany, Einstein attacked nationalism and promoted pacifist ideals. With the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Berlin, Einstein was castigated for his "Bolshevism in physics," and the fury against him in right-wing circles grew when he began publicly to support the Zionist movement. Judaism had played little part in his life, but he insisted that, as a snail can shed his shell and still be a snail, so a Jew can shed his faith and still be a Jew.
Although Einstein was regarded warily in Berlin, such was the demand for him in other European cities that he travelled widely to lecture on relativity, usually arriving at each place by third-class rail carriage, with a violin tucked under his arm. So successful were his lectures that one enthusiastic impresario guaranteed him a three-week booking at the London Palladium. He ignored the offer, but, at the request of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, toured the United States in the spring of 1921 to raise money for the Palestine Foundation Fund. Frequently treated like a circus freak and feted from morning to night, Einstein nevertheless was gratified by the standards of scientific research and the "idealistic attitudes" that he found prevailing in the United States.
During the next three years Einstein was constantly on the move, journeying not only to European capitals but also to the Orient, to the Middle East, and to South America. According to his diary notes, he found nobility among the Hindus of Ceylon, a pureness of soul among the Japanese, and a magnificent intellectual and moral calibre among the Jewish settlers in Palestine. His wife later wrote that, on steaming into one new harbour, Einstein had said to her, "Let us take it all in before we wake up."
In Shanghai a cable reached him announcing that he had been awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics "for your photoelectric law and your work in the field of theoretical physics." Relativity, still the centre of controversy, was not mentioned.
Though the 1920s were tumultuous times of wide acclaim, and some notoriety, Einstein did not waver from his new search--to find the mathematical relationship between electromagnetism and gravitation. This would be a first step, he felt, in discovering the common laws governing the behaviour of everything in the universe, from the electron to the planets. He sought to relate the universal properties of matter and energy in a single equation or formula, in what came to be called a unified field theory. This turned out to be a fruitless quest that occupied the rest of his life. Einstein's peers generally agreed quite early that his search was destined to fail because the rapidly developing quantum theory uncovered an uncertainty principle in all measurements of the motion of particles: the movement of a single particle simply could not be predicted because of a fundamental uncertainty in measuring simultaneously both its speed and its position, which means, in effect, that the future of any physical system at the subatomic level cannot be predicted. While fully recognizing the brilliance of quantum mechanics, Einstein rejected the idea that these theories were absolute and persevered with his theory of general relativity as the more satisfactory foundation to future discovery. He was widely quoted on his belief in an exactly engineered universe: "God is subtle but he is not malicious." On this point, he parted company with most theoretical physicists. The distinguished German quantum theorist Max Born, a close friend of Einstein, said at the time: "Many of us regard this as a tragedy, both for him, as he gropes his way in loneliness, and for us, who miss our leader and standard-bearer." This appraisal, and others pronouncing his work in later life as largely wasted effort, will have to await the judgment of later generations.
The year of Einstein's 50th birthday, 1929, marked the beginning of the ebb flow of his life's work in a number of aspects. Early in the year the Prussian Academy published the first version of his unified-field theory, but, despite the sensation it caused, its very preliminary nature soon became apparent. The reception of the theory left him undaunted, but Einstein was dismayed by the preludes to certain disaster in the field of human affairs: Arabs launched savage attacks on Jewish colonists in Palestine; the Nazis gained strength in Germany; the League of Nations proved so impotent that Einstein resigned abruptly from its Committee on Intellectual Cooperation as a protest to its timidity; and the stock market crash in New York City heralded worldwide economic crisis.
Crushing Einstein's natural gaiety more than any of these events was the mental breakdown of his younger son, Edward. Edward had worshipped his father from a distance but now blamed him for deserting him and for ruining his life. Einstein's sorrow was eased only slightly by the amicable relationship he enjoyed with his older son, Hans Albert.
As visiting professor at Oxford University in 1931, Einstein spent as much time espousing pacifism as he did discussing science. He went so far as to authorize the establishment of the Einstein War Resisters' International Fund in order to bring massive public pressure to bear on the World Disarmament Conference, scheduled to meet in Geneva in February 1932. When these talks foundered, Einstein felt that his years of supporting world peace and human understanding had accomplished nothing. Bitterly disappointed, he visited Geneva to focus world attention on the "farce" of the disarmament conference. In a rare moment of fury, Einstein stated to a journalist,
||They [the politicians and statesmen] have cheated us. They have fooled us. Hundreds of millions of people in Europe and in America, billions of men and women yet to be born, have been and are being cheated, traded and tricked out of their lives and health and well-being.|
Shortly after this, in a famous exchange of letters with the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, Einstein suggested that people must have an innate lust for hatred and destruction. Freud agreed, adding that war was biologically sound because of the love-hate instincts of man and that pacifism was an idiosyncrasy directly related to Einstein's high degree of cultural development. This exchange was only one of Einstein's many philosophic dialogues with renowned men of his age. With Rabindranath Tagore, Hindu poet and mystic, he discussed the nature of truth. While Tagore held that truth was realized through man, Einstein maintained that scientific truth must be conceived as a valid truth that is independent of humanity. "I cannot prove that I am right in this, but that is my religion," said Einstein. Firmly denying atheism, Einstein expressed a belief in "Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of what exists." The physicist's breadth of spirit and depth of enthusiasm were always most evident among truly intellectual men. He loved being with the physicists Paul Ehrenfest and Hendrick A. Lorentz at The Netherlands' Leiden University, and several times he visited the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to attend seminars at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, which had become world renowned as a centre for astrophysical research. At Mt. Wilson he heard the Belgian scientist Abbi Georges Lemantre detail his theory that the universe had been created by the explosion of a "primeval atom" and was still expanding. Gleefully, Einstein jumped to his feet, applauding. "This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened," he said.
In 1933, soon after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and left the country. He later accepted a full-time position as a foundation member of the school of mathematics at the new Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In reprisal, Nazi storm troopers ransacked his beloved summer house at Caputh, near Berlin, and confiscated his sailboat. Einstein was so convinced that Nazi Germany was preparing for war that, to the horror of Romain Rolland and his other pacifist friends, he violated his pacifist ideals and urged free Europe to arm and recruit for defense.
Although his warnings about war were largely ignored, there were fears for Einstein's life. He was taken by private yacht from Belgium to England. By the time he arrived in Princeton in October 1933, he had noticeably aged. A friend wrote,
||It was as if something had deadened in him. He sat in a chair at our place, twisting his white hair in his fingers and talking dreamily about everything under the sun. He was not laughing any more.|
In Princeton Einstein set a pattern that was to vary little for more than 20 years. He lived with his wife in a simple, two-story frame house and most mornings walked a mile or so to the Institute, where he worked on his unified field theory and talked with colleagues. For relaxation he played his violin and sailed on a local lake. Only rarely did he travel, even to New York. In a letter to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, he described his new refuge as a "wonderful little spot, . . . a quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts." Eventually he acquired American citizenship, but he always continued to think of himself as a European. Pursuing his own line of theoretical research outside the mainstream of physics, he took on an air of fixed serenity. "Among my European friends, I am now called Der grosse Schweiger ("The Great Stone Face"), a title I well deserve," he said. Even his wife's death late in 1936 did not disturb his outward calm. "It seemed that the difference between life and death for Einstein consisted only in the difference between being able and not being able to do physics," wrote Leopold Infeld, the Polish physicist who arrived in Princeton at this time.
Niels Bohr, the great Danish atomic physicist, brought news to Einstein in 1939 that the German refugee physicist Lise Meitner had split the uranium atom, with a slight loss of total mass that had been converted into energy. Meitner's experiments, performed in Copenhagen, had been inspired by similar, though less precise, experiments done months earlier in Berlin by two German chemists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. Bohr speculated that, if a controlled chain-reaction splitting of uranium atoms could be accomplished, a mammoth explosion would result. Einstein was skeptical, but laboratory experiments in the United States showed the feasibility of the idea. With a European war regarded as imminent and fears that Nazi scientists might build such a "bomb" first, Einstein was persuaded by colleagues to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging "watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action" on the part of the United States in atomic-bomb research. This recommendation marked the beginning of the Manhattan Project.
Although he took no part in the work at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and did not learn that a nuclear-fission bomb had been made until Hiroshima was razed in 1945, Einstein's name was emphatically associated with the advent of the atomic age. He readily joined those scientists seeking ways to prevent any future use of the bomb, his particular and urgent plea being the establishment of a world government under a constitution drafted by the United States, Britain, and Russia. With the spur of the atomic fear that haunted the world, he said "we must not be merely willing, but actively eager to submit ourselves to the binding authority necessary for world security." Once more, Einstein's name surged through the newspapers. Letters and statements tumbled out of his Princeton study, and in the public eye Einstein the physicist dissolved into Einstein the world citizen, a kind "grand old man" devoting his last years to bringing harmony to the world.
The rejection of his ideals by statesmen and politicians did not break him, because his prime obsession still remained with physics. "I cannot tear myself away from my work," he wrote at the time. "It has me inexorably in its clutches." In proof of this came his new version of the unified field in 1950, a most meticulous mathematical essay that was immediately but politely criticized by most physicists as untenable.
Compared with his renown of a generation earlier, Einstein was virtually neglected and said himself that he felt almost like a stranger in the world. His health deteriorated to the extent that he could no longer play the violin or sail his boat. Many years earlier, chronic abdominal pains had forced him to give up smoking his pipe and to watch his diet carefully.
On April 18, 1955, Einstein died in his sleep at Princeton Hospital. On his desk lay his last incomplete statement, written to honour Israeli Independence Day. It read in part: "What I seek to accomplish is simply to serve with my feeble capacity truth and justice at the risk of pleasing no one." His contribution to man's understanding of the universe was matchless, and he is established for all time as a giant of science. Broadly speaking, his crusades in human affairs seem to have had no lasting impact. Einstein perhaps anticipated such an assessment of his life when he said, "Politics are for the moment. An equation is for eternity."
Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica without permission.