(1879 - 1955)
One of the greatest physicists of all time, Nobel
Prize winner and discoverer of the special and general theory of
relativity, Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Wurttemberg,
of Jewish parents.
He spent his early years in Munich where his father
set up a small electrochemical business. As a boy he was fascinated
by algebra and geometry, though he detested the barracks discipline
of German schools. In 1896, he entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic
School in Zurich, graduating in 1900 and receiving his doctorate from
Zurich in 1905. Unable to get an academic position, he took a post with
the patent office in Bern while continuing to pursue his concern with
the fundamental problems of physics.
In 1905, he published four brilliant papers in the
Annalen der Physik which were to transform twentieth-century scientific
thought. He established the special theory of relativity, predicted
the equivalence of mass (m) and energy (e) according to the equation e = mc2, where (c) represents the velocity of light; he created
the theory of Brownian motion and founded the photon theory of light
(photoelectric effect) for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1921.
Einstein joined the German University of Prague in
1910 and then, in 1913, through Max Planck received a Professorship
at the Prussian Academy of Science in Berlin.
In 1916, Einstein published his Die Grundlagen
der allgemeinen Relativitatstheorie (Relativity, the Special and
the General Theory: A Popular Exposition, 1920), which profoundly modified
the simple concepts of space and time on which Newtonian mechanics had
been based. His prediction of the deflection of light by the gravitational
field of the sun was borne out by a British team of scientists at the
time of the solar eclipse in 1919, making Einstein a household name.
Throughout the Weimar years he was lionized, especially
abroad, though in Germany not only his work but also his pacifist politics aroused violent animosity
in extreme right-wing circles. Anti-semites sought to brand his theory
of relativity as 'un-German' and during the Third Reich they partially
achieved their objective, when Einstein's name could no longer be mentioned
in lectures or scholarly papers, though his relativity theory was still
During the 1920s Einstein travelled widely in Europe,
America and Asia and identified himself with various public causes such
as pacifism, Zionism, the League of
Nations and European unity.
When Hitler came to power in January 1933,
Einstein was in California and he never returned to Germany, being almost
immediately deprived of his posts in Berlin and his membership of the
Prussian Academy of Sciences. His property was seized, a price was put on his head
by Nazi fanatics and his books were among those burned publicly on May 10, 1933, as manifestations of the 'un-German spirit'.
As an outspoken opponent of National Socialism his name became synonymous
with treason in the Third Reich.
In 1940, Einstein emigrated to the United States where he became
a Professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies (Princeton) and an
American citizen. Alarmed at the prospect that Hitler's Germany
might acquire an atomic bomb after two German physicists had discovered
the fission of uranium, Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt in August 1939, which sparked off the Manhattan project. It was one
of the great ironies of his career that the pacifist Einstein, through
this action, should have helped initiate the era of nuclear weapons
to whose use he was completely opposed.
A lifelong opponent of nationalism, Einstein regarded
the Third Reich as a catastrophe for civilization.
An ardent supporter of Zionism, four years after the creation of Israel Einstein was offered the Presidency of Israel by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Though moved by the offer, Einstein declined, offering the following statement:
"I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel [to serve as President], and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions. For these reasons alone I should be unsuited to fulfill the duties of that high office, even if advancing age was not making increasing inroads on my strength. I am the more distressed over these circumstances because my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world."
His simplicity, benevolence and good humour as well
as his scientific genius gave Einstein a unique fame and prestige among
physicists, even though after the mid-1920s he diverged from the main
trends in the field, especially disliking the probabilistic interpretation
of the universe associated with quantum theory.
The best-known refugee from Nazism and one of its
most adamant critics, Einstein died at his Princeton home on April 18, 1955.
Sources: Wistrich, Robert S. Who's Who in Nazi Germany, Routledge,
1997; Photo Credit: Albert Einstein Licensed by The Hebrew
University of Jerusalem. Represented by The Roger Richman Agency, Inc.,
Beverly Hills, CA 90212; www.albert-einstein.net