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, Germany, of secular Ashkenazi German Jewish parents. Einstein was observant for a time but never had a bar mitzvah. A Jewish medical student and family friend — ironically named Max Talmud — introduced Einstein to science books, which Einstein saw as contradicting religious teachings. Einstein did not believe in the commonly accepted anthropomorphic conception of God. “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men,” he wrote to a rabbi in 1929.
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, created the theory of Brownian motion, and introduced the photon theory of light (photoelectric effect). In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics
for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect (he received the prize a year later).
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 taught.
On June 24, 1922, Einstein’s friend. Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau was assassinated, and police warned the scientist he might be in danger prompting him to leave Berlin and go into hiding in Kiel. “Out here, nobody knows where I am, and I'm believed to be missing,” he wrote to his younger sister Maja on August 1922. “Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I’m happy to be able to get away from everything.” He added, “I’m doing pretty well, despite all the anti-Semites among the German colleagues. I’m very reclusive here, without noise and without unpleasant feelings, and am earning my money mainly independent of the state, so that I’m really a free man.”
During the 1920s, Einstein traveled widely in Europe, America, and Asia and identified himself with various public causes such as pacifism, Zionism, the League of Nations, and European unity. Einstein was asked by WZO president and fellow scientist Chaim Weizmann to raise money for the organization and for Hebrew University. Einstein worried the establishment of a Jewish state would provoke conflict with the Arabs, but, like Herzl before him, the anti-Semitism he faced in Europe convinced him of the need for a Jewish state. In 1921, he went on a fundraising tour of the United States. The following year, he stopped in Palestine for 12 days on the way back from a trip to Asia and gave the first-ever scientific lecture at Hebrew University. Einstein said he was proud of how Jews were becoming “a force in the world,” but never visited again.
When Hitler came to power in January 1933, Einstein was at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, being almost immediately deprived of his posts in Berlin and his membership in 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. The Nazis dismissed his work as
Einstein and his wife Elsa returned to Europe in March 1933 and stopped in Belgium, where he renounced his German citizenship. He returned to the U.S. and never again set foot in Germany. A lifelong opponent of nationalism, Einstein regarded the Third Reich as a catastrophe for civilization and became an outspoken opponent of National Socialism, making his name synonymous with treason in the Third Reich.
On October 1, 1940, Einstein became a U.S. citizen and became a Professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. 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.
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 humor, as well as his scientific genius, gave Einstein 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.
In 1955, Einstein was scheduled to deliver a speech marking Israel’s seventh Independence Day on ABC, NBC and CBS. On April 17, nine days before the speech, he experienced internal bleeding that landed him in the hospital. He reportedly took a draft of the speech with him to the hospital, but he died the next day at his Princeton home after refusing emergency surgery. The Israel State Archive published drafts of the speech in 2013.
[T]he establishment of Israel is an event which actively engages the conscience of this generation....It is, therefore, a bitter paradox to find that a State which was destined to be a shelter for a martyred people is itself threatened by grave dangers to its own security. The universal conscience cannot be indifferent to such peril.
When Albert Einstein died, the doctor who performed the autopsy, Dr. Thomas Harvey, stole Einstein’s brain, planning to study it to try to determine why he was a genius. Harvey measured and photographed the brain, and commissioned a painting of it from an artist who had done portraits of his children. He kept it in a jar in a beer cooler in his basement. He created 12 sets of 200 slides containing tissue samples that he sent to scientists interested in studying the brain.
In the 1990s, a group of rabbis asked the doctor if they could have the brain so they could bury it in Israel. The doctor declined.
The U.S. Army also wanted the brain, according to writer Carolyn Abraham.
They felt that having it would put them on a par with the Russians, who were collecting their own brains at that time.
In 1998, Harvey handed the 170 chunks of the brain still in his possession to Elliot Kraus, the chief pathologist at the University Medical Center of Princeton.
The doctor died in 2007. Abraham said
He lost everything after he took that brain. He lost his job, he lost his marriage, he lost his career at Princeton.
The brain ultimately was returned to Einstein’s heirs, who donated it to the Mütter Medical Museum in Philadelphia.
The Knesset declared that March 14 — Einstein’s birthday — would be National Science Day.
Sources: Robert S. Wistrich, Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, (Routledge, 1997).
8 Jewish Factoids About Albert Einstein, JTA, (November 25, 2015).
Israel State Archives.
William Kremer, “The strange afterlife of Einstein’s brain,” BBC, (April 18, 2015).
“Letter Shows Einstein Was Wary of anti-Semitism Long Before Nazis’ Rise,” AP,
Melissa Drift, “Einstein’s Brain has a history all its own,” Community News, (February 28, 2019).
Howard Markel, “The strange story of Einstein’s brain,” PBS News Hour, (April 19, 2023).
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