The general theory of relativity was a stunning elaboration on special relativity. The first theory applied only to observations made by someone moving at a constant speed. Its successor allowed for the way the laws of physics appear to someone accelerating or decelerating — the more “general” case. Again, a thought problem proved crucial. When a worker falls off the roof, he momentarily does not feel the pull of gravity. Why? In that prosaic question, Einstein perceived a stark physical truth, the equivalence between gravity and acceleration. The worker normally feels weight because of gravity, which is really just a constant downward acceleration. If nothing resists it, as during a fall, that feeling goes away. Einstein flipped the situation around and considered a man in an elevator floating in space. Accelerate the elevator upward and he, too, would feel a downward acceleration — not just similar to gravity, but indistinguishable from it. Gravity is not a force pulling us down onto the planet, as Newton pictured it. Rather, it is more accurately thought of as a warp, induced by Earth’s mass, that causes our path through space-time to push us against the ground. “Gravitation is geometry,” in Neffe’s words. It defines the shape of space and time; without matter, space and time would have no meaning.
These are some of the most powerful ideas in all of science, and both Isaacson and Neffe present them with brio and insight. Neffe does an especially thorough job tracing their origins in Einstein’s early obsessions, and he shows how completely the latest cosmic theories are constructed atop general relativity. Unfortunately, his theme-driven structure gets distractingly convoluted in places. Isaacson’s more straightforward chronological approach and conversational style are much livelier. If any 600-page book about relativity can be described as a page-turner, “Einstein: His Life and Universe” is it.
The two books diverge more seriously in their interpretation of the personality behind the science. Isaacson’s Einstein is a resilient humanist who managed to adapt to tough political realities without sacrificing his core beliefs in freedom and social equality. Neffe’s Einstein is more of a naïve idealist, repeatedly drawn to (and burned by) ill-advised causes. After attaining United States citizenship in 1940 and becoming an outspoken one-worlder after World War II, Einstein was closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. To Isaacson, Einstein rose above these suspicions and became a true American, one who “considered his opposition to the wave of security and loyalty investigations to be a defense of the nation’s true values.” To Neffe, who views the United States from a distinctively German perspective, Einstein “shed any illusions about a freedom-loving America” and spent his last years increasingly isolated from both colleagues and countrymen.
The disparate moods extend to the inevitable dishing about Einstein’s love life. We now know that before their marriage, Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric, had an illegitimate daughter, named Lieserl, whom he abandoned to an unknown fate. He had multiple affairs, including one with Margarita Konenkova, a reputed Soviet spy. Einstein’s marriage to Maric, a fellow student from the Zurich Polytechnic whose own hopes for a significant scientific career were frustrated, was stormy and at times astonishingly cruel. His second marriage, to his cousin Elsa, was often resolutely pragmatic. Isaacson generally emphasizes Einstein’s compensating warmth, while Neffe focuses on the chill. A telling moment comes in the two accounts of perhaps the most squalid of the recent revelations: a letter from Elsa’s daughter, Ilse, claiming that Einstein had dallied with both mother and daughter and left it to them to decide which would become his bride. Neffe hastily denounces Einstein’s behavior as “one of the most humiliating ways in which a man could treat a woman.” Isaacson has the good sense to examine the sole source of the story: a letter that Ilse wrote to her unsteady boyfriend, whom she quite possibly was trying to bait with a salacious fabrication.
I wish Isaacson had had the courage to take another step back and, in the spirit of Einstein, ask the big underlying question: what do these feet-of-clay stories really tell us about Einstein’s mind, and about the broader nature of genius? Each revelation about his romantic misadventures has generated a chorus of gleefully clucking news coverage. But why is it so thrilling to learn that Einstein was a human being who sometimes made foolish or impulsive decisions? There is a whiff of the Us magazine ethos at work here: “Einstein — he’s just like us!”
In truth, Einstein was not even like other physicists. “I have no special talents,” he once insisted to his friend Carl Seelig. “I am only passionately curious.” But as Isaacson points out, passionate curiosity was Einstein’s special gift. He brooded over fundamental mysteries of nature that most of his colleagues ignored, and dissected them with the kind of relentless questioning more commonly associated with a small child. He maintained his focus for astounding durations: 10 years on special relativity, eight on general relativity, and more than three decades on the “unified field” theory that he hoped would knit together all of physics.
All of this was not effortless. Neffe’s description of Einstein as a man of “profound, shocking loneliness” may be an exaggeration, but it touches on the very real price he paid for his singular imagination. Isaacson, in a self-proclaimed effort to make Einstein’s ideas accessible to “a responsible citizenry,” writes that the pursuit of science is “an enchanting mission, as the sagas of its heroes remind us.” Einstein’s relentless dedication to the life of the mind was not just enchanting, however; it eroded his marriages, distanced his children, even dissuaded students who could continue his work.
Today’s research environment, with its emphasis on collaboration, consistent publication and competition for funding, is in many ways antithetical to the way Einstein worked. The physicist Lee Smolin has noted that no scientists today call themselves Einsteinians, because “most of us have neither the courage nor the patience to emulate Einstein.” For the few out there who do, the new Einstein biographies can function as a call to greatness. For the rest of us, the most precious thing they offer is a taste of what Einstein called the “cosmic religious sense,” a connectedness to universal truth that he considered the highest expression of being human.Continue reading the main story
Born in Germany 1879, Albert Einstein is one of the most celebrated scientists of the Twentieth Century. His theories on relativity laid the framework for a new branch of physics, and Einstein’s E = mc2 on mass-energy equivalence is one of the most famous formulas in the world. In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to theoretical physics and the evolution of Quantum Theory.
Einstein is also well known as an original free-thinker, speaking on a range of humanitarian and global issues. After contributing to the theoretical development of nuclear physics and encouraging F.D. Roosevelt to start the Manhattan Project, he later spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons.
Born in Germany to Jewish parents, Einstein settled in Switzerland and then, after Hitler’s rise to power, the United States. Einstein was a truly global man and one of the undisputed genius’ of the Twentieth Century.
Early life Albert Einstein
Einstein was born 14 March 1879, in Ulm the German Empire. His parents were working-class (salesman/engineer) and non-observant Jews. Aged 15, the family moved to Milan, Italy where his father hoped Albert would become a mechanical engineer. However, despite Einstein’s intellect and thirst for knowledge, his early academic reports suggested anything but a glittering career in academia. His teachers found him dim and slow to learn. Part of the problem was that Albert expressed no interest in learning languages and the learning by rote that was popular at the time.
“School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam.” Einstein and the Poet (1983)
At the age of 12, Einstein picked up a book on geometry and read it cover to cover. – He would later refer to it as his ‘holy booklet’. He became fascinated by maths and taught himself – becoming acquainted with the great scientific discoveries of the age.
Albert Einstein with wife Elsa
Despite Albert’s independent learning, he languished at school. Eventually, he was asked to leave by the authorities because his indifference was setting a bad example to other students.
He applied for admission to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. His first attempt was a failure because he failed exams in botany, zoology and languages. However, he passed the next year and in 1900 became a Swiss citizen.
At college, he met a fellow student Mileva Maric, and after a long friendship, they married in 1903; they had two sons before divorcing several years later.
In 1896 Einstein renounced his German citizenship to avoid military conscription. For five years he was stateless, before successfully applying for Swiss citizenship in 1901. After graduating from Zurich college, he attempted to gain a teaching post but none was fortcoming; instead he gained a job in the Swiss Patent Office.
While working at the Patent Office, Einstein continued his own scientific discoveries and began radical experiments to consider the nature of light and space.
Einstein in 1921
He published his first scientific paper in 1900, and by 1905 had completed his PhD entitled “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. In addition to working on his PhD, Einstein also worked feverishly on other papers. In 1905, he published four pivotal scientific works, which would revolutionise modern physics. 1905 would later be referred to as his ‘annus mirabilis‘
Einstein’s work started to gain recognition, and he was given a post at the University of Zurich (1909) and, in 1911, was offered the post of full-professor at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague (which was then part of Austria-Hungary Empire). He took Austrian-Hungary citizenship to accept the job. In 1914, he returned to Germany and was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. (1914–1932)
Albert Einstein’s Scientific Contributions
Einstein suggested that light doesn’t just travel as waves but as electric currents. This photoelectric effect could force metals to release a tiny stream of particles known as ‘quanta’. From this Quantum Theory, other inventors were able to develop devices such as television and movies. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.
Special Theory of Relativity
This theory was written in a simple style with no footnotes or academic references. The core of his theory of relativity is that:
“Movement can only be detected and measured as relative movement; the change of position of one body in respect to another.”
Thus there is no fixed absolute standard of comparison for judging the motion of the earth or plants. It was revolutionary because previously people had thought time and distance are absolutes. But, Einstein proved this not to be true.
He also said that if electrons travelled at close to the speed of light, their weight would increase.
This lead to Einstein’s famous equation:
E = mc2
Where E = energy m = mass and c = speed of light.
General Theory of Relativity 1916
Working from a basis of special relativity. Einstein sought to express all physical laws using equations based on mathematical equations.
He devoted the last period of his life trying to formulate a final unified field theory which included a rational explanation for electromagnetism. However, he was to be frustrated in searching for this final breakthrough theory.
Solar eclipse of 1919
In 1911, Einstein predicted the sun’s gravity would bend the light of another star. He based this on his new general theory of relativity. On 29 May 1919, during a solar eclipse, British astronomer and physicist Sir Arthur Eddington was able to confirm Einstein’s prediction. The news was published in newspapers around the world, and it made Einstein internationally known as a leading physicist. It was also symbolic of international co-operation between British and German scientists after the horrors of the First World War.
In the 1920s, Einstein travelled around the world – including the UK, US, Japan, Palestine and other countries. Einstein gave lectures to packed audiences and became an internationally recognised figure for his work on physics, but also his wider observations on world affairs.
During the 1920s, other scientists started developing the work of Einstein and coming to different conclusions on Quantum Physics. In 1925 and 1926, Einstein took part in debates with Max Born about the nature of relativity and quantum physics. Although the two disagreed on physics, they shared a mutual admiration.
As a German Jew, Einstein was threatened by the rise of the Nazi party. In 1933, when the Nazi’s seized power, they confiscated Einstein’s property, and later started burning his books. Einstein, then in England, took an offer to go to Princeton University in the US. He later wrote that he never had strong opinions about race and nationality but saw himself as a citizen of the world.
“I do not believe in race as such. Race is a fraud. All modern people are the conglomeration of so many ethnic mixtures that no pure race remains.”
Once in the US, Einstein dedicated himself to a strict discipline of academic study. He would spend no time on maintaining his dress and image. He considered these things ‘inessential’ and meant less time for his research. Einstein was notoriously absent-minded. In his youth, he once left his suitcase at a friends house. His friend’s parents told Einstein’s parents: “That young man will never amount to anything, because he can’t remember anything.”
Although a bit of a loner, and happy in his own company, he had a good sense of humour. On January 3, 1943 Einstein received a letter from a girl who was having difficulties with mathematics in her studies. Einstein consoled her when he wrote in reply to her letter
“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are still greater.”
Einstein professed belief in a God “Who reveals himself in the harmony of all being”. But, he followed no established religion. His view of God sought to establish a harmony between science and religion.
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
– Einstein, Science and Religion (1941)
Politics of Einstein
Einstein described himself as a Zionist Socialist. He did support the state of Israel, but became concerned about the narrow nationalism of the new state. In 1952, he was offered the position as President of Israel, but he declined saying he had:
“neither the natural ability nor the experience to deal with human beings.” … “I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel, and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it.”
Einstein receiving US citizenship.
Albert Einstein was involved in many civil rights movements such as the American campaign to end lynching. He joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and considered racism, America’s worst disease. But he also spoke highly of the meritocracy in American society and the value of being able to speak freely.
On the outbreak of war in 1939, Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt about the prospect of Germany developing an atomic bomb. He warned Roosevelt that the Germans were working on a bomb with a devastating potential. Roosevelt headed his advice and started the Manhattan project to develop the US atom bomb. But, after the war ended, Einstein reverted to his pacifist views. Einstein said after the war.
“Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would not have lifted a finger.” (Newsweek, 10 March 1947)
In the post-war McCarthyite era, Einstein was scrutinised closely for potential Communist links. He wrote an article in favour of socialism, “Why Socialism” (1949) He criticised Capitalism and suggested a democratic socialist alternative. He was also a strong critic of the arms race. Einstein remarked:
“I do not know how the third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth—rocks!”
Rabindranath Tagore and Einstein
Einstein was feted as a scientist, but he was a polymath with interests in many fields. In particular, he loved music. He wrote that if he had not been a scientist, he would have been a musician. Einstein played the violin to a high standard.
“I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”
Einstein died in 1955, at his request his brain and vital organs were removed for scientific study.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Albert Einstein”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net 23 Feb. 2008. Updated 2nd March 2017.
Albert Einstein – His Life and Universe
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