Albert Einstein rewrote the laws of nature. He completely changed the way we understand the behavior of things as basic as light, gravity, and time.
Although scientists today are comfortable with Einstein’s ideas, in his time, they were completely revolutionary. Most people did not even begin to understand them.
If you’re new to science, you’ll probably find that some of his ideas take time to get used to!
Quick Guide to Albert Einstein’s Scientific Achievements
• provided powerful evidence that atoms and molecules actually exist, through his analysis of Brownian motion.
• explained the photoelectric effect, proposing that light comes in bundles. Bundles of light (he called them quanta) with the correct amount of energy can eject electrons from metals.
• proved that everyone, whatever speed we move at, measures the speed of light to be 300 million meters per second in a vacuum. This led to the strange new reality that time passes more slowly for people traveling at very high speeds compared with people moving more slowly.
• discovered the hugely important and iconic equation E = mc2, which shows that energy and matter can be converted into one another.
• rewrote the law of gravitation, which had been unchallenged since Isaac Newton published it in 1687. In his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein:
» showed that matter causes space to curve, which produces gravity.
» showed that light follows the path mapped out by the gravitational curve of space.
» showed that time passes more slowly when gravity becomes very strong.
• became the 20th century’s most famous scientist when the strange predictions he made in his General Theory of Relativity were verified by scientific observations.
• spent his later years trying to find equations to unite quantum physics with general relativity. This was an incredibly hard task, and it has still not been achieved.
Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Germany. He was not talkative in his childhood, and until the age of three he hardly talked at all. He spent his teenage years in Munich, where his family had an electric equipment business. As a teenager, he was interested in nature and showed a high level of ability in mathematics and physics.
Einstein loved to be creative and innovative. He loathed the uncreative spirit in his school at Munich. His family’s business failed when he was aged 15, and they moved to Milan, Italy. Aged 16, he moved to Switzerland, where he finished high school.
In 1896 he enrolled for a science degree at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He didn’t like the teaching methods there, so he bunked classes to carry out experiments in the physics laboratory or play his violin. With the help of his classmates’ notes, he passed his exams; he graduated in 1900.
Einstein was not considered a good student by his teachers, and they refused to recommend him for further employment.
While studying at the Polytechnic, Einstein learned about one of the biggest problems of the day that was baffling physicists. This was how to marry together Isaac Newton’s laws of motion with James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. He thought a lot about this problem.
In 1902 he obtained the post of an examiner in the Swiss Federal patent office. In 1903 he wedded his former classmate Mileva Maric. He had two sons with her but they later divorced. After some years Einstein married Elsa Loewenthal.
Early Scientific Publications
Einstein made most of his greatest scientific breakthroughs while he was working at the patent office. The University of Zurich awarded him a Ph.D. in 1905 for his thesis “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions.”
1905: The Year of Miracles
In 1905, the same year as he submitted his doctoral thesis, Albert Einstein published four immensely important scientific papers dealing with his analysis of:
- Brownian motion
- the equivalence of mass and energy
- the photoelectric effect
- special relativity
Each of these papers on their own was a huge contribution to science. To publish four such papers in one year was considered to be almost miraculous. Einstein was just 26 years old.
Mass Energy Equivalence
Einstein gave birth in 1905 to what has become the world’s most famous equation:
The equation says that mass (m) can be converted to energy (E). A little mass can make a lot of energy, because mass is multiplied by c2 where c is the speed of light, a very large number.
The Photoelectric Effect
If you shine light on metal, the metal may release some of its electrons. Einstein said that light is made up of individual ‘particles’ of energy, which he called quanta. When these quanta hit the metal, they give their energy to electrons, which allows these electrons to escape from the metal.
Einstein showed that light can behave as a particle as well as a wave. The energy each ‘particle’ of light carries is proportional to the frequency of the light waves.
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity
In Einstein’s third paper of 1905 he returned to the big problem he had heard about at university – how to resolve Newton’s laws of motion with Maxwell’s equations of light. His approach was the ‘thought experiment.’ He imagined how the world would look if he could travel at the speed of light.
He realized that the laws of physics are the same everywhere, and regardless of what you did – whether you moved quickly toward a ray of light as it approached you, or quickly away from the ray of light – you would always see the light ray moving at the same speed – the speed of light!
This is not obvious, because it’s not how things work in everyday life, where, for example, if you move towards a child approaching you on a bike he will reach you sooner than if you move away from him. With light, it doesn’t matter whether you move towards or away from the light, it will take the same amount of time to reach you. This isn’t an easy thing to understand, so don’t worry about it if you don’t! (Unless you’re at university studying physics.) Every experiment ever done to test special relativity has confirmed what Einstein said.
If the speed of light is the same for all observers regardless of their speed, then it follows that some other strange things must be true. In fact, it turns out that time, length, and mass actually depend on the speed we are moving at. The nearer the speed of light we move, the bigger differences we seen in these quantities compared with someone moving more slowly. For example, time passes more and more slowly as we move faster and faster.
Einstein Becomes Known to the Wider Physics Community
As people read Einstein’s papers and argued about their significance, his work gradually gained acceptance, and his reputation as a powerful new intellect in the world of physics grew. In 1908 he began lecturing at the University of Bern, and the following year resigned from the Patent Office. In 1911 he became a professor of physics at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague, before returning to Zurich in 1912 to a professorship there.
Working on the general theory of relativity, in 1911 he made his first predictions of how our sun’s powerful gravity would bend the path of light coming from other stars that passed close to the sun.
The General Theory of Relativity – Einstein Becomes Famous Worldwide
Einstein published his general theory of relativity paper in 1915, showing, for example, how gravity distorts space and time. Light is deflected by powerful gravity, not because of its mass (light has no mass) but because gravity has curved the space that light travels through.
In 1919 a British expedition traveled to the West African island of Principe to observe an eclipse of the sun. During the eclipse they tested whether light from far away stars passing close to the sun was deflected. They found that it was! Just as Einstein had said, space truly is curved.
On November 7, 1919, the London Times’ headline read:
Revolution in science – New theory of the Universe – Newtonian ideas overthrown.
Honors and More Honors
Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. People are sometimes surprised to learn the award was not made for his work in special or general relativity, but for his overall services to theoretical physics and one of the works from his miracle year in 1905, specifically the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.
The Royal Society of London awarded him its prestigious Copley Medal in 1925 for his theory of relativity and contributions to the quantum theory. The Franklin Institute awarded him the Franklin medal in 1935 for his work on relativity and the photoelectric effect.
Universities around the world competed with one another to award him honorary doctorates, and the press wrote more about him than any other scientist – Einstein became a celebrity.
Einstein’s Later Years
Einstein made his greatest discoveries when he was a relatively young man.
In his later years he continued with science, but made no further groundbreaking discoveries. He became interested in politics and the state of the world.
Einstein had been born German and a Jew. He died an American citizen in 1955. Einstein was in America when Hitler came to power. He decided it would be a bad idea to return to Germany and renounced his German citizenship. Einstein did not practice Judaism, but strongly identified with the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazi Party, favoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the rights of Arabs protected.
It was Einstein’s wish that people should be respected for their humanity and not for their country of origin or religion. Expressing his cynicism for nationalistic pride, he once said:
“If relativity is proved right the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.”
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