Albert Einstein By: Insoo Kang

Early Years and Education:

Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zürich

Albert Einstein was born at Ulm, Württemberg, Germany on March 14, 1879. He was raised in a secular, middle-class, Jewish family by his father Hermann Einstein, a featherbed salesman who later ran an electrochemical factory with moderate success, and his mother Pauline Koch. In his early years, two “wonders” deeply affected his life. He first encountered the compass at the age of five and was mystified by the invisible forces that deflected the needle. His encounter with the compass influenced his lifelong fascination with the invisible forces. The second wonder that came at the age of twelve was when he discovered a book of geometry. Until the age of 12, he was deeply religious, but this began to change as he read science books that contradicted his religious beliefs. Hermann Einstein relocated the family to Milan in the mid-1890s after his business lost out on a major contract. Albert was left in a relative’s boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling at Luitpold Gymnasium. When he turned sixteen, Albert allegedly withdrew from classes and dodged required military conscription. His parents were very concerned about his future. However, due to his superb mathematics and physics scores, he was able to gain admission into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zürich. Nevertheless, he needed to complete his pre-university education, so he attended a high school in Aarau, Switzerland.

Influences and Important People:

Issac Newton, Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck

During 1905, Einstein published four papers in the Annalen der Physik, each of which would alter the course of modern physics. Einstein's job at the patent office was a blessing because he would finish analyzing patent applications, leaving him time to day dream about a vision he had when he was 16: What would happen if you raced alongside a lightbeam? At his time at polytechnic school, he studied James Clerk Maxwell's equations which describe the nature of light and discovered something unknown to Maxell. He realized that the speed of light remains the same no matter how fast one moves. Furthermore, this violated Newton's laws of motion. This lead Einstein to formulate the theory of special relativity: "time and space are relative to the observer except for the speed of light because it is constant in any frame moving constantly. In the 19th century, Newton's laws of motion and Maxwell's theory of light were the two pillars of physics. However, Einstein alone challenged those ideas saying that one of them must fall due to the contradiction that Einstein saw.At first, the paper's he submitted for his doctorate in 1905 were ignored by the physics community, but Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory and perhaps the most influential physicist of his generation agreed with Einstein. Owing to Planks's comments and experiments that confirmed Einstein's theories, Einstein grew famous. Einstein went further by undermining Newtonian physics and Maxwell's theory of light with the help of Max Plank. Therefore, Einstein was influenced by the ideas of Newton and Maxwell to contradict their ideas with the help of Max Planck. These three scientists paved the way to Einstein discoveries.

Einstein's Important Ideas:

Mass Energy Equivalence:

Equation that Einstein came up with

Einstein came up with this equation in 1905. According to this equation, mass (m) can be converted into energy (E). Also, a little mass can make a lot of energy, because mass is multiplied by c squared where c is the speed of light, a very large number. Matter and energy are interchangeable and even a particle of matter contains enormous amounts of energy. These ideas unified an infinite universe with the incredibly small subatomic world. For example, the conversion of mass in atomic nuclei to energy is the principle behind nulcear weapons and the sun's source of energy. Compared to Newtonian physics developed during the Scientific Revolution, Newton's laws of motion and mechanics are quite limited.

Theory of Special Relativity:

Einstein's analogy to explain special relativity

In Einstein's third paper of 1905, he returned to the big problem- how to resolve Newton's laws of motion with Maxwell's equations of light. He realized that the laws of physics are the same everywhere whatever you did. For example, the "thought experiment" (his approach to the question), was to imagine how the world would look if he could travel at the speed of light. Einstein figured out that whether if you moved quickly toward a ray of light or away from it, you would see the light ray to be moving at the same speed. However, this is different for other cases. For instance, if a woman in the middle of a moving train got up and walked forward to the door, she had gone, relative to the train, half the car length. However, relative to an observer on the train, she had gone farther. This meant that time and distance were relative to the position and motion of the observer. In this case, time and space is relative to the observer. Time, length and mass actually depend on the speed we are moving at. The nearer the observer is, bigger differences are seen compared to someone moving slowly.

The Photoelectric Effect:

Diagram of Photoelectric Effect

Einstein said that light is made up of individual 'particles' of energy which he called quanta. When these quanta hit something like metal, they give their energy to electrons, giving the electrons enough energy to escape from the metal. Furthermore, Einstein showed that light can behave as a wave as well. The energy each particle of lights carries is proportional to the frequency of the light waves. This goes with Max Planck's idea that subatomic energy is emitted in uneven spurts called quanta. Also, Einstein's idea agrees with Marie Curie when she discovered that radium or light constantly emits subatomic particles, so it does not have a constant atomic weight.

General Theory of Relativity:

Diagram explaining his theory that light curves due to gravity

From 1905 to 1915, he noticed a crucial flaw in his own theory: it had no mention of gravitation or acceleration. For the next 10 years, Einstein was absorbed with formulating a theory of gravity in terms of curvature of space-time. Light is deflected by powerful gravity, not because of its mass, but because gravity as curved the space that light travels through. He was convinced that his theory was correct because of its mathematical beauty and because it predicted a measurable deflection of light around the Sun. Therefore, in 1919, a British expedition traveled to the West African island of Principe to observe an eclipse of the sun. During the eclipse, they could test whether light from far away stars passing close to the sun was deflected. They found that it was true. Therefore, Einstein's idea that space was curved was proved.

Spread of Ideas and People's Views:

Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein at the premiere for City Lights

At first, he wrote papers and they were ignored by the physics community. However, his fame started off when his theories were confirmed with the help of Planck. Einstein was invited to lecture at international meetings and rose rapidly in the academic world. He was offered positions at very prestigious institutions such as the University of Zürich and the University of Prague, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and finally the University of Berlin. He was respected by both student and faculty. Also, Einstein served as director of Kaiser Wilhem Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933 as well.

Later on, when he completed the general theory of relativity, he continued to write papers on his theories and publish it into the scientific community. However, in order to revolutionize his idea somewhat comprehensible to the non mathematical layperson, he used analogies. People viewed Einstein's ideas and sought to verify it. For example, after World War 1, two expeditions were sent to test Einstein's general theory of relativity. One set sail for the island of Principe and the other to Sobral in northern Brazil. On November 16, the resulted were announced in London at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. His theories were proven right and JJ Thomson, president of the Royal Society stated, "This is the most important result obtained in connection with the theory of gravitation since Newton's day." Almost immdiately, Einstein became a world-renowned physicist, the successor to Issac Newton. Invitation came pouring in for him to speak. In 1921, he began a world tour visiting the US, England, Japan, and France. Everywhere he went, thousands of people crowded to see him. Interestingly, on his way to Japan, he received word that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Physics, for his theory on the photoelectric effect, rather than for his relativity theories. During his acceptance speech, he talked about the relativity theories, rather than the photoelectric effect. He even was asked to appear alongside the comic actor Charlie Chaplin during the Hollywood debut of the film City Lights. He was mobbed by thousands and applauded for him. Einstein was viewed by the people as a world renown celebrity and gained a lot of fame and popularity by presenting his work to the public.

Importance of his Ideas:

How Einstein's theory of relativity affected the invention of the nuclear bomb

Einstein's work is often associated to the development of atomic energy. With this formula E=mc^2, he demonstrated that atoms contained enormous quantities of energy. Physicists realized the neutron's capacity to shatter the nucleus of another atom which could lead to chain reactions that would release unbelievable force. His ideas were used for nuclear power and warfare. In World War 2, Einstein realized the capacity of his discovery when the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Japan. This concerns today as well because nuclear weapons and nuclear power play a big part in society. Nuclear power gives energy for people all over the world and nuclear weapons defend countries.

There were many scientific and technological revolutions that sprang from Einstein's General and Special theories of Relativity and his explanation of the Photoelectric Effect. These ideas had direct and lasting impacts on modern technology and innovations that changed the way humans live today and in his time. People started to view the world differently with Einstein's ideas after Newton's ideas. A view was popular in the late 19th century and early 20th century where the world is unpredictable. Instead of Newton's rational laws, there seemed only to be possibilities and tendencies in a complex and unpredictable universe. Einstein's ideas influenced other physicists like Werner Heisenberg to create the "uncertainty principle" where nature itself is ultimately unknowable and unpredictable. Thus, this idea carries onto today because humans are constantly looking for more answers and knowledge in the world and universe we live in.


Einstein's newspaper article on his death

Albert Einstein died April 18, 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey, US after leaving a huge impact in the world. His ideas still live on today.

Created By
Insoo Kang

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