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Updated: Sep 17, 2020

On March 14, 1879, Albert Einstein was born in the small town of Ulm, Germany. He was the first child of Hermann and Pauline Einstein. After centuries of discrimination, in 1848 Germany had granted Jews full citizenship. Pauline Einstein thought anti-Semitism would shortly disappear and Albert’s generation would enjoy the chance to rise, so long denied to Jews.

Before Albert was even three, he tried to speak in whole sentences. He loved the music his mother played on the piano. At five he began playing the violin, giving it a pet name, Lina. Late he would say I get most joy in life out of music. I would have been a musician, if not a scientist. Albert began school when he was six. He was the only Jew in the class. The school was run in army-style, with the strictest discipline (You accept what the teacher tell you, and that was that). Albert didn’t like it. The teachers called him a dreamer. Still, he earned high marks. At about age eleven he entered high school. But again, it was mostly babbling from memoryhe said. Names! Dates! Facts! Ask no question! No time for ideas. He always found pleasure in learning outside the classroom. As Albert’s first year in high school ended, his father’s business fell off badly. The family moved to Milan, hoping sales would improve in Italy. Albert was left behind to live with a relative till graduation. But after a few months he felt he couldn’t stand three more years of this miserable school. He quit and rejoined his family.

Albert gave up his German citizenship. He hated the military regime that dominated life in Germany. He would not accept being forced into military service. Albert tried to enter the highly regarded Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. Although you had to be eighteen to enroll and he was only sixteen. He was allowed to take the entrance exams. He scored high in math and science, but low in history and languages. To fill in these gaps, he went to another school in a nearby town.

One day, he later recalled, he was watching sunlight reflecting off the surface of a lake when an odd image came to him. What would it be like to ride a beam of sunlight? At sixteen I had no idea, but the question stayed with me for the next ten years. The simplest questions are always the hardest. But if I have one gift, it is that I am as stubborn as a mule.” Trying to understand the nature of light set Albert on a path that would lead to his most famous work – The Theory of Relativity.

At the end of the year Albert graduated with an outstanding record and passed all his entrance exams for the Polytechnic. He had decided to make theoretical physics (a branch of science that deals with matter and energy and their relationship to each other), which is his field. At polytechnic Albert didn’t behave like most students. He went only to those classes that interested him. He preferred to study the ideas of the best scientists on his own. But he did work on laboratory experiments in physics.

The few friends Albert made at school were close ones. Girls liked this good-looking teenager, with his great mop of black hair and stylish mustache. He was fun to be with, banging away at the piano or sawing on his fiddle and there seemed to be no end to his amusing character.

In 1900 Albert received his degree from Polytechnic Institute. For two years he hunted for work in his field but, all he could find were part-time positions teaching in village schools. Meanwhile, he worked up his original ideas into his first scientific paper. He was only twenty-two and a “nobody”, a German physics journal published his paper.

Then in 1902, he was appointed as a technical expert at the Swiss Federal Patent Office in Bern. His job was to study inventions, especially electrical devices, and see if they were worthy of patents. This job left him plenty of time to think about problems in physics. Here, he said later, Is where I hatched my most beautiful ideas”.

Early in 1903, Albert married Mileva Maric, a classmate at the Polytechnic. Four years older than Albert, she was a Serb, and the only woman in his class. Those years in the patent office were Einstein’s most creative time. Sitting at his desk, at home in their apartment, or while out walking, he kept asking questions, seeking to understand the makeup of the universe. He reviewed long-held theories of many other scientists, even the greatest, such as Isaac Newton. He refused to take anything on faith. In 1905 a German scientific journal, the Annals of Physics, published a series of three Einstein papers that would create a revolution in physics.

In first paper Einstein demonstrated that light is not only a wave, but also a particle. And it is the fastest thing in the universe. It travels at the speed of 186 thousand miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour. It takes a commercial jet plane about six hours to fly from New York to California. But light can go there and back in one-thirtieth of a second! Why nothing travels faster than light is a mystery scientist have yet to solve.

In the second paper Einstein proved that molecules exist and that their sizes can be calculated. The third paper on “special relativity” completely changed the general view of space and time. Before Einstein, it was believed that space and time were absolute and they never changed. Einstein said that they are elastic, or relative, and that mass and energy are two forms of the same thing. He gave a formula for the equivalence: E=mc2.

E stands for energy. It’s what makes things happen (moving your shopping cart or heating your soup). Energy can change from one form to another. It exists in many forms, such as heat and light.

M stands for mass. Mass is the amount of “stuff” all physical objects have. It’s not connected to size. A box of tissues, for instance, can be the same size as a brick, but they have different masses. (Imagine the difference between dropping the tissue box on your foot and then the brick). No matter what you do to these physical objects (drop them, hammer them, squeeze them), they won’t disappear. They just combine or recombine. The total mass of all substances that fill the universe remains the same.

The c in the formula refers to the speed of light: 186 thousand miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour. Einstein’s theory states that this is a constant and that nothing can ever travel faster. In his equation, c is squared, which means you multiply 670 million miles per hour by 670 million miles per hour.

Until Einstein, no one thought that anything connected energy and mass. But with a flash insight he saw that neither energy nor mass stands alone. They could be connected, and the speed of light was the bridge. A very small amount of mass can become tremendously magnified whenever it passes through that equation and comes out on the side of energy. As an example, if you convert the tiny mass in a paper clip into energy, it could light millions of homes for a year.

Einstein worked out his great ideas in an incredibly short time. During a period of eight months in 1905, while putting in a full six-day week at the patent office, he came up with his equation E=mc2. What he figured out helped to prepare the way for lasers, computer chips, advances in the bio-engineering and pharmaceutical industries, and all internet switching devices.

Ten years after developing his formula, Einstein published his general theory of relativity (going beyond the remarkable achievement of the earlier work). Einstein’s equation was a theory that scientists came to accept as true. Yes, matter could be transformed so that energy within it could be let out. For many years scientists in various parts of the world studied the relativity theory and performed experiments to test their ideas. Not until the 1930s were physicists able to show how the compressed energy that E=mc2 spoke about could be let out. They came up with a method for cracking apart the nucleus, the central core of each atom that makes up matter, which releases enormous bursts of energy. The discovery of nuclear fission made possible the development of nuclear weapons.

Historians of science see Einstein’s work as the seed that flowered in many other fields: astrophysics, cosmology, nuclear physics, electronics, space-travel. The vision and imagination of a twenty-six-year-old changed science beyond measure. During Einstein’s seven years at the patent office, his two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard, were born. Einstein’s fame led to a series of professorship. The best came in 1914 as professor at the University of Berlin, together with a research post and leadership of a new institute for physics. Unhappily, Albert and Mileva separated soon after. Mileva and the two boys returned to Zurich.

In 1914 World War I broke out. Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey were on one side and most of the other European nations, United States and Japan, were on the other. Einstein had always been against war. War is insane, he said, and destructive of life, of human progress, of science. He continued his studies through the war years. In 1919, soon after his divorce from Mileva, he married his cousin Elsa.

Just then, two British scientists making astronomical observations of a solar eclipse had confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity! That theory had predicted exactly to what extent a light beam would be bent when it passes near the sun. It also predicted that the universe must be expanding.

In 1921 Albert was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. He gave the prize money to Mileva to support her and their sons. Albert became a world celebrity overnight. “All I have tried is to ask a few questions,” he said. He believed that in their search for knowledge and truth, scientists must be free to think, investigate and act independently.

For a simple explanation of relativity, Einstein said, When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems to him a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for only a minute – and it’s longer than an hour. That’s relativity.He was not only interested in science but also felt it is his duty to use his worldwide fame to advance movements for peace, for international unity, and for social justice.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933, everything people cherished like peace, freedom, democracy was smashed. Hitler set up a brutal dictatorship, and Jews especially were in grave danger. I did not wish to live in this country,” Einstein said, “where the individual does not enjoy equality before the law and freedom to say and teach what he likes. In September 1933 Einstein accepted the invitation of Princeton University to join its newly established Institute for Advanced Study.

With no obligation to teach, he followed his own path. For the rest of his life he hoped to develop a “complete theory” that would explain all the forces and phenomena in the whole universe. But he did not succeed. Scientists are still trying to figure out a “theory of everything.” Word reached Einstein in 1939 that Hitler’s scientists might make an atomic bomb. He wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging that America move quickly before the Nazis could attack with this horribly destructive weapon. The president promptly created the secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb.

It was a hard moral decision for Einstein. He had always opposed wars of any kind. But he realized that non-violent resistance to Hitler’s power was no longer enough. Einstein never joined the atomic bomb project. When America dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, he was horrified. When World War II ended in 1945, the terrible news of the Holocaust became known. Hitler had killed many millions of innocent men, women and children, six million of them were Jews. By the time, Einstein renewed his pursuit of peace for all nations and campaigned for nuclear disarmament, for civil liberties and civil rights, and for an end to racism and poverty. He spoke up boldly, even when it meant taking unpopular, even dangerous, positions.

His personal losses began to mount. His parents had died long ago, then his sister, Maja, and his wives, Mileva and Elsa. He himself, reaching seventy, was sick with heart trouble. In April 1955 he collapsed at his home in Princeton, and on the eighteenth he died. He was seventy-six. Albert Einstein was always asking questions. He worked hard all his life to find the answer. His scientific theories had practical effects too. They prepared the way for great new things from space exploration and computers to lasers and nuclear power. He once saidAnyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new. A great man was gone, but not what he loved, what he stood for, what he fought for and the constant struggle to understand the nature of the universe, faith in human progress, the search for lasting peace. He once said, There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”


  • 1879 ----->Born March 14 in Ulm, Germany.

  • 1885 – 1896 ----->Schooling.

  • 1895 ----->Renounces his German citizenship.

  • 1896 –1900 ----->Studies at Polytechnic Institute (later the Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich, Switzerland.

  • 1901 ---->Acquires Swiss citizenship. Completes his first scientific paper.

  • 1902 ----->Appointed technical expert at the Swiss Federal Patent.

  • 1905 ----->Publishes three papers that completely revolutionize the concepts of time and space, energy and matter. Initial version E=mc2 appears in print for the first time. Receives PhD from Zurich University.

  • 1909 ----->Resigns from patent office.

  • 1911 ------>Predicts bending of light by gravity.

  • 1911 – 1917 ---->Works as professor of theoretical physics at Prague, Zurich, and Berlin.

  • 1916 ---->His general theory of relativity is published.

  • 1919 ------>His theories on light and gravity are confirmed by eclipse observations. Becomes a world figure.

  • 1921 ---->Awarded Nobel Prize in Physics. First visit to the United States.

  • 1922 ---->Completes first paper on unified field theory.

  • 1925 ---->Signs manifesto against compulsory military service.

  • 1930 ---->Becomes intensely active on behalf of pacifism.

  • 1932 – 1933 ---->Leaves Germany for the United States. Appointed professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

  • 1939 ----->Signs letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending U.S. research on nuclear weapons.

  • 1940 ---->Becomes U.S. citizen.

  • 1943 ----->Works as research consultant for the U.S. Navy during World War II.

  • 1946 – 1947 ---->Becomes chairmen of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. Voices support for disarmament and formation of a world government.

  • 1948 ----->Supports creation of the State of Israel.

  • 1952 ----->Offered presidency of the State of Israel but declines.

  • 1953 ----->Publicly supports individuals investigated by House Un-American Activities Committee.

  • 1955 ----->Cosigns the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, warning of nuclear war and appealing for nuclear disarmament. Dies at April 18 in Princeton Hospital at the age of seventy-six


Albert Einstein : A Biography by Milton Meltzar.

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