Born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany in 1879, Albert Einstein had a passion for inquiry that eventually led him to develop the special and general theories of relativity. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect and immigrated to the U.S. in the following decade after being targeted by the Nazis. Einstein is generally considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century, with his work also having a major impact on the development of atomic energy. With a focus on unified field theory during his later years, Einstein died on April 18, 1955, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Background and Early Life
Born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany, Albert Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish family. His father, Hermann Einstein, was a salesman and engineer who with his brother founded Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie, a Munich-based company that manufactured electrical equipment. His mother, the former Pauline Koch, ran the family household. Einstein had one sister, Maja, born two years after him.
Einstein attended elementary school at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. However, he felt alienated there and struggled with the institution’s rigid pedagogical style. He also had what were considered to be speech challenges, though he developed a passion for classical music and playing the violin that would stay with him into his later years. Most significantly, Einstein’s youth was marked by deep inquisitiveness and inquiry.
Towards the end of the 1880s, Max Talmud, a Polish medical student who sometimes dined with the Einstein family, became an informal tutor to young Albert. Talmud had introduced his pupil to a children’s science text that inspired Einstein to dream about the nature of light. Thus, during his teens, Einstein penned what would be seen as his first major paper, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.”
Resident of Switzerland
Hermann Einstein relocated the family to Milan, Italy, in the mid-1890s after his business lost out on a major contract. Albert was left at a relative’s boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Faced with military duty when he turned of age, Albert allegedly withdrew from classes, using a doctor’s note to excuse himself and claim nervous exhaustion. With their son rejoining them in Italy, his parents understood Einstein’s perspective but were concerned about his future prospects as a school dropout and draft dodger.
Einstein was eventually able to gain admission into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, specifically due to his superb mathematics and physics scores on the entrance exam. He was still required to complete his pre-university education first, and thus attended a high school in Aarau, Switzerland helmed by Jost Winteler. Einstein lived with the schoolmaster’s family and fell in love with Wintelers’ daughter, Marie. Einstein later renounced his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen at the dawn of the new century.
Marriage and Family
While attending school in Zurich, Einstein developed lasting friendships and alliances, also meeting his future wife, Mileva Maric, a Serbian physics student.
After graduating from Polytechnic, Einstein faced major challenges in terms of finding academic positions, having alienated some professors over not attending class more regularly in lieu of studying independently. Meanwhile, Einstein continued to grow closer to Maric, but his parents were strongly against the relationship due her ethnic background. Nonetheless, Einstein continued to see her, with the two developing a correspondence via letters in which he expressed many of his scientific ideas. In 1902 the couple had a daughter, Lieserl, who might have been later raised by Maric’s relatives or given up for adoption. Her ultimate fate and whereabouts remain a mystery.
Einstein eventually found steady work in 1902 after receiving a referral for a clerk position in a Swiss patent office. Einstein’s father passed away shortly thereafter, and the young scientist married Milena Maric on Jan. 6, 1903. The couple went on to have two sons, Hans and Eduard.
The marriage would not be a happy one, however, with the two divorcing in 1919 and Maric having an emotional breakdown in connection to the split. Einstein, as part of a settlement, agreed to give Maric any funds he might receive from possibly winning the Nobel Prize in the future. He had also begun an affair some time earlier with a cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, whom Einstein wed during the same year of his divorce. He would continue to see other women throughout his second marriage, which ended with Löwenthal’s death in 1936.
While working at the patent office, Einstein had the time to further ideas that had taken hold during his studies at Polytechnic and thus cemented his theorems on what would be known as the principle of relativity.
In 1905—seen by many as a “miracle year” for the theorist—Einstein had four papers published in the Annalen der Physik, one of the best known physics journals of the era. The four papers focused on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, the special theory of relativity (the most widely circulated of the write-ups) and the matter/energy relationship, thus taking physics in an electrifying new direction. In his fourth paper, Einstein came up with the equation E=mc2, suggesting that tiny particles of matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy, foreshadowing the development of atomic power.
Famed quantum theorist Max Planck backed up the assertions of Einstein, who thus became a star of the lecture circuit and academia, taking on various positions before becoming director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933.
Relativity and Nobel Prize
In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics though he wasn’t actually given the award until the following year due to a bureaucratic ruling. Because his ideas on relativity were still considered questionable, he received the prize for his explanation of the photoelectric effect though Einstein still opted to speak about relativity during his acceptance speech.
In the development of his general theory, Einstein had held on to the belief that the universe was a fixed, static entity, aka a “cosmological constant,” though his later theories directly contradicted this idea and asserted that the universe could be in a state of flux. Astronomer Edwin Hubble deduced that we indeed inhabit an expanding universe, with the two scientists meeting at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles in 1930.
While Einstein was travelling and speaking internationally, the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, were gaining prominence with violent propaganda and vitriol in an impoverished post-WWI Germany. The party influenced other scientists to label Einstein’s work “Jewish physics.” Jewish citizens were barred from university work and other official jobs, and Einstein himself was targeted to be killed.
Move to U.S. and Atomic Energy
In 1933, Einstein took on a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey and never went back to his native land. It was here that he would spend the rest of his life working on a unified field theory—an all-embracing paradigm meant to unify the varied laws of physics. Other European scientists also left regions threatened by Germany and immigrated to the states, with there being concern over Nazi strategies to create an atomic weapon.
In 1939, Einstein and fellow physicist Leo Szilard wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alert him of the possibility of a Nazi bomb and to galvanize the United States to create its own nuclear weapons. The U.S. would eventually initiate the Manhattan Project, though Einstein would not take direct part in its implementation due to his pacifist and socialist affiliations. Einstein was also the recipient of much scrutiny and major distrust from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Not long after he began his career at Princeton, Einstein expressed an appreciation for American “meritocracy” and the opportunities people had for free thought, a stark contrast to his own experiences coming of age. In 1935, Einstein was granted permanent residency in his adopted country and became an American citizen a few years later. During WWII, he worked on Navy-based weapons systems and made big monetary donations to the military by auctioning off manuscripts worth millions.
Global and Domestic Activism
After learning of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Einstein became a major player in efforts to curtail usage of the a-bomb. The following year he and Szilard founded the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, and in 1947, via an essay for The Atlantic Monthly, Einstein espoused working with the United Nations to maintain nuclear weapons as a deterrent to conflict.
Around this time, Einstein also became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, seeing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany and African Americans in the United States. He corresponded with scholar/activist W.E.B. Du Bois as well as performing artist Paul Robeson and campaigned for civil rights, calling racism a “disease” in a 1946 Lincoln University speech.
After the war, Einstein continued to work on his unified field theory and key aspects of the theory of general relativity, such as wormholes, the possibility of time travel, the existence of black holes and the creation of the universe. However, he became increasingly isolated from the rest of the physics community, whose eyes were set on quantum theory. In the last decade of his life, Einstein, who had always seen himself as a loner, withdrew even further from any sort of spotlight, preferring to stay close to Princeton and immerse himself in processing ideas with colleagues.
Final Years and Legacy
On April 17, 1955, while working on a speech to honor Israel’s seventh anniversary, Einstein suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He was taken to the University Medical Center at Princeton for treatment but refused surgery, believing that he had lived his life and was content to accept his fate. “I want to go when I want,” he stated at the time. “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” Einstein died at the university medical center early the next morning—April 18, 1955—at the age of 76.
During the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey removed Einstein’s brain, reportedly without the permission of his family, for preservation and future study by doctors of neuroscience. Einstein’s remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location, following his wishes. After decades of study, Einstein’s brain is now located at the Princeton University Medical Center. A veritable mountain of books have been written on the iconic thinker’s life, including Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson and Einstein: A Biography by Jürgen Neffe, both from 2007. Einstein’s own words are presented in the collection The World as I See It.