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Albert Einstein

1879-1955

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was a German-Swiss-American mathematical physicist, famous for his special and general theories of relativity. He was born in Ulm, Bavaria, on 14 March 1879, and was educated in Munich, Aarau and Zürich, graduating from the Swiss National Polytechnic in 1900. He became a Swiss national in 1901, began working for the Swiss patent office in Bern in 1902, and married Mileva Mariç, whom he had met at the polytechnic, in 1903. In 1905 he received a doctorate from the University of Zürich and published a number of important physics papers, the last of which contained the special theory of relativity. In this, he postulated the principle of relativity (that physical laws are the same for an observer at rest as for one moving at uniform velocity) and that the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant, deducing that if these postulates hold then both time and motion must be relative to the observer. Using this theory he was able to predict and model physical behavior in ways not previously possible, without making assumptions about the nature of radiation, matter or the interactions between the two. The paper also established Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2, in which the energy equivalent of a quantity of matter is equal to the product of its mass and the square of the speed of light ('c', the symbol for the speed of light, is derived from celeritas, Latin for 'swift'). His ideas were understood by very few at the time.

A series of academic posts followed, including professorships at Zürich in 1909, at Prague in 1911 and again at Zürich in 1912. Einstein was made director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin in 1914, and his general theory of relativity followed, in which gravitation is considered as a curvature of the space-time continuum, created by mass. He published Relativity: The Special and General Theory in 1916. A solar eclipse on 29 May, 1919 provided the opportunity to verify one of Einstein's predictions from the general theory, namely that starlight should be bent by massive bodies like the sun. This was indeed the case, and international acclaim followed. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel prize for physics.

Einstein moved to the USA in 1933, after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. A collaboration with Sigmund Freud, Why War?, was published in the same year. With other physicists he co-wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 about the feasibility of constructing an atom bomb, mindful that the Germans were almost certainly attempting this themselves. Later he became a strong advocate of international disarmament and world government, and he was a vigorous supporter of pacifism, liberalism and Zionism. In 1940, Einstein became an American citizen. The rest of his life was largely spent in an unsuccessful attempt to bring together quantum theory and the general theory of relativity using his own unified field theory, published in 1950.

As well as being a great scientific intellect, Einstein appreciated music and was an accomplished violinist, though he played only for relaxation. He had no Jewish faith but still considered himself Jewish, and claimed that his religion was that scientific truth must be conceived as a valid truth independent of humanity, and that he believed in "Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of what exists". Einstein died in his sleep on 18 April, 1955 at Princeton Hospital.



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