Ask someone who the most famous physicist is and the answer will
most probably be “Albert Einstein.” In 1905, Einstein
wrote three papers (on light quanta, Brownian motion and the special
theory of relativity), which would change the way we looked at physics.
Given his iconic status in modern physics, the U.S. decided on “Einstein
in the 21st Century” as its theme for the World Year of Physics
2005—the hundredth anniversary of those papers. While looking
forward to physics in the 21st century, we also want to honor Einstein,
We are grateful to the American Institute of Physics's Center for
History of Physics for permission to use the text reproduced below.
For a comprehensive look at Einstein's life, visit their online
exhibit at: http://www.aip.org/history/einstein/
The Early Years
Albert Einstein was born to a middle-class German Jewish family.
His parents were concerned that he scarcely talked until the age
of three, but he was not so much a backward as a quiet child. He
would build tall houses of cards and hated playing soldier. At the
age of twelve he was fascinated by a geometry book.
"It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have
not yet entirely strangled the holy curiousity of inquiry; for
what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides
stimulation, is freedom."
At the age of fifteen Albert quit high school disgusted by rote
learning and martinet teachers, and followed his family to Italy
where they had moved their failing electrotechnical business. After
half a year of wandering and loafing, he attended a congenial Swiss
school. The next year he entered the Federal Institute of Technology
After working hard in the laboratory but skipping lectures, Einstein
graduated with an unexceptional record. For two grim years he could
find only odd jobs, but he finally got a post as a patent examiner.
He married a former classmate.
Breakthrough to Relativity
1905 - Miraculous Year
Einstein wrote three fundamental papers, all in a few months.
The first paper claimed that light must sometimes behave like a
stream of particles with discrete energies, "quanta." The
second paper offered an experimental test for the theory of heat.
The third paper addressed a central puzzle for physicists of the
day – the connection between electromagnetic theory and ordinary
motion – and solved it using the "principle of relativity."
"I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested
in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element.
I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details."
Einstein became an assistant professor at the University of Zurich,
his first full-time physics job. In 1911 he moved on to the German
University of Prague. He continued to publish important physics
papers, and was beginning to meet fellow scientists, for example,
at the exclusive Solvay Conference. The next year he returned to
the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich as Professor.
Einstein moved to Berlin, taking a research post that freed him
from teaching duties. He separated from his wife and two sons.
When the First World War broke out, Einstein rejected Germany's
aggressive war aims, supporting the formation of a pacifist group.
After a decade of thought, with entire years spent in blind alleys,
Einstein completed his general theory of relativity. Overturning
ancient notions of space and time, he reached a new understanding
of gravity. Meanwhile he continued to sign petitions for peace.
"The years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense
longing, their alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the
final emergence into the light – only those who have experienced
it can understand it."
As Germany collapsed, Einstein became more involved in politics
and supported a new progressive party. The next year he remarried.
And his general theory of relativity received stunning confirmation
from British astronomers: as Einstein had predicted, gravity bends
starlight. In the popular eye he became a symbol of science and
of thought at its highest.
Aided by his fame, Einstein championed the fledgling German republican
government and other liberal causes. Partly as a result of this,
he and his theory of relativity came under vicious attack from
anti-Semites. He began travelling, attended an International Trade
Union Congress in Amsterdam, and visited the United States to help
raise funds for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The following
year he received the Nobel Prize.
Einstein contributed to the struggling new quantum theory. Meanwhile,
he searched for a way to unify the theories of electromagnetism
and gravity. In 1929 he announced a unified field theory, but the
mathematics could not be compared with experiments; his struggle
toward a useful theory had only begun. Meanwhile he argued with
his colleagues, challenging their belief that quantum theory can
give a complete description of phenomena.
Unwilling to live in Germany under the new Nazi government, Einstein
joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
He turned away from strict pacifism, and warned world political
leaders to prepare for German aggression. He also worked to rescue
Jewish and other political victims of the Nazis.
Einstein signed a letter that informed President F. D. Roosevelt
of the possibility of nuclear bombs, warning that the Germans might
try to build them. The next year Einstein became an American citizen.
"How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those
who are wise and of goodwill! In such a place even I would be an
The Last Years
Einstein was asked to become the second President of the State
of Israel, but declined. He was supporting many causes, such as
the United Nations and world government, nuclear disarmament, and
"The feeling for what ought and ought not to be grows and
dies like a tree, and no fertilizer of any kind will do much good.
What the individual can do is give a fine example, and have the
courage to firmly uphold ethical convictions in a society of cynics.
I have for a long time tried to conduct myself this way, with varying
The search for a true unified field theory for a more profound
understanding of nature continued to fill Einstein's days. While
corresponding about a new anti-war project and writing a speech
for Israel, he was stricken and died.
"One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science,
measured against reality, is primitive and childlikeand yet
it is the most precious thing we have."
Text Copyright © 1996-2004 American Institute of Physics