Here is a brief, selective, life sketch of Albert Einstein, the most celebrated scientist ever. He has contributed immensely to the mankind with his work. Discover his life in this article.
Early Years and Personal Life
Born on 14th March 1879 at Ulm in Federal Republic of Germany, Einstein is best known for the Theory of Relativity, which revolutionized the concepts of space and time. He is one of the most recognized faces of the last century. After schooling at different places viz., Munchen, Aarau, and Switzerland; he started studying mathematics and physics at the Swiss National Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland.
He passed all the examinations by studying the notes of his friends, as he often missed classes. He graduated in 1900 by studying his close friend Marcel Grossman’s notes. After Graduation, he started working as a patent examiner of third grade (clerk) in 1902, at the Swiss Patent Office in Berne. He always disliked the rigid discipline in schools and institutes in Germany, and that was the prime reason he moved to Switzerland.
He always had a deep curiosity about the working of nature around us and was always interested in learning about the underlying reasons of various phenomena. Once, at the age of 5, his father showed him a pocket compass. He was very much impressed by the instrument and showed his intense keenness to learn about its working. In 1903, he married Mileva Maric, a Serbian girl from Austria, who was his classmate at the Swiss National Polytechnic Institute. The job as a patent examiner allowed him a lot of free time, which he always spent in his scientific investigations and the result blossomed into three short papers published by him in 1905, which completely changed our views of space, time, mass, motion, and gravity.
His married life was not very satisfactory, and though he had two sons and a daughter by Mileva, he eventually divorced her. He married again, this time his first cousin Elsa, from whom he had two daughters. Although, he lived a quiet, personal life with a limited number of friends, he had a vital interest in human affairs and social problems. He was a great lover of classical music and always interspersed his study of physics with playing his beloved violin. His simple behavior, in complete oneness with nature, honesty and kindness, inspired all persons world over and with time he truly became a world citizen.
Starting with his seminal papers in 1905, the magnitude of his contributions to Physics is so vast and central that, so-called modern physics (post 1905) could well be known as ‘Einsteinian Physics’.
The 1905 Papers
The year 1905 was really epoch making in the history of science, because in this year Einstein published three short classic but technical papers in the journal ‘Annalen der Physik’, just after receiving his doctorate from the University of Zurich for a thesis entitled On a New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. These papers were to revolutionize the world of physics so much that each of them formed the basis for a new branch of physics. The first paper was on the photoelectric effect, which he explained on the basis of Max Planck’s idea, which suggested that light could be thought of as a hail of tiny particles, later called photons.
This revolutionary concept concerning the nature of light, led to duality of electromagnetic waves. This explanation of photoelectric effect by him was accepted after a long pause, when Millikan experimentally verified the equation derived by Einstein. Einstein received the Nobel Prize for the same in 1921.
His second historic paper was entitled On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, containing what is popularly known as The Special Theory of Relativity. In this paper, he nicely explains how the measurements of space-time are affected by relative motion between the observer and the observed. In a way, it can be best regarded as a continuation of the great ideas, that have been the basis of our description of the science of nature by Galileo, Newton, and all others.
The heart of this theory is that, the realization of all the measurements of space and time, depends on the judgments as to whether two distinct events occur in a simultaneous way. He ruled out the concepts of absolute simultaneity and the absolute space time based on Galilean transformation laws, and proposed the Special Theory of Relativity (STR), where the Galilean transformations were replaced by the Lorentz transformation equations for space-time. STR deals with the inertial systems i.e., the systems moving with a uniform relative velocity and the whole theory is based on the standpoint of the following two postulates.
i) Principle of Relativity: The physical laws of nature are same in all the inertial reference systems i.e., they must preserve their forms relative to all the observers in a state of uniform relative motion.
ii) Principle of the constancy of the speed of light: The velocity of light in vacuum is a numerical constant i.e., the velocity of light is independent of the velocity of an observer as well as the velocity of the light source itself.
The phenomena predicted by STR like length contraction, time dilation, and twin paradox are some of its dramatic features. It also leads to two remarkable consequences, first – relativity of mass which indicates the variation in mass of a body moving with some velocity and second the mass-energy equivalence i.e., matter can turn into energy and vice versa i.e., they are interchangeable. Further, he showed that Maxwell’s unified theory of the electricity and magnetism is consistent with STR, whereas it is inconsistent with the Newtonian mechanics.
STR is consistent with quantum mechanics, and Dirac proposed a unified format (Relativistic Quantum Theory) of the two most successful, marvelous theories (QM and Theory of Relativity) of last century, which further led to the concept of ‘Antimatter’. Of course, the Newtonian mechanics is an approximation of this generalized unified format, at the microscopic levels of observation, where relative speeds are very much lower than the speed of light and masses are quite large. Thus, STR goes beyond the Newtonian-Galilean relativity, to include all laws of Nature: not only the laws of mechanics but of electrodynamics as well.
Theory of relativity played a major role in the development of modern physics. Third paper of 1905 was based on the Brownian motion i.e., irregular, zigzag movement of tiny particles suspended in third medium, e.g., the pollen grains in water or minute dust particles in the air in a closed room. He showed that the bombardment of the microscopic particles by randomly moving fluid molecules results in the Brownian motion. These predictions were later experimentally confirmed and they simultaneously verified the molecular theory of matter. He did historic scientific work well before he held any academic position in a scientific institute or university, as he worked at Swiss Patent office from 1902 to 1909.
General Theory of Relativity
Around 1912, he started studying about gravitation with the help of his close friend Marcel Grossman by expressing the effects of gravity in terms of ‘Tensor Calculus’, which very greatly facilitated calculations in four-dimensional space and time. In 1915, he announced a new theory to explain the apparent conflict between the laws of relativity (based on STR) and gravitation. In order to solve the conflict, he published General Theory of Relativity (GTR), which is an extension of the concept of flat space-time (STR) to the concept of curved space-time, which corresponds to GTR.
This extension of STR was to take into account all the effects due to gravity on matter and light, and it concluded that even light rays would bend in a strong gravitational field. Further, on the basis of curved space-time, he proposed an entirely new approach to gravity, based on the principle of equivalence according to which, the force produced by gravity is equivalent to the force produced by the acceleration, hence it is theoretically difficult to discriminate between the force due to acceleration and gravitational force. In a more general way, the equality of inertial and gravitational masses itself manifests the principle of equivalence, which has been verified to a very high degree of accuracy by Dicke in 1962.
The relation of gravity to the structure of the space-time, further leads to the principle of the general covariance according to which, the laws of the nature retain their original form in all the coordinate systems. From GTR, a number of predictions came which were successfully verified experimentally. It provided a totally new concept of the universe; gravitational field of various bodies responsible for the curving of space-time, the bending of light beam in strong gravitational field, and the idea of expanding of our universe. Very soon, renowned British physicist Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein’s predictions concerning the deflection of light beam at the edge of the sun, on the occasion of total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919.
These observations showed apparent shift of exactly same amount as predicted by Einstein in the apparent position of stars. Another important confirmation of GTR prediction involves the precessing of the perihelion of the planet Mercury, which could not be explained by the Newtonian mechanics. Further, the time delay effect and number of other experiments have served to confirm this theroy during the past years. Moreover, with the discovery of recessional, nature of galaxies by Hubble and Humanson in 1933, theories of universe took firm shape, which confirm his words that, “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.
Search for a Unified Theory
In later years of his life, he tried for a unified format of electromagnetic and gravitational interaction in terms of a single interaction. He spent the last 25 years of his life in understanding these interactions in terms of the modification of space-time geometry between the interacting particles. He partly succeeded in unifying these interactions and sometimes he stated, “I have locked myself into quite hopeless scientific problems ― the more so since, as an elderly man, I have remained estranged from the society”. Moreover, the recent success in unifying electromagnetic and weak interaction as well as the continuing effort towards a grand unification of all the fundamental forces, confirms to basic correctness of the path on which he took the leading steps.
Furthermore, the idea of stimulated emission on which the present day lasers are based, was first propounded theoretically by him in 1917. His contribution in collaboration with S.N. Bose to the statistics of ‘Bosons’, which is popularly known as Bose-Einstein Statistics, Einstein’s Theory of the specific heat of solids based on Planck’s quantum hypothesis, and his various other contributing researches in the field of quantum mechanics and quantum statistics are also worth remembering.
View Towards Quantum Mechanics (QM)
Though QM provides an immediate and remarkable explanation of various unsolved problems of the microscopic world of the atom, he always remained skeptical on its statistical interpretation. It was his belief that QM was an incomplete representation of real things. Even his discussion with Bohr in 1927 and 1930, at the time of fifth and sixth Solway Congress on physics, could not satisfy him to accept its Copenhagen interpretation. In his opinion, the motions of particles were uncertain not because they were uncertain in reality, but because of some missing parameters, which he called ‘local hidden variables’ which determine the actual motion of a particle.
In 1935, he suggested the very famous thought experiment named EPR paradox, which converted his philosophical objection and idea of hidden variables into a testable proposition. He never favored the statistical interpretation of QM, and always stood by the classical determinism until his death. His view about it can be best understood with his famous quote “God does not play dice with the world”, which confirm his firm deterministic view rather than the quantum mechanical probabilistic.
Teaching, Honors, Awards, and other Activities
He was appointed associate professor of theoretical physics at the University of Zurich in 1909, and it was the first academic position held by him. He also worked as a professor at German University in Prague, and Federal institute of technology in Zurich in 1911 and 1912 respectively. In 1913, he was elected member to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin and subsequently joined the University of Berlin in 1914 and assumed the German citizenship once again. During the period 1909-1914, he received lot of invitations worldwide to join various universities. He also headed the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute in 1914 as a director.
He received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921 for the quantum mechanical explanation of photoelectric effect. After being elected the Fellow of Royal Society, London in 1921, he received the Copley Medal of Royal Society in 1925, and gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1926. During his visit to the US in 1930, he was offered a permanent position at the Institute for Academic Study at Princeton. During 1933 he visited universities and institutes in Europe, followed by various offers of reputed academic posts. These were ominous years in Europe as, in 1933, Adolph Hitler came to power and Einstein being a Jew, did not return to Germany but accepted the offer at Princeton.
He was granted permanent residency by the US in 1935. One of the major events which took place in his life was the offer of the post of the President of Israel in 1952, by the government of Israel after the death of their first president, which he refused.
Society and Human Affairs
He had always paid a careful attention towards various problems of society and received public attention on his opinions on various issue, some of which are discussed here under.
About Religion and Science
He was deeply religious in a human sense but was not associated with any orthodox organized religion. Though, he was not religious in the strict sense, he was not a non-believer either. His opinion about God in his own words is, “God is subtle, but he is not malicious”. In his belief, the scientific methods teach us how the facts of any system are related to, and conditioned by each other. His common concern about the society with rationalistic standpoint as a consequence of scientific methods, was clear in the statement made by him about the religion and spirit of sciences as, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”.
Why Socialism as a Solution of Social Problems?
For him, socialism was social science comprising a systematic study of social structure, processes, and changes in society. In his opinion, it was the best way to solve humane problems, which affect the organization of any society. In his opinion, it is the society, which provides a man food, clothing, language, home, tools of work, and various other things, through the collective labor of various known and unknown persons and different sectors of our society; so there is always dependence of an individual upon society.
Thus, the concept of individualism cannot offer the way to solve social problems, and only socialism is directed towards a better socio-ethical end. In his opinion, the capitalism and individualism as is emerging in the modern society as consequences of so-called modernization, is the real source of evils in the society. He strongly advocated a system governed by socialism, to protect the rights of an individual from the centralization of power and the overwhelming power of bureaucracy in a society.
On the Structure of Education
He defined education in this way: “Education is that, which remains if one has forgotten everything he learned in schools and colleges”. He was always against imposing the authoritative discipline on students, and an education without meaningful humane affairs. He was in favor of self-discipline in schools, which can boost the self-confidence of the pupil. In his opinion, the best use of education is to teach the history of science to students, as a means of interpreting progress in civilization, not the history of ideals of imperialistic power and military success to promote the world peace.
Atomic War and World Peace
He was very much concerned about the dangers to civilization because of a possible war, fought with the atomic weapons in near future. He had very strongly advocated a world government with active smaller nations, to save the world from monopoly of powerful countries, and to solve all the conflicts, which in the past have led to war.
He was very active about the disarmament and was highly shocked by the use of atom bomb during the second world war in 1945, when on 6 August, the US dropped atom bombs on twin cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan. In his last letter to Bertrand Russell, just one week before his death, he agreed to put his name on a manifesto urging all the nations of world to give up destructive nuclear and chemical weapons of any kind for international peace. In a recent worldwide survey after the completion of last century Time magazine announced Einstein the ‘Man of the Century’.
After the death of his second wife Elsa in 1936, he was a lonely person and devoted himself to unify the laws of physics and due to lack of proper care, he fell sick many times. In 1955, he fell sick again and died in a hospital in Princeton, on 18th April 1955 at 1.25 A.M. His mortal remains were cremated without following any religious rites in a secret place, and his ashes were scattered at an undisclosed place as per his will.
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