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Albert Einstein

The Humble Genius


Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Albert Einstein in 1910

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955), the German-Swiss-American mathematical atomic physicist and Nobel prizewinner, seen early in his career in a thoughtful pose. (circa 1910)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Albert Einstein Sticking Out His Tongue

Albert Einstein, american physicist (german born) sticking his tongue out, the picture was taken on March 14, 1951 and distributed for his 72nd birthday.

(Photo by Apic/Getty Images)


Who Was Albert Einstein?

Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of the 20th century, revolutionized scientific thought. Having developed the Theory of Relativity, Einstein opened the door for the creation of the atomic bomb.

Dates: March 14, 1879 -- April 18, 1955


Overview of Albert Einstein

In 1879, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany to Jewish parents, Hermann and Pauline Einstein. A year later, Hermann Einstein's business failed and he moved his family to Munich to start a new electric business with his brother Jakob. In Munich, Albert's sister Maja was born in 1881. Only two years apart in age, Albert adored his sister and they had a close relationship their whole lives.


Was Einstein Lazy?

Although Einstein is now considered the epitome of genius, in the first two decades of his life, many people thought Einstein was the exact opposite. Right after Einstein was born, relatives were concerned with Einstein's pointy head. Then, when Einstein didn't talk until he was three years old, his parents worried something was wrong with him. Einstein also failed to impress his teachers. From elementary school through college, his teachers and professors thought him lazy, sloppy, and insubordinate. Many of his teachers thought he would never amount to anything.

What appeared to be laziness in class was really boredom. Rather than just memorizing facts and dates (the mainstay of classroom work), Einstein preferred to ponder questions such as what makes the needle of a compass point in one direction? Why is the sky blue? What would it be like to travel at the speed of light?

Unfortunately for Einstein, these were not the types of topics he was taught in school. Although his grades were excellent, Einstein found regular schooling to be strict and oppressive. Things changed for Einstein when he befriended Max Talmud, the 21-year-old medical student who ate dinner at the Einstein's once a week. Although Einstein was only eleven years old, Max introduced Einstein to numerous science and philosophy books and then discussed their content with him. Einstein flourished in this learning environment and it wasn't long until Einstein had surpassed what Max could teach him.


Einstein Attends the Polytechnic Institute

When Einstein was 15 years old, his father's new business had failed and the Einstein family moved to Italy. At first, Albert remained behind in Germany to finish high school, but he was soon unhappy with that arrangement and left school to rejoin his family.

Rather than finish high school, Einstein decided to apply directly to the prestigious Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. Although he failed the entrance exam on the first try, he then spent a year studying at a local high school and retook the entrance exam in October 1896 and passed.

Once at the Polytechnic, Einstein again did not like school. Believing that his professors only taught old science, Einstein would often skip class, preferring to stay home and read about the newest in scientific theory. When he did attend class, Einstein would often make it obvious that he found the class dull.

Some last minute studying allowed Einstein to graduate in 1900. However, once out of school, Einstein was unable to find a job because none of his teachers liked him enough to write him a recommendation letter. For nearly two years, Einstein worked at short-term jobs until a friend was able to help him get a job as a patent clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. Finally with a job and some stability, Einstein was able to marry his college sweetheart, Mileva Maric, whom his parents strongly disapproved. The couple went on to have two sons: Hans Albert (born 1904) and Eduard (born 1910).


Einstein the Patent Clerk

For seven years, Einstein worked six days a week as a patent clerk. He was responsible for examining the blueprints of other people's inventions and then determining whether or not they were feasible. If they were, Einstein had to ensure no one else had already been given a patent for the same idea.

Somehow, between his very busy work and family life, Einstein not only found time to earn a doctorate from the University of Zurich (awarded 1905), but found time to think. It was while working at the patent office that Einstein made his most shocking and amazing discoveries.


Einstein Changed How We View the World

With just pen, paper, and his brain, Albert Einstein revolutionized science as we know it today. In 1905, while working at the patent office, Einstein wrote five scientific papers, which were all published in the Annalen der Physik (Annals of Physics, a major physics journal). Three of these were published together in September 1905.

In one paper, Einstein theorized that light must not just travel in waves but existed as particles, which explained the photoelectric effect. Einstein himself described this particular theory as "revolutionary." This was also the theory for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

In another paper, Einstein tackled the mystery of why pollen never settled to the bottom of a glass of water, but rather, kept moving (Brownian motion). By declaring that the pollen was being moved by water molecules, Einstein solved a longstanding, scientific mystery as well as proved the existence of molecules.

His third paper described Einstein's "Special Theory of Relativity," in which Einstein revealed that space and time are not absolutes. The only thing that is constant, Einstein stated, is the speed of light; the rest of space and time are all based on the position of the observer. For example, if a young boy were to roll a ball across the floor of a moving train, how fast was the ball moving? To the boy, it might look like the ball was moving at 1 mile per hour. However, to someone watching the train go by, the ball would appear to be moving the one mile per hour plus the speed of the train (40 miles per hour). To someone watching the event from space, the ball would be moving the one mile per hour the boy had noticed, plus the 40 miles an hour of the speed of the train, plus the speed of the earth.

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