Albert Einstein and His Theories
Einstein, Albert (1879-1955), German-born American physicist and Nobel
laureate, best known as the creator of the special and general theories of
relativity and for his bold hypothesis concerning the particle nature of light.
He is perhaps the most well-known scientist of the 20th century.
Einstein was born in Ulm on March 14, 1879, and spent his youth in
Munich, where his family owned a small shop that manufactured electric machinery.
He did not talk until the age of three, but even as a youth he showed a
brilliant curiosity about nature and an ability to understand difficult
mathematical concepts. At the age of 12 he taught himself Euclidean geometry.
Einstein hated the dull regimentation and unimaginative spirit of school
in Munich. When repeated business failure led the family to leave Germany for
Milan, Italy, Einstein, who was then 15 years old, used the opportunity to
withdraw from the school. He spent a year with his parents in Milan, and when it
became clear that he would have to make his own way in the world, he finished
secondary school in Arrau, Switzerland, and entered the Swiss National
Polytechnic in Zrich. Einstein did not enjoy the methods of instruction there.
He often cut classes and used the time to study physics on his own or to play
his beloved violin. He passed his examinations and graduated in 1900 by studying
the notes of a classmate. His professors did not think highly of him and would
not recommend him for a university position.
For two years Einstein worked as a tutor and substitute teacher. In 1902
he secured a position as an examiner in the Swiss patent office in Bern. In 1903
he married Mileva Mari, who had been his classmate at the polytechnic. They had
two sons but eventually divorced. Einstein later remarried.
Early Scientific Publications
In 1905 Einstein received his doctorate from the University of Zrich
for a theoretical dissertation on the dimensions of molecules, and he also
published three theoretical papers of central importance to the development of
20th-century physics. In the first of these papers, on Brownian motion, he made
significant predictions about the motion of particles that are randomly
distributed in a fluid. These predictions were later confirmed by experiment.
The second paper, on the photoelectric effect, contained a revolutionary
hypothesis concerning the nature of light. Einstein not only proposed that under
certain circumstances light can be considered as consisting of particles, but he
also hypothesized that the energy carried by any light particle, called a photon,
is proportional to the frequency of the radiation. The formula for this is E =
hu, where E is the energy of the radiation, h is a universal constant known as
Planck’s constant, and u is the frequency of the radiation. This proposal-that
the energy contained within a light beam is transferred in individual units, or
quanta-contradicted a hundred-year-old tradition of considering light energy a
manifestation of continuous processes. Virtually no one accepted Einstein’s
proposal. In fact, when the American physicist Robert Andrews Millikan
experimentally confirmed the theory almost a decade later, he was surprised and
somewhat disquieted by the outcome.
Einstein, whose prime concern was to understand the nature of
electromagnetic radiation, subsequently urged the development of a theory that
would be a fusion of the wave and particle models for light. Again, very few
physicists understood or were sympathetic to these ideas.
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity
Einstein’s third major paper in 1905, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving
Bodies,” contained what became known as the special theory of relativity. Since
the time of the English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, natural
philosophers (as physicists and chemists were known) had been trying to
understand the nature of matter and radiation, and how they interacted in some
unified world picture. The position that mechanical laws are fundamental has
become known as the mechanical world view, and the position that electrical laws
are fundamental has become known as the electromagnetic world view. Neither
approach, however, is capable of providing a consistent explanation for the way
radiation (light, for example) and matter interact when viewed from different
inertial frames of reference, that is, an interaction viewed simultaneously by
an observer at rest and an observer moving at uniform speed.
In the spring of 1905, after considering these problems for ten years,
Einstein realized that the crux of the problem lay not in a theory of matter but
in a theory of measurement. At the heart of his special theory of relativity was
the realization that all measurements of time and space depend on judgments as
to whether two distant events occur simultaneously. This led him to develop a
theory based on two postulates: the principle of relativity, that physical laws
are the same in all inertial reference systems, and the principle of the
invariance of the speed of light, that the speed of light in a vacuum is a
universal constant. He was thus able to provide a consistent and correct
description of physical events in different inertial frames of reference without
making special assumptions about the nature of matter or radiation, or how they
interact. Virtually no one understood Einstein’s argument.
Early Reactions to Einstein
The difficulty that others had with Einstein’s work was not because it
was too mathematically complex or technically obscure; the problem resulted,
rather, from Einstein’s beliefs about the nature of good theories and the
relationship between experiment and theory. Although he maintained that the only
source of knowledge is experience, he also believed that scientific theories are
the free creations of a finely tuned physical intuition and that the premises on
which theories are based cannot be connected logically to experiment. A good
theory, therefore, is one in which a minimum number of postulates is required to
account for the physical evidence. This sparseness of postulates, a feature of
all Einstein’s work, was what made his work so difficult for colleagues to
comprehend, let alone support.
Einstein did have important supporters, however. His chief early patron
was the German physicist Max Planck. Einstein remained at the patent office for
four years after his star began to rise within the physics community. He then
moved rapidly upward in the German-speaking academic world; his first academic
appointment was in 1909 at the University of Zrich. In 1911 he moved to the
German-speaking university at Prague, and in 1912 he returned to the Swiss
National Polytechnic in Zrich. Finally, in 1913, he was appointed director of
the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin.
The General Theory of Relativity
Even before he left the patent office in 1907, Einstein began work on
extending and generalizing the theory of relativity to all coordinate systems.
He began by enunciating the principle of equivalence, a postulate that
gravitational fields are equivalent to accelerations of the frame of reference.
For example, people in a moving elevator cannot, in principle, decide whether
the force that acts on them is caused by gravitation or by a constant
acceleration of the elevator. The full general theory of relativity was not
published until 1916. In this theory the interactions of bodies, which
heretofore had been ascribed to gravitational forces, are explained as the
influence of bodies on the geometry of space-time (four-dimensional space, a
mathematical abstraction, having the three dimensions from Euclidean space and
time as the fourth dimension).
On the basis of the general theory of relativity, Einstein accounted for
the previously unexplained variations in the orbital motion of the planets and
predicted the bending of starlight in the vicinity of a massive body such as the
sun. The confirmation of this latter phenomenon during an eclipse of the sun in
1919 became a media event, and Einstein’s fame spread worldwide.
For the rest of his life Einstein devoted considerable time to
generalizing his theory even more. His last effort, the unified field theory,
which was not entirely successful, was an attempt to understand all physical
interactions-including electromagnetic interactions and weak and strong
interactions-in terms of the modification of the geometry of space-time between
Most of Einstein’s colleagues felt that these efforts were misguided.
Between 1915 and 1930 the mainstream of physics was in developing a new
conception of the fundamental character of matter, known as quantum theory. This
theory contained the feature of wave-particle duality (light exhibits the
properties of a particle, as well as of a wave) that Einstein had earlier urged
as necessary, as well as the uncertainty principle, which states that precision
in measuring processes is limited. Additionally, it contained a novel rejection,
at a fundamental level, of the notion of strict causality. Einstein, however,
would not accept such notions and remained a critic of these developments until
the end of his life. “God,” Einstein once said, “does not play dice with the
After 1919, Einstein became internationally renowned. He accrued honors
and awards, including the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921, from various world
scientific societies. His visit to any part of the world became a national
event; photographers and reporters followed him everywhere. While regretting his
loss of privacy, Einstein capitalized on his fame to further his own political
and social views.
The two social movements that received his full support were pacifism
and Zionism. During World War I he was one of a handful of German academics
willing to publicly decry Germany’s involvement in the war. After the war his
continued public support of pacifist and Zionist goals made him the target of
vicious attacks by anti-Semitic and right-wing elements in Germany. Even his
scientific theories were publicly ridiculed, especially the theory of relativity.
When Hitler came to power, Einstein immediately decided to leave Germany
for the United States. He took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at
Princeton, New Jersey. While continuing his efforts on behalf of world Zionism,
Einstein renounced his former pacifist stand in the face of the awesome threat
to humankind posed by the Nazi regime in Germany.
In 1939 Einstein collaborated with several other physicists in writing a
letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pointing out the possibility of
making an atomic bomb and the likelihood that the German government was
embarking on such a course. The letter, which bore only Einstein’s signature,
helped lend urgency to efforts in the U.S. to build the atomic bomb, but
Einstein himself played no role in the work and knew nothing about it at the
After the war, Einstein was active in the cause of international
disarmament and world government. He continued his active support of Zionism but
declined the offer made by leaders of the state of Israel to become president of
that country. In the U.S. during the late 1940s and early ’50s he spoke out on
the need for the nation’s intellectuals to make any sacrifice necessary to
preserve political freedom. Einstein died in Princeton on April 18, 1955.
Einstein’s efforts in behalf of social causes have sometimes been viewed
as unrealistic. In fact, his proposals were always carefully thought out. Like
his scientific theories, they were motivated by sound intuition based on a
shrewd and careful assessment of evidence and observation. Although Einstein
gave much of himself to political and social causes, science always came first,
because, he often said, only the discovery of the nature of the universe would
have lasting meaning. His writings include Relativity: The Special and General
Theory (1916); About Zionism (1931); Builders of the Universe (1932); Why War?
(1933), with Sigmund Freud; The World as I See It (1934); The Evolution of
Physics (1938), with the Polish physicist Leopold Infeld; and Out of My Later
Years (1950). Einstein’s collected papers are being published in a multivolume
work, beginning in 1987.