One of my earliest recollections of the name of Albert Einstein comes from what might seem the unlikeliest of sources. Comic, Sid Caesar, used to do an impression of a "mad scientist" on the classic "Show of Shows" television series of so long ago, which entertained audiences for many years. I read in his autobiography, "Where Have I Been?" that one of the most special moments in his life came when he was contacted by a representative of Albert Einstein and informed that the great genius wanted to meet him in person. Caesar was thrilled, and a date was arranged, but unfortunately, Einstein died before the meeting.
Today, the name "Einstein" is considered a synonym for genius. (Consider Baby Einstein"). Also, the late Ernie Kovacs nicknamed his oldest daughter, "Einstein," because of her superior intelligence. Who was this extraordinary man behind the famous theory of relativity and what were some of his personal challenges and triumphs?
He was born on March 14, 1879, in the city of Ulm in Wurttemberg, Germany, about ten kilometers east of Stuttgart. His parents were Jewish but not religious, and as a child Albert attended a Catholic elementary school. His father, Hermann, was a salesman who later in life managed an electrochemical works. His mother, Pauline Koch Einstein, insisted on violin lessons, and although Albert disliked and eventually discontinued them, the love of violin music was ingrained in his soul for the rest of his life.
At the tender age of five, Albert experienced an epiphany. His father showed him a pocket compass and he realized that something in "empty" space acted upon the needle. Even as a child, he built models and mechanical devices and indicated great mathematical ability at a very young age. Hs love and interest in science was encouraged and fostered by friends and family. In 1889, a medical student named Max Talmud (Talmey) introduced Einstein to "Kant's Critique of Pure Reason." Two of his uncles also directed his intellectual interests by recommending and providing books on science, mathematics and philosophy.
In 1891, at the age of twelve, Albert began to formally study mathematics at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Here, he clashed with the powers that be, as even then he firmly believed that the creative spirit of learning was stifled by the strict rules of memorization that were an integral part of the teaching process of the day. He taught himself Euclidian Geometry from a school booklet and when finished, went on to tackle calculus (also all by his lonesome).
In 1894, following the failure of his father's business, the family moved from Munich to Pavia, Italy, a city near Milan. Albert remained behind so that he could finish school, but only completed one more term before rejoining his family in the spring of 1895 without a secondary school certificate. It was during this time that he wrote his first scientific work, "The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields." Later that same year, he performed the experiment known as "Albert Einstein's Mirror" in which he concluded that the speed of light is independent of the observer. This statement would later become one of the two "postulates of special relativity."
He finished secondary school in Switzerland and it was a disappointment to his family when it became clear that he would not become an electrical engineer as his father had been. At The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology he studied a subject that was seldom taught, Maxwell's electromagnetic theory, and received his diploma in 1896. At this time, he met the Serbian, Mileva Marc, and their relationship developed into a romance, although his family disapproved of her. They married on January 6, 1903.
A brilliant mathematician, Marc was both an intellectual and personal partner to the great genius. He himself said of her, "She is a creature who is my equal and who is as strong and independent as I am." In all probability, their relationship worked because she could give him the intellectual isolation that he needed and that she required as well. The extent of her influence on her husband's work has remained an issue of controversy to this day.
In 1905 while working at the Swiss Patent Office, Einstein obtained his doctorate and in his spare time wrote four articles that would prove to be the framework of modern physics. Most scientists agree that three of those papers (on Brownian motion, which provided empirical evidence for the existence of atoms, the photoelectric effect which concerned "energy quanta" or photons, and special relativity, a theory about time, distance, mass and energy) were worthy of Nobel Prizes. This series of papers is commonly referred to as the "Annus Mirabilis Papers" (from the Latin, meaning year of wonders).
In 1911 and 1912 Einstein taught at the University of Zurich and the University of Prague and worked closely with mathematician, Marcel Grossmann. He began to refer to the concept of time as the fourth dimension. In 1914, he moved to Berlin as a professor at the local university and took up Prussian citizenship. He became world famous when his theory of relativity proved true after British solar eclipse expeditions in 1919 confirmed the deflection of light rays from the distant stars by the gravity of the sun.
He and Mileva had two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard. The elder boy became a professor of hydraulic engineering at University of California at Berkeley, but had little interaction with his famous father. The younger son suffered from schizophrenia and died in an asylum. Einstein divorced his wife in 1919 and married a second cousin, Elsa Lowenthal. There were no children from this marriage.
On March 30, 1921, Einstein traveled to New York to give a lecture on his new Theory of Relativity. This same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize though it was for his earlier work on the photoelectric effect.
In December of 1932, Einstein took a job as guest professor at Princeton University at the invitation of American educator, Abraham Flexner. In January of 1933, Adolph Hitler passed a law, which forced all Jewish university professors out of their jobs and labeled Einstein's work as "Jewish Physics." At this time, Einstein renounced his Prussian citizenship and became a permanent resident of the United States. In 1940, he became an American citizen and soon after he accepted a permanent position at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton Township, New Jersey. After the war, Einstein served on the original committee, which resulted in the founding of Brandeis University. In 1952, Einstein became the only American ever to be offered a post as a foreign head of state when the government of Israel offered to make him its second president.
His life ended on April 18, 1955, in Princeton Hospital, New Jersey. He was seventy-six years of age. He is widely regarded as the most important scientist of the twentieth century. His journey was both profound and simple, for he came a long way from the small child who first viewed the universe through the compass of a loving father.