Study Guide

Albert Einstein Biography

  • Biography

    Albert Einstein. Half a century after his death, the man's very name has become virtually synonymous with "genius." Einstein's portrait has become an iconic image—usually rendered with wild flyaway hair and often with his tongue sticking out rakishly—used to provide brainy chic to everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers to beer steins. (Einstein... ein stein... get it?) The Walt Disney Company sells hundreds of millions of dollars worth of quasi-educational multimedia DVDs to parents of small children by promising, dubiously, that watching the programs will turn their toddlers into "Baby Einsteins." Today we are so eager to share in Einstein's wisdom that we have even falsely attributed to him dozens of pithy quotations that never really crossed his lips. (You may have heard Einstein's famous dictum that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." Einstein never said that. Nor did he ever say that "Evil is the absence of God," that "the only thing that interferes with learning is education," or that "we use only 10 percent of our brains.") Misquotations notwithstanding, Albert Einstein lives on today as a multi-million-dollar brand. (His trademarked name and likeness have been for half a century the carefully guarded intellectual property of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a fortunate beneficiary of Einstein's will.) And the Einstein brand means "genius."

    But what of Albert Einstein, the man? Not the icon, but the human being? Imagine you had been alive to meet Einstein as a young man, just after the turn of the twentieth century. If you had run into him then, perhaps as he hustled through the streets of Bern on his way to his job at the Swiss Patent Office, you might just have recognized him; the round face, sad eyes, and droopy moustache of the iconic Einstein were already there, even though he hadn't yet let his hair grow out to its full electric potential and he almost certainly wouldn't have stuck his tongue out at you. But even if you had recognized that young man as Albert Einstein, you never would have guessed that you were looking at a person who would go on to be considered the world's greatest genius. In fact, you may well have guessed that you were looking at a loser.

  • Student & Patent Clerk

    For until 1905, the arc of Albert Einstein's life story seemed to bend not toward greatness but toward failure. The son of a middle-class German-Jewish featherbed salesman, the real "baby Einstein" had been alarmingly slow to develop speech; young Albert did not utter his first word until the age of three. It did not take long after that for the boy to begin to display the deep curiosity into the secret workings of the universe for which he would later become famous; at the age of five, he became fascinated by the mystery of what hidden forces caused the needle of a compass always to point north. At the age of 16, he wrote his first serious scientific paper, "On the Investigation of the State of Ether in a Magnetic Field," which was never published but clearly revealed the young man's intellectual potential.

    Such intelligence and curiosity did not, however, translate into great success in school. The young Einstein hated the rigid structure and boring memorization that characterized education in late nineteenth-century Germany, receiving mediocre grades and often getting into trouble for rebelling against his teachers' authority. (His seventh-grade teacher, exasperated by young Albert's insubordination, famously told Einstein he "would never get anywhere in life." The professor, apparently unmoved by Hermann Einstein's intervention on behalf of his son, offered Albert neither words of encouragement nor an academic job.

    Instead, the young man escaped unemployment by taking a menial job as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. And even there he failed to make much of an impression; in 1904, his supervisor rejected Einstein's request for a promotion, arguing that he lacked the qualifications to advance from patent clerk third class to patent clerk second class within the Swiss civil bureaucracy.

    Even Einstein's personal life seemed headed toward shame and failure. In 1901, he got his on-again, off-again girlfriend Mileva Maric pregnant; early the next year, she gave birth to a daughter named Lieserl. Einstein's German-Jewish family disapproved of his relationship with Mileva, a Serbian Christian, so the unwed couple kept their first-born child's birth a secret from his family and put Lieserl up for adoption; to this day, historians don't know what became of the girl. The eldest child of Albert Einstein may have gone on to live a long and happy life, perhaps even producing a secret line of Einstein descendants. Or she may have died as a baby. Either way, she has been lost to history. Albert Einstein's inability to provide for his first child may be only the most poignant proof of the seemingly lost course of his own life through 1904. If you had run into Albert Einstein on the streets of Bern during those difficult years, you could hardly have imagined you were looking at the world's greatest genius. You might, instead, have felt a certain pity for a young man who was clearly struggling mightily just to find his place in the world.

    In 1905, he found it.

  • Annus Mirabilis

    Albert Einstein called 1905 his "annus mirabilis," his miraculous year. That spring, using nothing more than his pad and pencil to puzzle through the most fundamental problems of the universe, he found revelatory solutions to some of physics' greatest mysteries. The Swiss patent clerk submitted handwritten drafts of three separate theoretical papers to the German Annalen der Physik, the world's most prestigious physics journal. In September 1905, the journal published all three of Einstein's essays in its volume 17—surely the most consequential issue of an academic journal ever printed. (A rare original copy of volume 17 fetched $15,000 in a 1994 auction.)

    Einstein's three essays offered earthshaking new interpretations of three separate major problems in modern physics. The first explained the photoelectric effect, recently observed in laboratory experiments by other scientists, by arguing that light travels both as a wave and as packets of energy called "quanta." (It was Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect, not his better-known theory of relativity, that eventually won him a Nobel Prize.) The second paper explained Brownian motion, the unpredictable movement of tiny particles, as a result of the molecular action hypothesized by atomic theory. The third, and perhaps most famous, of Einstein's three essays introduced his special theory of relativity, which suggested that space and time were not, as Newtonian physics had long assumed, absolute, but rather that space and time would themselves expand or contract relative to an observer's rate of motion.

    From his equations of special relativity, Einstein quickly deduced the revolutionary concept of mass-energy equivalence; a few weeks after submitting his three articles to the Annalen der Physik, he sent in a fourth essay, a kind of addendum to the paper on special relativity that introduced, for the first time, the twentieth century's most famous equation: E=mc2. Energy (E) and mass (m), Einstein argued, were interchangeable, and since the square of the speed of light (c2) was a staggeringly large multiplier, a tremendous amount of energy could theoretically be released from a tiny amount of matter. Thus did Albert Einstein's scribbled equations provide the genesis of the nuclear age.

  • General Theory of Relativity

    But atomic bombs and nuclear power plants—perhaps the two best-known practical manifestations of Einstein's ideas—would not appear for decades. The more immediate consequence of volume 17 was the resuscitation of young Albert's academic career. In 1905 he earned his PhD, and the next year he won an untenured teaching position at the University of Bern. In 1911 and 1912, Einstein moved quickly through professorships at the universities of Zurich and Prague before settling in as a professor at his alma mater, the ETH in Switzerland. There he worked on expanding his special theory of relativity into a general theory of relativity, which explained gravity not as an independent force but instead as a distortion of the geometry of space-time caused by large bodies of matter.

    One implication of Einstein's theory was that the gravitation of massive objects would warp space-time, bending light around them. As early as 1911, Einstein suggested that a full solar eclipse might allow scientists to measure this deflection of light; stars that should have been hidden behind the sun would appear to have moved to new positions in the sky, their light having been bent by the gravitation of the sun. (The effect would only be visible during an eclipse, because normally the sun's brightness would make it impossible to see the other stars.) In 1919, a British astronomer named Arthur Eddington traveled to the island of Principe, off the coast of Africa, to observe a full solar eclipse. He produced photographic evidence that Einstein's conjectures had been correct; light from distant stars had turned a corner around the sun, making them appear to shift their positions in the sky.

    Albert Einstein's challenging theoretical explanations of the deepest workings of the universe had been vindicated in the most dramatic possible way, with the publication of definitive photographs made possible only by the rarest of celestial events, a total eclipse of the sun. The world reacted with awe. The Times of London, one of the leading newspapers of the English-speaking world, heralded Eddington's findings with a front-page banner headline: "Revolution in Science — New Theory of the Universe — Newtonian Ideas Overthrown." Suddenly Einstein found himself not only a respected physicist but also a true global celebrity. Albert Einstein, the mediocre student and troubled young adult, was gone and forgotten. Albert Einstein, the icon of pure genius, had arrived.

  • Social Causes

    Fame was not a natural fit for Einstein's shy personality. He soon tired of being stopped on the street by complete strangers, sometimes telling them, "Very sorry, I am often mistaken for the famous Professor Einstein." But such evasions could not reduce the magnitude of Einstein's celebrity. From the 1920s through the 1950s, much of the public remained convinced that Einstein was not only one of the world's smartest individuals, but one of its wisest as well. People constantly sought his advice on matters great and small. (A teenage girl once wrote him asking for help with her math homework; Einstein replied, "Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are much greater.") Uncomfortable as he was in the spotlight, Einstein resolved to use the platform offered by his fame to speak out on the major political and humanitarian problems of his time. Albert Einstein became a forceful advocate for the causes dearest to his social vision—internationalism, pacifism, and Zionism.

    The three causes were completely interlinked in Einstein's mind, and his belief in all three was rooted in his own life experience as a German Jew who lived through two world wars and one Nazi reign of terror. The expansionistic and militant wave of nationalism that swept over Germany through much of the early twentieth century instigated the two worst armed conflicts in human history, World Wars I and II. That same wave of German nationalism repeatedly threw Albert Einstein's life into chaos.

    In 1896, when he was just 17 years old, Einstein—then living in Switzerland—had to renounce his German citizenship to avoid mandatory service in the Kaiser's military. By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, Einstein was back in Germany, serving as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin. Einstein was appalled by the hypernationalism that engulfed even Germany's scientific community; when 93 eminent German scientists published a jingoistic "Manifesto to the civilized world" backing the country's war effort, Einstein responded by drafting a pacifistic and anti-nationalistic "Manifesto to the Europeans," which argued—very much against the spirit of the times—that "the struggle raging today can scarcely yield a 'victor'; all nations that participate in it will, in all likelihood, pay an exceedingly high price." Einstein could find only two others to co-sign his treatise, and many of his Prussian colleagues scorned him for his lack of patriotism in a time of war.

    But defeat in the Great War seemed to dampen the flame of German nationalism after 1918, and Einstein even re-applied for German citizenship in 1920 in a gesture of solidarity with the liberal new government of the Weimar Republic. But Weimar collapsed amidst the economic ruin of the late 1920s and 1930s, and a menacing new manifestation of German nationalism appeared on the political scene—Nazism.

    As a Jew, Einstein quickly found that his position as the most renowned scientist within a society overtaken by anti-Semitic madness had become untenable. Nazi scientists began to attack Einstein's theories as "Jewish physics," proposing alternative "Aryan physics" instead and blacklisting professors who continued to teach using Einstein's concepts. In 1932, just before Hitler fully consolidated his hold on power in Germany, Einstein and his family left for the United States, never to return. In 1940, for the second time in his life, Albert Einstein renounced his German nationality and became a citizen of the United States. He would never forget or forgive the German people for their participation in Hitler's crimes against humanity.

  • The Atomic Bomb

    Einstein quickly settled into his new American life in Princeton, New Jersey. His appointment at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study could have afforded him the total solitude he always said he needed to think clearly through the great problems of physics. But Einstein refused to retreat entirely from the great problems of the moment for mankind. He continued to speak out against Nazi aggression and anti-Semitism in Europe and offered his support to the Zionist project of building a Jewish state in Israel (though he called for a policy of moderation and reconciliation when it came to the growing Jewish conflict with the Palestinian Arabs who also inhabited the ancient Holy Land). Most of all, Einstein advocated a pacifistic vision of a world dominated by peaceful internationalist institutions rather than warlike nationalistic states.

    By the late 1930s, however, it had become clear—even to the pacifist Einstein—that peaceful international institutions had no hope of stopping the growing evil of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. In the meantime, scientists—many of them German scientists—had made great progress in exploring the research path laid out by E=mc2. They had achieved nuclear fission—the chain-reaction splitting of atoms—in laboratory tests and recognized the real-world potential for tiny masses of radioactive material to release massive amounts of energy. The wartime application of fission was the atomic bomb, a fearsome weapon that German scientists, by the late 1930s, understood was not only theoretically possible but perhaps technologically feasible to construct. Dozens of émigré scientists—many of them, like Einstein, Jewish refugees from Hitler—arrived in America in the 1930s and '40s fearing that Nazi researchers could help the führer conquer the globe by developing the world's first atomic super-weapon.

    In 1939, one of those refugee scientists, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, tried to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to address the threat of German nuclear weapons by launching the Americans' own atomic bomb program. But Szilard, who at the time didn't have much stature outside the scientific community, couldn't get Roosevelt to take him seriously. So he turned to his friend Albert Einstein, the world's most famous scientist. Einstein, the pacifist, signed his name to a letter urging the president to support American research into "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" that might be built using fissionable uranium.

    Roosevelt, awakened by Einstein's letter to the coming reality of atomic warfare, secretly authorized the Manhattan Project, a huge (and hugely expensive) crash program of nuclear research that produced, in 1945, the world's first atomic bombs. (Ironically, we now know that the Germans abandoned their own atomic program at just about the same time FDR, fearing German superiority in the field, launched the Manhattan Project. And the first working atomic bombs only became available for use in the summer of 1945, after the Germans had surrendered and World War II in Europe was over; a weapon built to stop Hitler thus ended up being dropped on the Japanese instead.)

    Though Einstein did not participate in the Manhattan Project itself—the government judged him a poor security risk for top-secret research—his letter to Roosevelt proved to be the crucial turning point in the weaponization of E=mc2. Thus Albert Einstein, lifelong pacifist, might fairly be described as the father of the atomic bomb. Einstein himself recognized the irony, viewing his own role in ushering in the atomic age with a mixture of regret and resignation. In 1954, the last year of his life, he admitted to an old friend, "I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them."

  • Last Years & Death

    By the time World War II ended with atomic mushroom clouds erupting over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein the icon had long since overshadowed Einstein the man. His greatest contributions to theoretical physics had been made in the 1900s and 1910s, his Nobel Prize awarded in 1921. Einstein spent the last thirty years of his life vainly struggling to formulate what he called a "unified field theory," a single mathematical model that could explain all the laws of physics. He never found his answer. (Today, half a century after Einstein's death, scientists continue to search for this Holy Grail of theoretical physics.) Even as Einstein was frustrated in his unified field work, his fame and status as the world's embodiment of pure genius continued to grow. It is this late-period Einstein, the mad professor with the rebellious white hair, that lives on today on our t-shirts and bumper stickers.

    In his later years, Einstein continued to speak out on social and political issues, still unafraid to stand against the conventional wisdom of the moment. Einstein, who had long collaborated with fellow scientists in the Eastern bloc, deplored the Cold War and the domestic Red Scare that accompanied it. He spoke out in favor of socialism and one world government, joined radical civil rights organizations, and defended the character of friends who were Communists. All of these activities struck many in McCarthy-era America as deeply suspicious; the FBI opened a file on Einstein, and it soon grew to nearly 1,500 pages.

    At the same time, Einstein continued be a staunch supporter of the new nation of Israel but also a vocal critic of what he saw as excessive violence on the part of some Israelis—especially members of Menachem Begin's right-wing Irgun militia—toward Palestinian Arabs. (Even while the 1948 Israeli War of Independence still raged, Einstein co-authored a letter to the New York Times that denounced Begin as a "terrorist" and "Fascist" responsible for massacring Palestinian civilians at the village of Deir Yassin.

  • Family

    Father: Hermann Einstein, 1847-1902, German-Jewish featherbed salesman, two children
    Mother: Pauline Koch, 1858-1920
    Sister: Maja Einstein, 1881-1951, PhD in literature and Romance languages

    First Wife: Mileva Maric, 1875-1948 (married 1903, divorced 1919), Serbian Christian, physicist, three children
    Daughter: Lieserl Maric, 1902-?, put up for adoption as infant, fate unknown
    Son: Hans Albert Einstein, 1914-1973, professor of hydraulic engineering, three children
    Son: Eduard Einstein, 1910-1965, institutionalized for schizophrenia, no children

    Second Wife: Elsa Einstein-Löwenthal, 1876-1936 (married 1919), Albert's first cousin, two children by first husband Max Löwenthal
    Stepdaughter: Ilse Löwenthal, 1897-1934, child of Elsa's first husband Max Löwenthal
    Stepdaughter: Margot Löwenthal, 1899-1986, child of Elsa's first husband Max Löwenthal

    Grandson (son of Hans Albert): Bernhard Caesar Einstein, 1930-, physicist, five children
    Grandson (son of Hans Albert): Klaus Einstein, 1932-1938, died of diphtheria as child
    Granddaughter (adopted daughter of Hans Albert): Evelyn Einstein, 1941-, adopted by Hans Albert in 1942

  • Education

    Undergraduate teaching degree in physics and mathematics, Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute, Zurich, 1901.
    PhD in physics, University of Zurich, 1905.

  • Work Experience

    Clerk, Swiss Patent Office, Bern, 1902-1909.
    Lecturer, University of Bern, 1908.
    Associate professor of physics, University of Zurich, 1909-1910.
    Professor of physics, Unversity of Prague, 1911.
    Professor of physics, Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute, 1912-1913.
    Director, Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institution, Berlin, 1914-1933.
    Professor of Theoretical Physics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 1933-1955.

  • Major Works

    Special Theory of Relativity, 1905.
    General Theory of Relativity, 1916.
    Investigations on Theory of Brownian Movement, 1926.
    About Zionism, 1930.
    Why War?, 1933.
    My Philosophy, 1934.
    The Evolution of Physics, 1938.
    Out of My Later Years, 1950.

  • Awards

    Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921.
    Admission to German Order "Pour La Mérite," 1923.
    Copley Medal, Royal Society of London, 1925.
    Gold Medal, Royal Astronomical Society, London, 1925.
    Max-Planck-Medal, German Physical Society, 1929.
    Benjamin Franklin Medal, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1935.