The Words and Life of Albert Einstein

Leave a comment

July 9, 2012 by Chris Nöthling



Sometimes it helps provide a broader perspective if we lift our heads from our narrow preoccupation within our own field.

Today’s blog is based on this principle. I want to talk about the words and life of Albert Einstein: It has absolutely nothing to do with Financial Planning. Yet his life and legacy is such that it impacts on us and inspires us no matter what our walk of life.

Time Magazine voted Einstein the person of the 20th century. His nomination had nothing to do with how much money he had, what car he drove, where he lived and what toys he accumulated. It had nothing to do with celebrity shows or quick fame. The truth is, he lived a normal, if not somewhat hard life and had to overcome personal and situational problems like anyone else does. Yet his legacy lives on because he stuck to his principles and applied himself through hard work and diligence.

Quotes by Albert

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

Most people say that is it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.

We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.

Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

I am a deeply religious non believer – this is a somewhat new kind of religion.

I used to go away for weeks in a state of confusion.

The devil has put a penalty on all things we enjoy in life. Either we suffer in health or we suffer in soul or we get fat.

The faster you go, the shorter you are.

Early years and schooling

Albert Einstein was born on 14 March 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany. His parents, Hermann and Pauline, were secular, middle-class Jews. Hermann was a sales rep and a trained engineer. Before the age of one, the family moved to Munich, where Hermann started a company producing electrical equipment. When Einstein was five years old his father gave him a pocket compass. It was this compass that sparked Einstein’s interest in science. The fact that the compass pointed in the same direction no matter how in which direction he turned it made him curious about understanding the force behind it.

Despite being Jewish he began his schooling in 1884 at the Luitpold Gymnasium – a Catholic school. As a child he spoke very little till the age of nine and he appears to have had difficulty in conversing with people; muttering silently, framing sentences in his mind until he finally spoke them aloud after getting them right. He supposedly had problems with spelling and one of his school headmasters allegedly suggested that he should attend a trade school whilst some of his teachers reportedly declared him as borderline retarded.

In 1894, after his father’s company failed to get an important contract to electrify Munich, Hermann moved to Milan, in Italy. Albert was left at a boarding-house in Munich and expected to finish his education. Alone, miserable, and repelled by the looming prospect of military duty when he turned 16, he ran away six months later and landed on the doorstep of his surprised parents. His parents realized the enormous problems that he faced as a school dropout and draft dodger with no employable skills. His prospects did not look promising. In trying to accommodate Albert the family looked for education opportunities in the neighbouring German-speaking areas of Switzerland. In 1895 he applied for an early entrance at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zürich for which he had to complete a University Entrance Exam. He passed the maths and science sections but failed the rest of the subjects. In order to finish his secondary schooling his parents sent him to the Aargau Cantonal School in Aarau, Switzerland.

In 1896 he finally did enrol at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zürich to be trained as a teacher in physics and mathematics. During his time at the Polytechnic he met his future wife, Mileva Maric, a fellow physics student from Serbia. He graduated in 1900 with the Zürich Polytechnic teaching diploma. 

Early Career

After graduation, he was unable to find a teaching post and resorted to taking lowly jobs tutoring children, but he was fired from even these jobs. At the same time his relationship with Maric deepened, but his parents opposed the relationship on account of her Serbian background. Einstein was frustrated because he could not marry her and support a family without a job. Desperate and unemployed Einstein reached perhaps the lowest point in his life in 1902. The turning point came later that year, when the father of a friend recommended him for a job as a technical assistant in the Swiss patent office in Bern. His role was to test electro-magnetic inventions. This did not suit him, as his heart was in physics. However he took the job, but continued to read and study outside of work. With a small but steady income for the first time, Albert felt confident enough to marry. At the same time his father became seriously ill and, just before he died, gave his blessing for his son to marry Maric. They married on 6 January 1903.

In hindsight, Einstein’s job at the patent office was a blessing. He would quickly finish analyzing patent applications, leaving him time to study and produce much of his remarkable work. In April 1905 he completed his thesis and received a PhD in Physics by the University of Zürich. During the same year he published four papers in the German scientific journal – Annalen der Physik. These papers were to have a far-reaching effect on physics and science in general, and helped propel Einstein into the icon he became. They have collectively become known as the Extraordinary Year Papers 

Paper 1: The Photoelectic Effect: James Maxwell had developed a theory describing the nature of light. It was accepted as fact because it described the behaviour of light in a precise mathematical way, which had been proven with experiments. Light was an electromagnetic wave with predictable qualities namely, that the speed of light remains the same no matter how fast one moves. This violates Newton’s laws of motion, however, because there is no absolute velocity in Isaac Newton’s theory. However, there were some results that could not be explained – one being the discharge of a static charge under some colours of light. If light was a true wave, then this behaviour was unexplainable. Einstein continued work from an idea by Max Planck, and derived a new theory of light. According to his theory, it was no longer a wave, but instead discrete packets of energy – or quanta. This had far-reaching consequences, as not only did it bring into question one of the corner-stones of physics, but it also raised more questions, for it predicted that energy could have finite states.

Paper 2: Brownian Motion: At the time of writing this paper the world had not yet accepted the concept of the atom. If you look small particles held in a liquid under a microscope, they seem to move randomly. This is called Brownian motion, and was another little understood phenomena. There was no conclusive theory as to the cause of it. Albert used a controversial field of study called Statistical Mechanics. This technique uses statistics, or the average properties of small particles, to predict the behaviour of a larger body. Einstein realised that the visible particles were being hit by the smaller atoms of the liquid. He derived a theory to explain the motions, and mathematical equations to predict behaviours. 

Paper 3: Special Relativity: Einstein’s third paper in 1905 is his most famous ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’, published on 30 June. It was monumental in its impact and showed Einstein’s true genius. Albert totally dismissed the concept that the speed of light was relative. He envisaged a universe where the speed of light is absolute and space and time are relative. This insight lead Einstein to formulate the principle of relativity: “the speed of light is a constant in any inertial frame (constantly moving frame). In showing that the laws of physics changed dramatically close to the speed of light, he brought together Maxwell’s laws for electricity and magnetism with the observed laws of mechanics. Special Relativity was born.

With no more that a thought experiment, he showed that time and space were not the constant they were previously believed to be. When travelling at the speed of light, it could be deduced that time slowed down, and space itself and mass were altered. The theory was so revolutionary that is was some time before it was generally accepted. Even by the time he received the Nobel Prise in 1921, it had still not been proved experimentally.

Paper 4: Mass and Energy: The paper on mass-energy equivalence provided the twentieth century’s most famous equation: E=MC2. From special relativity, he showed that as a body moves close to the speed of light, its mass increases. This in turn means it’s hard to push and accelerate. The conclusions he drew are three-fold:

    1. Energy and mass are seemingly two completely different things. Yet, at some deep level, they are the same;
    2. The fastest travelling phenomenon in the universe is light itself which is subject to a universal speed limit. Nothing can ever travel faster; and
    3. Small amounts of mass could be converted into huge amounts of energy.

The third point – the ability to turn a small amount of mass into a huge amount of energy, and back again – was the basis of development of nuclear power. It was quickly realised that some radioactive elements (such as uranium) could be made to release energy as they decayed. This provided the scientific framework for the atom bomb. However, it would not be until 1945 before the bomb itself was born. Beyond nuclear weapons and power, this theory has other consequences. not the least being that it shows that the universe is more dynamic than was previously thought.

At first the physics community ignored Einstein’s 1905 papers. This began to change after Max Planck, the founder of the quantum theory and perhaps the most influential physicist of his generation, began to comment on his work. Owing to Planck’s laudatory comments his theories were gradually accepted. Despite the success of his 1905 papers, Einstein remained at the patent office for another three years. He continued examining patent applications during the day, but also worked on his beloved physics in his own time.

Academic Career in Europe

In 1908 Albert was appointed lecturer (Privatdozent) at the University of Bern. In 1909 he quit the patent office and the lectureship to take the position of Professor Extraordinary in physics at the University of Zürich. In 1911 he assumed the post of Professor of Theoretical Physics at the German-speaking Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague and in 1912 he returned to the University of Zürich to fill the role of Professor of Theoretical Physics.

In 1914 he moved from Switzerland to Germany adopting a role as professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Mileve and his family however, remained in Zürich. Einstein and Mileva had two sons Hans Albert and Eduard. His relationship with his wife and his elder son were rocky and his absence from home put further strain on the marriage. The couple often argued about their children and their meagre finances. Einstein began an affair with a cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, and in 1919 they divorced. A few months later, Einstein and Elsa married. They remained together until her death in December 1936.

Albert continued to refine his theories into a theory of General Relativity which he published in 1915. His paper explained gravity as a property of space-time and concluded that a massive body, ‘bent’ space around it, much like a ball-bearing on a rubber sheet. It postulated that clocks closer to a massive object ran slower than those further away. His theory provided the current meaning of gravitation in modern physics and unified Newton’s law of gravity and special relativity. The theory produced some of the greatest and strangest results in modern astronomy.  It introduced the concept of dark energy which holds the destiny of the universe and estimated that almost 70% of the universe is dark energy. Einstein continued to pioneer many key developments in the theory of general relativity such as wormholes, higher dimensions, possibility of time travel, the existence of black holes, and the creation of the universe. He was increasingly isolated from the rest of the physics community. Because of the huge strides made by quantum theory in unravelling the secrets of atoms and molecules, the majority of physicists were working on the quantum theory, not relativity. Einstein also launched the new science of cosmology. His equations predicted that the universe is dynamic – expanding or contracting. This contradicted the prevailing view that the universe was static. In 1929 astronomer Edwin Hubble found that the universe was expanding, thereby confirming Einstein’s earlier work. Only in the 1970s and ’80s did physicists begin to unravel the secret of the strong force with the quark model. Nevertheless, Einstein’s work continues to win Nobel Prizes for succeeding physicists. In 1993 a Noble Prize was awarded to the discoverers of gravitation waves, predicted by Einstein. In 1995 a Nobel Prize was awarded to the discoverers of Bose-Einstein condensates (a new form of matter that can occur at extremely low temperatures). Known black holes now number in the thousands. New generations of space satellites have continued to verify the cosmology of Einstein.

Copies of his work were passed to the British and ended up on the desk of astronomer Arthur Eddington. Realising the significance of the paper, he organised two expeditions test Einstein’s prediction of deflected starlight near the Sun. One set sail for the island of Principe, off the coast of West Africa, and the other to Sobral in northern Brazil to see and photograph the solar eclipse of 29 May 1919. If the theory was correct, the positions of the stars could be measured as being displaced when viewed close to the sun, something only possible during an eclipse. The results from the expedition were conclusive, the theory of General Relativity was correct. Einstein’s place in the history of Physics was established, even by those who previously doubted his work. On November 6 the results were announced in London at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. Nobel laureate J.J. Thomson, president of the Royal Society, stated that this result was the most important result obtained in connection with the theory of gravitation since Newton’s day.

Almost immediately, Einstein became a world-renowned physicist, the successor to Isaac Newton. Invitations came pouring in for him to speak around the world. In 1921 he began the first of several world tours, visiting the United States, England, Japan, and France. Everywhere he went, the crowds numbered in the thousands. In 1921 en route from Japan, he received word that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, but for the photoelectric effect and not for his relativity theories. During his acceptance speech, Einstein startled the audience by speaking about relativity instead of the photoelectric effect. During that same year he visited to California where he was asked to appear along-side the comic actor Charlie Chaplin during the Hollywood début of the film City Lights. When they were mobbed by thousands, Chaplin remarked, “The people applaud me because everybody understands me, and they applaud you because no one understands you.” Einstein asked Chaplin, “What does it all mean?” Chaplin replied, “Nothing.”

During the 1920′s he was awarded Fellowships or Memberships of all the leading scientific academies throughout the world and in 1925 he received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London for his contributions to quantum theory and for his theory of relativity. He was awarded the Max Planck medal in 1929 for his achievements in Physics. During the 1920s, Einstein returned to quantum mechanics but became increasingly unhappy with the Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation – an idea that we can never know all the exact properties of a particle at the same time; we can know the speed, but not the position, or the position but not the speed. His reluctance to accept quantum mechanics in this form isolated and marginalised his standing in the physics community and increasingly his work was ignored. 

The Second World War

Albert was on his third two-month visiting professorship at the California Institute of Technology (holding a position as a professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences) when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. On his return to Europe he learned that the new German government had passed a law barring Jews from holding any official positions, including teaching at universities. A month later, the Nazi book burnings occurred, with Einstein’s works being among those burnt. He also learned that his name was on a list of assassination targets, with a $5,000 bounty on his head and one German magazine included him in a list of enemies of the German regime with the phrase, “not yet hanged”. It was obvious to him that his life was in danger. So great was the threat that Einstein split with his pacifist friends and said that it was justified to defend yourself with arms against Nazi aggression. Einstein renounced his German citizenship and decided to immigrate to the United States. In 1933 he resided in Belgium for some months, before temporarily moving to England.

In 1933 he took up the position of Professor of Theoretical Physics at the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, which soon became a Mecca for physicists from around the world. Newspaper articles declared that the “pope of physics” had left Germany and that Princeton had become the new Vatican. The 1930s were hard years for Albert. His son Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered a mental break-down and would be institutionalized for the rest of his life. His close friend, physicist Paul Ehrenfest, committed suicide in 1933. And his beloved wife, Elsa, died in 1936. In 1935 he was granted permanent residency in the USA and he became a citizen in 1940.

Einstein was opposed to and called for resistance to war. To his dismay during the late 1930s, physicists began seriously to consider whether his equation E = mc2 might make an atomic bomb possible. In 1938 Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, Lise Meitner, and Otto Frisch showed that vast amounts of energy could be unleashed by the splitting of the uranium atom. The news electrified the physics community. In 1939, a group of Hungarian scientists that included émigré physicist Leó Szilárd attempted to alert Washington of ongoing Nazi atomic bomb research. The group’s warnings were discounted. In July 1939 Szilárd approached and persuaded Einstein to lend his prestige by writing a letter with Szilárd to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Einstein and Szilárd regarded it as their responsibility to alert Americans to the possibility that German scientists might win the race to build an atomic bomb, and to warn that Hitler would be more than willing to resort to such a weapon. The Einstein-Szilard letter pointed out the possibility of construction of a powerful bomb using atomic chain reactions in uranium and furthermore suggested that Nazi Germany might be conducting research on nuclear fission to create atomic bombs. They went on to propose that the U.S. government should pay attention to and become directly involved in uranium research and associated chain reaction research.

Einstein signed the letter and it was delivered to Roosevelt by one of his advisers on 11 October. Roosevelt wrote back on 19 October informing Einstein that he had organized the Uranium Committee to study the issue. The letter is believed to be the key stimulus for the U.S. adoption of serious investigations into nuclear weapons on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II, which led ultimately to what would become the Manhattan Project – a nuclear weapons project which developed the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. During the war Einstein’s colleagues were asked to journey to the desert town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop the first atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. Einstein, the man whose equation had set the effort into motion, was never asked to take part. FBI files show that the U.S. government feared Einstein’s lifelong association with peace and socialist organizations.

Post WW2

Albert was on vacation when he heard the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. Almost immediately he was part of an international effort to bring the atomic bomb under control, forming the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. The physics community split on the question of whether to build a hydrogen bomb. Albert opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, instead calling for international controls on the spread of nuclear technology. He supported the Allied forces, but largely denounced using the new discovery of nuclear fission as a weapon. Later, together with Bertrand Russell, he signed the Russell–Einstein Manifesto, which highlighted the danger of nuclear weapons. In 1954 he told his old friend, Linus Pauling, “I made one great mistake in my life – when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made”.

After WW2 Albert was a leading figure in the World Government Movement. He declined the presidency of the state of Israel when it was offered to him in 1952 by state leaders and collaborated with Dr. Chaim Weizmann in establishing the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1951, on his 72nd birthday, an annoying press photographer, Arthur Sasse, took a picture of him sticking his tongue out. Albert loved the photo so much that he cut his image out and sent it to all his friends.

On 17 April 1955 Albert experienced internal bleeding caused by the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which had previously been surgically reinforced in 1948. He took the draft of a speech he was preparing for a television appearance commemorating the State of Israel’s seventh anniversary with him to the hospital, but he did not live long enough to complete it. Einstein refused surgery, saying: “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” He died in Princeton Hospital, New Jersey, USA the next day. He was 76. According to his wishes he was cremated and the ashes spread on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

His brain – always been a subject of conjectures and research – was removed by the pathologist performing Einstein’s autopsy without the permission or knowledge of the family in the hope that neuroscience could find why Einstein was such a genius. Analysis revealed that the inferior parietal lobe of his brain was 15% wider than that of an average human being. This region is specifically associated with mathematical thought, imagery of movement and visual-spatial recognition. It was also discovered that his brain did not have a particular kind of wrinkle and this allowed the neurons to communicate better with each other.

Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers along with over 150 non-scientific works. His great intelligence and originality have made the word “Einstein” synonymous with genius. He was also not particularly concerned about his dress. He stopped wearing socks because he found his big toe would make a hole in them. His favourite past-times included sailing, music (he played the violin), and walking. His image has been reproduced everywhere from history books to t-shirts, and his famous equation, E=mc2, can be quoted by almost everyone.


In preparing this review of the life of Albert Einstein I have liberally sourced from the following references. Where the prose is better than usual, it is probably a direct reference from one of them.

    1. “Albert Einstein” in Wikipedia:
    2. “Albert Einstein – Biography” in Nobelprize.Org:
    3. “Albert Einstein” in Encyclopaedia Britannica:
    4. “Albert Einstein Facts” in Interesting Facts.Org:
    5. “Albert Einstein Facts” in WWW. Weird Strange Facts.Com:
    6. Scanlon, P. “Albert Einstein Facts” in :
    7. “10 Interesting Albert Einstein Facts” in All World Facts:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 175 other followers

%d bloggers like this: