Born in Germany on 14 March 1879, Albert Einstein became well established in the scientific community for his general theories of relativity, which redefined understandings of space, time, matter, energy, and gravity. In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect – and he is today considered one of the most respected figures in the history of science. But how much do you know about him? Here are five surprising facts you might not know…
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was rejected in Britain until 1919
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity made him instantly famous when it was confirmed by British astronomers, led by scientist Arthur Eddington, during a solar eclipse in 1919. But when the unknown Einstein first published it in 1905, the theory convinced hardly a single British thinker – either in the sciences or the humanities. University of Cambridge scientists either ignored, reinterpreted or rejected relativity, for lack of experimental evidence, until it was accepted and taught to undergraduates by Eddington in 1920. University of Oxford philosophers were even more scathing, ridiculing the theory as late as 1919 because it appeared to contradict their training in the Greek classics such as Euclid.
Albert Einstein abandoned pacifism as soon as the Nazis came to power
Einstein’s militant pacifism in response to the First World War is well known. Less known is his change of mind in 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, in favour of European military rearmament against the Nazi threat—long before most European and American politicians. In 1939, he even recommended to US President Franklin Roosevelt the building of an atomic bomb, thereby helping to launch the Manhattan Project in 1941–2. But after the Second World War, Einstein changed his mind yet again and fought very publicly against nuclear weapons. His last public act, days before his death in 1955, was to sign the anti-nuclear Russell-Einstein Manifesto, initiated by British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Albert Einstein turned down the presidency of Israel
In 1952, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, following the death of his long-time sparring partner, Chaim Weizmann. He turned it down, while simultaneously observing that his relationship with the Jewish people had become his “strongest human bond”. This decision was the culmination of three decades of ambivalence towards Zionism. Jewish by birth, and also by sympathy, Einstein always suspected that Zionism would encourage the use of violence. Although he raised money for the Zionist cause in the 1920s, and supported the foundation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—to which he willed all of his papers after his death—Einstein remained too much of an individualist to commit himself to any nation.
1950: Physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) delivers a US television broadcast against the hydrogen bomb. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Albert Einstein never returned to Europe after 1933
From the 1920s, Einstein was celebrated as a citizen of the world, partly as a result of his global lectures in Europe, Japan, Palestine, South America and the United States. But after he left Europe in 1933, and settled in Princeton, New Jersey, he never returned to his homeland. Indeed, he never left America before his death in 1955 – despite countless invitations to travel. Part of this reluctance was his undying distrust of his native Germany following the horrors of the Nazi period. In addition, Einstein had no wish to entangle himself in the politics of Palestine. But most of all, he loved solitude in Princeton for the sake of his all-important physics.
Albert Einstein is probably the most quoted figure of our time
Einstein is one of the most widely quoted people of all time, and probably the most quoted figure from the 20th century. The website Wikiquote has many more entries for Einstein than for Aristotle, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin or Stephen Hawking, and even than Einstein’s opinionated contemporaries Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw—including an ever-expanding section of misquotations and invented ‘quotations’. Beyond science, Einstein was an avid commentator on education, marriage, money, the nature of genius, music-making, politics and more. As he seriously joked to a friend in 1930: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.”
Andrew Robinson is the author of 25 books in the arts and sciences. His latest, Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist, was published by Yale in September