Einstein’s pioneering theory of general relativity established new ideas about the formation of the universe and black holes. Now, a new documentary on BBC Four explores Einstein’s life and reveals how his influential scientific theory may have first come about. Here, we look at the scientist’s life…
Born: 14 March 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany
Died: 18 April 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey, US
Remembered for: Being one of the most famous theoretical physicists of the 20th century.
Family: Einstein was the eldest child of Hermann Einstein, an electrical engineer and salesman, and Pauline Koch. He had one sister, named Maja.
Einstein met Mileva Marić while they both were studying for a mathematics and physics teaching diploma at Zürich Polytechnic, and the couple married in 1903. Together they had two sons. It has been suggested the couple may have had a daughter before they married, but the child may have died or been adopted. The couple separated in 1914 before divorcing in 1919. Einstein married his second wife, Elsa Löwenthal, in 1919.
His life: Just six weeks after Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, his family moved to Munich. From a young age Einstein showed a keen interest in music, and he learned how to play the piano and violin. In 1887 Einstein began his education at the Luitpold Gymnasium (a secondary school) in Munich.
In 1896, aged 17, Einstein enrolled at Zürich Polytechnic, where he studied for a mathematics and physics teaching diploma. Four years later he completed his diploma but was unable to find a teaching job, so he began work at the Swiss Patent Office as a technical assistant in 1901.
Einstein then began researching for a doctorial thesis. In 1905 he completed a doctorate degree from the University of Zurich. In the same year, four of his research papers were published, including one on the special theory of relativity, which revealed new findings on the relationship between time and space.
After demonstrating his impressive work in theoretical physics, Einstein was made a privatdozent [an academic title conferred by some European universities, especially in German-speaking countries] in Bern, Switzerland in 1908.
Einstein became professor extraordinary [a lower-ranking professorship] at University of Zurich in 1909, before being made professor of theoretical physics at Charles University in Prague in 1911. Einstein’s academic career developed further in 1914 when he became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics and a professor at the University of Berlin.
As a result of his outstanding work, in 1921 Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for services to theoretical physics.
With the rise of Nazism in Germany in the early 1930s, the Nazi party began to restrict the number of Jews who could hold academic positions in universities across Germany. Einstein, who was from a Jewish family, feared facing persecution. In 1933 he renounced his German citizenship and emigrated to the US, where he became a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt to express his fears that the Nazis were developing nuclear weapons. He warned the president that the US needed to begin its own research into atomic bombs in order to protect the country from the Nazi threat. This letter influenced the establishment of the Manhattan Project – the research scheme that initiated the development of the first nuclear weapons. However, Einstein himself refused involvement in the Manhattan Project, as he was a pacifist.
In the 1940s Einstein also became involved in campaigns advocating civil rights in the US, and he joined National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1946 he made an impassioned speech at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in which he stated that racism is “a disease of white people”.
In the later years of his life, Einstein continued to work as a theoretical physicist, and he further developed his theory of general relativity.
On 17 April 1955, Einstein experienced an abdominal aortic aneurysm and internal bleeding, but refused to undergo surgery [it has been suggested he may have wished to decide when he could die]. He died the next day at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, aged 76.
Just hours after his death, Einstein’s brain was removed without the permission of his family, and it was taken to the University of Pennsylvania. It was dissected, cut into 240 pieces, and samples were put onto slides, ready to be examined under a microscope. Einstein’s son Hans Albert eventually agreed for his father’s brain to be used for scientific investigation.
Over the past six decades, numerous studies have been published on Einstein’s brain, and some scientists have even suggested that the unusual features of his brain [such as having an extra ridge on his mid-frontal lobe] may be linked to his high level of intelligence.
In 1999, TIME Magazine named Einstein as the ‘Person of the Century’.
This article was first published on History Extra in December 2015