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Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

One part of the theory of Relativity was inspired when a painter fell off a roof. Einstein found out that while the painter was falling freely, he felt weightless. This led Einstein to realize that gravity was a form of inertia, a result of the way things moved through space - and General Relativity was born.

Einstein was born in Germany in Ulm. At school Einstein was certainly not a backward student, but he did rebel against the military discipline and his marks suffered as a result. Einstein was allowed to take a year off and then complete school in Switzerland, where he also went to University.

Einstein was still an individualist at University. Although he was acquainting himself with the latest problems in physics, he needed help from his friends to do his assignments and pass his exams.

When Einstein graduated from University he struggled to find work. Once again one of his friends assisted, helping Einstein get a job in the Swiss patent office. This job allowed Einstein plenty of time to develop his ideas, and in 1905 he published three scientific papers—on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and Special Relativity. The scientific community quickly recognised the value of the first two. However the Theory of Relativity took much longer to be appreciated. Even in 1921 when Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize, it was his explanation of the photoelectric effect that was singled out.

In 1909 Einstein secured a University job. He spent the next ten years working on his theory of gravity—General Relativity—completing it during WWI. Although this theory was complex, it made some simple predictions, which were confirmed by British astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1919. The confirmation by a British astronomer, in Africa, of the theory of a German Jewish scientist was hailed as an example of post war reconciliation—and made Einstein famous world wide.

Einstein's new fame led to many speaking tours overseas. He was on one such tour in the USA when Hitler came to power. Aware of the persecution he would face if he returned to Germany, Einstein stayed in the USA, where he remained for the rest of his life.

By this stage, Einstein's major scientific work had been done. Although Einstein had helped lay the foundations for the theory of Quantum Mechanics, he never fully believed that this theory was complete. Einstein spent much of his remaining career unsuccessfully trying to develop a better theory.

Einstein still made significant contributions to public life. One of these changed the world forever. Leo Szilard, another Jewish scientist who had fled Nazi Germany, realized the possibility of a nuclear bomb. Afraid that German scientists were developing such a weapon, Szilard convinced Einstein to write to President Roosevelt to urge the USA to build a nuclear weapon. Einstein did not know that his advice was heeded until much later, and came to regret his actions. Einstein was a life-long pacifist, who supported WWII only as a last resort. For the rest of his life, Einstein campaigned to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Albert Einstein
magnifyAlbert Einstein

Diagram showing curved spacetime
magnifyDiagram showing curved spacetime

A nuclear explosion
magnifyA nuclear explosion
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