Profiles in Greatness: Albert Einstein

His genius resulted from his curiosity.
February 2, 2009

Just before the start of World War II, Albert Einstein had become so famous he couldn’t walk down the street without being stopped several times and asked to explain “that theory.” Einstein was known for his humility as well as his genius, and he eventually came up with a way to deter the attention and adulation of fans. “Pardon me, sorry!” he would say. “Always I am mistaken for Professor Einstein.”

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Einstein was born in Germany in 1879 and, though Jewish, attended a Catholic elementary school. As a young child, the sight of his father’s pocket compass made a lasting impression on the future theoretical physicist. He was fascinated by the idea that there was a force that moved the compass needle, and as an adult he would go on to experiment in electromagnetism and mechanics.

Although Einstein didn’t excel in high school in Munich, he had already begun educating himself on Euclidean geometry, deductive reasoning and calculus using textbooks borrowed from a family friend. In 1894, he left school to join his family in Italy and then went on to Switzerland to finish high school and became a citizen in 1901.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

Two years after he graduated from college, Einstein couldn’t land a teaching position, so a friend helped him get a job at the local patent office in Berne. He spent his days examining patent applications for devices that involved areas Einstein was addressing in his research and subsequent theories.

Although he wasn’t teaching, Einstein used his spare time away from the patent office to pursue his doctorate at the University of Zurich, and he formed a weekly discussion group on science and philosophy. He felt that continued effort and creativity were vital to a fulfilling life.

“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

In 1905, the same year he was awarded his doctorate, Einstein published four scientific papers that are now referred to as his Annus Mirabilis Papers. These works comprised his theories on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, special relativity and mass-energy equivalence, or e=mc2. These far-reaching and profound theories have inspired the reference to the year 1905 as Einstein’s annus mirabilis, or his “miraculous year.”

At the time, however, his theories were largely dismissed or refuted, especially his photoelectric theory about light traveling in discrete quanta or “packets” of energy as opposed to waves. Einstein would later win the 1921 Nobel Prize for physics for this paper.

In 1916, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which asserts that gravity is a distortion of space-time by matter. In other words, matter tells space-time how to curve, and the curvature of space-time tells matter how to move. An astronomy experiment by another prominent scientist in 1919 proved Einstein’s theory, and his discoveries excited a world recovering from World War I.

“It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced with the ideal of service…. Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

Einstein traveled to the United States for the first time in 1921. He returned periodically for work and in late 1932 was serving temporarily at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. When Adolf Hitler assumed power in Germany in 1933, Einstein chose to stay in the United States.

He was an outspoken opponent of Nazism through the 1940s and wrote affidavits recommending U.S. visas for countless Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. He was also involved in the formation of the International Rescue Committee.

In addition to anti-Nazi activism, Einstein also voiced his opinions in favor of Zionism, establishing a moderate stance on the formation of a Jewish state. He served on the Board of Governors of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in 1952, when the still-new nation of Israel lost its president, Einstein was offered the post, which he declined.

Einstein was active in other civil rights organizations. He was a member of the NAACP and helped defend W.E.B. Du Bois against accusations of communist activity. He also served as co-chair of the American Crusade to End Lynching.

In 1940, Einstein became a United States citizen.

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

During the first world war, Einstein began speaking out against war. His fame had allowed him to associate with world leaders, and he was regularly asked to speak about topics outside the realm of science. His concern with the rise of fascism inspired him to write to President Roosevelt in 1939, warning of the German experimentation with atomic weaponry. FDR soon established the Manhattan Project, which secretly developed the atomic bomb in the United States.

But Einstein was not intimately involved in the project, as he was vehemently opposed to war. He later wrote to President Truman: “War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business.”

“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”

In Einstein’s later career, he debated quantum mechanics with Danish physicist Niels Bohr, helping him clarify the concept. And he worked diligently to find a “unified field theory,” one theory to explain all the forces of nature. Scientists today still pursue this goal.

Einstein passed away at the age of 76. Over his lifetime he had received honorary doctorate degrees from multiple European and American universities, fellowships and memberships in the leading scientific academies, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute. In 1952, the 99th element in the periodic table was named “einsteinium” in his honor.

Above all, Einstein encouraged inquiry. “The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing,” he said. “One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of the mystery every day. The important thing is not to stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.”

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