Albert Einstein: A Passionate Curiosity Propelled the Greatest Genius of the 20th Century

Article excerpt

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=[mc.sup.2]. 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. …