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Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany on Mar. 14, 1879. Einstein's parents, who were non observant Jews, moved from Ulm to Munich when Einstein was an infant. Around 1886 Albert Einstein began his school career in Munich. As a boy, he was slow to begin speaking, which worried his parents, and later, as a student, he was unremarkable. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich with a teaching degree, but despite his obvious intelligence, his grades were not very good - he skipped classes he disliked, and refused to work on projects that didn't interest him. After graduation, he was the only member of his class not offered a teaching job at the institute, and he spent two years trying unsuccessfully to find a permanent teaching position. Finally, he gave up and applied to work as a technical assistant at the Swiss patent office in Bern.

As well as his violin lessons, which he had from age six to age thirteen, he also had religious education at home where he was taught Judaism. In 1895 Einstein failed an examination that would have allowed him to study for a diploma as an electrical engineer at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich. Einstein renounced German citizenship in 1896 and was to be stateless for a number of years. He did not even apply for Swiss citizenship until 1899, citizenship being granted in 1901. Following the failing of the entrance exam to the ETH, Einstein attended secondary school at Aarau planning to use this route to enter the ETH in Zurich.

Indeed Einstein succeeded with his plan graduating in 1900 as a teacher of mathematics and physics. One of his friends at ETH was Marcel Grossmann who was in the same class as Einstein. Einstein tried to obtain a post, writing to Hurwitz who held out some hope of a position but nothing came of it. Three of Einstein's fellow students, including Grossmann, were appointed assistants at ETH in Zurich but clearly Einstein had not impressed enough and still in 1901 he was writing round universities in the hope of obtaining a job, but without success. He did manage to avoid Swiss military service on the grounds that he had flat feet and varicose veins.

Einstein and corrosion monitoring

By mid 1901 he had a temporary job as a teacher, teaching mathematics at the Technical High School in Winterthur.Another temporary position teaching in a private school in Schaffhausen followed. Then Grossmann's father tried to help Einstein get a job by recommending him to the director of the patent office in Bern. Einstein was appointed as a technical expert third class. Einstein worked in this patent office from 1902 to 1909, holding a temporary post when he was first appointed, but by 1904 the position was made permanent and in 1906 he was promoted to technical expert second class. While in the Bern patent office he completed an astonishing range of theoretical physics publications, written in his spare time without the benefit of close contact with scientific literature or colleagues.

Einstein earned a doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1905 for a thesis "On a new determination of molecular dimensions". He dedicated the thesis to Grossmann. Before Albert Einstein turned his attention to fundamental questions of relative velocity and acceleration, he published a series of papers, starting in 1905, on diffusion, viscosity, and the photoelectric effect that would have ensured him a considerable reputation even if he had not later created the Special and General Theories of Relativity. His papers on diffusion came from his Ph. D. thesis. Diffusion had been studied extensively by that time, but was described in a completely phenomenological framework. Einstein's contributions were to propose:

  1. That Brownian motion of particles was the basically the same process as diffusion
  2. A formula for the average distance moved in a given time during Brownian motion
  3. A formula for the diffusion coefficient of a substance in terms of the radius of the diffusing particles or molecules and other known parameters

Einstein's second 1905 paper proposed what is today called the special theory of relativity. He based his new theory on a reinterpretation of the classical principle of relativity, namely that the laws of physics had to have the same form in any frame of reference. As a second fundamental hypothesis, Einstein assumed that the speed of light remained constant in all frames of reference, as required by Maxwell's theory. Later in 1905 Einstein showed how mass and energy were equivalent. Einstein was not the first to propose all the components of special theory of relativity. His contribution is unifying important parts of classical mechanics and Maxwell's electrodynamics.

By 1909 Einstein was recognised as a leading scientific thinker and in that year he resigned from the patent office. He was appointed a full professor at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague in 1911. In fact 1911 was a very significant year for Einstein since he was able to make preliminary predictions about how a ray of light from a distant star, passing near the Sun, would appear to be bent slightly, in the direction of the Sun. This would be highly significant as it would lead to the first experimental evidence in favour of Einstein's theory.

Einstein received the Nobel Prize in 1921 but not for relativity rather for his 1905 work on the photoelectric effect. In fact he was not present in December 1922 to receive the prize being on a voyage to Japan. Around this time he made many international visits. He had visited Paris earlier in 1922 and during 1923 he visited Palestine. After making his last major scientific discovery on the association of waves with matter in 1924 he made further visits in 1925, this time to South America.

By 1930 he was making international visits again, back to the United States. A third visit to the United States in 1932 was followed by the offer of a post at Princeton. The idea was that Einstein would spend seven months a year in Berlin, five months at Princeton. Einstein accepted and left Germany in December 1932 for the United States. The following month the Nazis came to power in Germany and Einstein was never to return there.