Albert Einstein grew up in Munich, Germany and spent much of his life as a scholar in Berlin. He wrote several monumental papers that changed the study of physics, including his development of the theory of relativity. Einstein fled Europe in 1933 and spent the remainder of his life at Princeton University.
Albert Einstein’s Early Life
Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein, two middle-class German Jews. The family moved frequently: first to Munich where Einstein attended Catholic school and received private lessons in Judaism at home.
Although Einstein was talented at math, science and Latin and pursued the subjects avidly at home, he was uninterested in other academic work and was considered a poor student by his teachers, who demanded rote memorization and absolute obedience from their students. When his parents moved to Italy in 1894 to start a business, Einstein went with them, briefly abandoning his schooling to help the family enterprise.
The Einsteins settled in Switzerland in 1895 and Einstein attended a progressive school where his teachers encouraged creativity and personal intellectual interests; the study of physics became Einstein’s passion. Einstein enrolled in the Institute of Technology in Zurich to pursue a higher degree in physics.
Even there, however, Einstein was not a great student: he relied on a friend’s excellent notes to pass his classes. His undistinguished record made it impossible for him to get a good academic position after graduation, and he ended up working at the Swiss Patent Office.
Sources in this Story
- Princeton University Press: Albert Einstein Web page: Life
- American Institute of Physics: Albert Einstein; Formative Years 1
- findingDulcinea: On This Day: Einstein Publishes Theory of Special Relativity
- Physicsworld.com: Five papers that shook the world
- Nobelprize.org: Albert Einstein—Biography
- findingDulcinea: New Letter Shows Einstein Critical of Religion
Einstein’s Notable Accomplishments
Ultimately, the job was a blessing: the simple professional requirements afforded him time at home to study and write scientific papers, which were well received. In June of 1905, Einstein published, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” a paper that countered the traditionally understood nature of time and space, and outlined the concept that came to be known as special relativity.
The paper was a remarkable departure for its theories, but also for its methodology: instead of writing an article based on hard facts and evidence, Einstein’s work relied upon intuition. According to Gerard ’t Hooft of the University of Utrecht, one of the winners of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in quantum theory, “Einstein made the world realize, for the first time, that pure thought can change our understanding of nature.” The theory developed in the paper led to Einstein’s famous equation, e=mc², which delineates the relationship between mass and energy.
Einstein’s papers earned him the attention of academics at the University of Zurich, where he was invited to teach in 1909. The German government appointed Einstein to a senior research position in Berlin and granted him a membership in the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1914.
Einstein remained in Germany until 1933, when he renounced his citizenship for political reasons. Before that time, however, he developed the general theory of relativity, worked on quantum theory, and made significant headway in the field of atomic transition probabilities and relativistic cosmology.
His most famous papers include “General Theory of Relativity” (1916), “Investigations on Theory of Brownian Movement” (1926), and “The Evolution of Physics” (1938).
Even before many of his major works were written, Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.
The Man and His Work
- “Ideas and Opinions”
- “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory”
- “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson
The Rest of the Story
In 1933, Einstein left Germany and accepted a post at The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, earning his American citizenship in 1940. He retired from teaching in 1945, and spent the remainder of his life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died on April 18, 1955.
Einstein was politically and socially active, especially as World War II approached. In addition to his scientific papers, Einstein also authored “About Zionism” (1930), “Why War?” (1933), “My Philosophy” (1934), and “Out of My Later Years” (1950), among other writings.
In the wake of the war, Einstein emerged as a leading figure in the World Government Movement, and was offered the Presidency of the State of Israel, which he declined.
Einstein was not necessarily a religious man. In a letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, written on January 3, 1954, Einstein called Judaism a “childish superstition.”
Nevertheless, Einstein did seem to greatly prize his Jewish heritage, writing in 1952 to the Israeli Prime Minister, “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.”
This article was originally written by Isabel Cowles; it was updated January 23, 2017.