Albert Einstein

We tend to picture Albert Einstein (1879–1955) as an old professor with a black moustache and tufts of white hair, but actually, he produced his greatest contributions to math and physics when he was only twenty-six years old. In 1905, while working as a patent office clerk in Bern, Switzerland, Einstein wrote four papers that are each regarded as works of genius. The year 1905 is known as annus mirabilis, Einstein’s “year of miracles.”

Einstein’s first paper, “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light,” proposed that light was made up of small packets of energy called energy quanta. We refer to them today as photons. This was the theory that won Einstein the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.

Einstein’s second paper provided some of the first empirical evidence for the existence of atoms. Before 1905, the idea of an atom as the smallest unit of matter was regarded as a useful theoretical concept. Einstein described the movement of particles suspended in liquid, called Brownian motion, and proved that matter must have an underlying structure. That structure is explained by the modern concept of the atom. Einstein’s third and fourth papers treated the topic that most made him famous—his special theory of relativity. The theory explained the relationship between energy and mass, with the famous equation E=mc2— the energy of an object equals its mass times the speed of light squared. Grossly simplified, this means that mass is another form of energy.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. Einstein’s papers on the theory of relativity were a continuation of work he began when he was sixteen years old.
  2. Although Einstein encouraged President Franklin Roosevelt to build the nuclear bomb during World War II, he actively supported nuclear disarmament. He once said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but I know World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
  3. Einstein was asked to be the second president of Israel, but he declined, saying he lacked the people skills.
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