Physicist Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity uprooted centuries of settled science and laid the foundation for a new era of achievement for mankind, was born to a prominent Jewish family in Ulm, Germany, on this day in history, March 14, 1879.
Einstein’s last name today is a synonym for “genius” in American English and in many other cultures and languages around the world — a testament to his perhaps unmatched impact by a scientist on global popular culture.
“Einstein would write that two ‘wonders’ deeply affected his early years,” according to his Britannica biography.
“The first was his encounter with a compass at age five. He was mystified that invisible forces could deflect the needle. This would lead to a lifelong fascination with invisible forces. The second wonder came at age 12 when he discovered a book of geometry, which he devoured, calling it his ‘sacred little geometry book.’”
His parents, Pauline (Koch) and Hermann Einstein, were educated professionals born and raised in what’s now the German state of Baden-Württemberg.
Pauline was a musician who pushed Albert to play violin at age 5; Hermann ran an electrical engineering company with his brother, Jakob.
Among other achievements, the Einstein brothers illuminated the famous Oktoberfest celebration in Munich, Bavaria, for the first time in 1895.
The year 1905 will forever be regarded as Albert Einstein’s ‘miracle year.’” — NASA
Einstein’s family moved to Munich when he was just six weeks old. He enjoyed an international upbringing after his father’s business failed in Germany.
“Later, they moved to Italy and Albert continued his education at Aarau, Switzerland, and in 1896 he entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich to be trained as a teacher in physics and mathematics,” the Nobel Foundation writes in a biography of the winner of its 1921 prize in physics.
“In 1901, the year he gained his diploma, he acquired Swiss citizenship and, as he was unable to find a teaching post, he accepted a position as technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office. In 1905, he obtained his doctor’s degree.”
He quickly exploded onto the world stage in a way unmatched by any scientist before or since, let alone somebody unknown in the science establishment.
“The year 1905 will forever be regarded as Albert Einstein’s ‘miracle year,’” NASA wrote in 2005 for the centennial celebration of his theory of relativity.
“It was the year a 26-year-old changed the way we view the universe. Einstein’s theories about light, motion, gravity, mass and energy began a new era of science. They led to the big-bang theory of how the universe was born. And they led to concepts such as black holes and dark energy.”
He improved and expanded upon the theory of relativity throughout his life, while researching other areas of science.
Einstein proved that true genius is not mystifying the masses, but simplifying complex issues for common people.
Einstein summed up the entirety of universal existence — E=MC2 — in five simple characters.
Few people grasp what the formula means. But it put extraordinarily complex ideas of the physical universe in an easily digestible format that any school child could repeat and, perhaps, be inspired to learn more.
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself,” Einstein is often quoted saying, acknowledging his own recognition of the genius of simplicity.
Einstein not only popularized physics for the global community, he brashly challenged 300 years of known and undisputed Newtonian physics.
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” — Albert Einstein
“Newton could describe gravity, but he didn’t know how it worked,” writes the American Museum of Natural History.
“‘Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws,’ (Newton) admitted. ‘But whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the consideration of my readers.’”
The museum adds: “For 300 years, nobody truly considered what that agent might be. Maybe any possible contenders were intimidated by Newton’s genius. The man invented calculus, for Pete’s sake.”
Enter Albert Einstein.
“Apparently Albert Einstein wasn’t intimidated. Einstein’s theory … triumphantly punched a hole in Newton’s logic,” the American Museum of Natural History further reports.
“Einstein’s General Relativity explained everything Newton’s theory did (and some things it didn’t), and better.”
Einstein acknowledged the scientific sacrilege of his work.
“Newton, forgive me,” he wrote in his memoirs. “You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power.”
Einstein’s work impacted almost all the great achievements of the 20th century and beyond, from the atomic age to the space age.
Einstein found refuge in the United States in 1933 when Hitler and his openly antisemitic National Socialist Workers Party ascended to power in Germany.
“It appears almost certain that this [atomic bomb] could be achieved in the immediate future.” — Einstein letter to FDR, 1939
He famously warned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Germany’s quest for a powerful new weapon, the atomic bomb, in a letter dated Aug. 2, 1939 — four weeks before Hitler invaded Poland and plunged Europe into World War II.
“It appears almost certain that this [atomic bomb] could be achieved in the immediate future,” Einstein wrote.
The dire warning from the world’s most famous scientist, a native of Germany, no less, propelled Roosevelt to devote federal resources to uranium development and eventually launch the Manhattan Project.
It successfully produced for the United States the first atomic bomb in the summer of 1945.
Einstein is also “one of the greatest space science explorers of all time,” NASA wrote in 2005.
“And yet most of his discoveries came more than 50 years before the first satellite was launched into space. They came more than 60 years before humans would walk on the moon. And they came more than 70 years before liftoff of the first space shuttle.”
Writes the Nobel Foundation, “Einstein’s gifts inevitably resulted in his dwelling much in intellectual solitude and, for relaxation, music played an important part in his life.”
“He married Mileva Maric in 1903 and they had a daughter and two sons; their marriage was dissolved in 1919 and in the same year he married his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, who died in 1936. He died on April 18, 1955, at Princeton, New Jersey.”