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The Genius of Einstein
By Jerry Brownstein
How does a person become an icon? In the case of Albert Einstein, the originality and brilliance of his scientific achievements were so memorable that calling someone an “Einstein” became synonymous with calling them a genius. His revolutionary ideas and theories changed the way that the universe was imagined... not just once but several times. Einstein developed the theory of relativity, which is one of the pillars of modern physics, and his mass to energy formula E = mc2 has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”. Not only did he receive the Nobel Prize and countless other prestigious awards, but he was also a visionary thinker in areas other than science. So where did it all begin...
Einstein was born in Germany in 1879, and he grew up in the city of Munich. In school he excelled at maths and physics, reaching levels that were astonishing for his age. When he was only 12 he taught himself algebra and Euclidean geometry over a single summer, and a year later had mastered the complexities of differential calculus.
But even at that young age he was manifesting intellectual curiosity in other areas besides maths and science. He was introduced to Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”, and according to his tutor: “He was only 13 yet Kant’s works, which are completely incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, seemed clear to him.” Despite his obvious genius, young Albert rebelled against the strict learning structure of the German school system where everything was boringly memorised. His attitude led some teachers to give him bad reports, including his Munich schoolmaster who famously said, “He will never amount to anything”.
Einstein obtained his doctorate degree in 1905, and that same year he published four groundbreaking papers that revolutionized physics and made him famous. The first was a completely new concept showing that light could exist in discrete particles called photons. This proved the ‘photoelectric effect’ which is the basis of all modern solar power. In the second he described the existence of atoms and calculated their size. The third article introduced his famous equation E = mc2 which proves how energy can become matter, and matter can become energy. His fourth paper contained what is known as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. This revealed that measurements of space and time were relative to motion, and it forced physicists to re-evaluate many of their most basic concepts. One of the things that was most unique about Einstein’s genius was that it flowed from thought experiments.
Most scientific progress comes from research in laboratories or in the wild. But Einstein’s ‘laboratory’ was in his mind. He had an innate ability to conceptualize complex scientific problems, and to use his imagination to find new solutions. He would then rely on his brilliant mathematical mind to prove that these theories were correct. Einstein believed that imagination and creative thinking were much more important than knowledge saying: “Knowledge is limited and will change over time, whereas imagination has no limits.”
Einstein’s next great discovery was in 1915 when he announced his General Theory of Relativity, with its far-reaching implications about the nature of time and space. He had been working on this for a decade, based on a thought experiment wherein he imagined himself riding in a free-falling elevator. This mental image was the catalyst for a theory that shook the world of physics, and displaced the traditional Newtonian theories which had been accepted for centuries. Newton’s conception of the universe was two-dimensional, whereas Einstein showed that we live in a four dimensional universe, where stars, planets, and celestial bodies formed a “fabric” that is dynamically influenced by the forces of gravity.
It is only in recent years that science has acquired the tools to explore much of what Einstein’s theory predicted over a hundred years ago - supernovas, black holes, and the evolution of our solar system.
“Einstein felt that the atomic bomb
was necessary to fight Nazi fascism”
In 1921 Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the photoelectric effect and his “services to Theoretical Physics”. He had become a great celebrity and crowds gathered to see him as he travelled the world. He was a professor at the University of Berlin, but in 1933 he fled his native Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power. Einstein was Jewish, and he could see that the vicious anti-Semitism of the Nazis was spreading like a cancer throughout his country. He renounced his German citizenship and moved to the United States where he was a professor at Princeton University, and eventually became a US citizen. In 1939 Einstein wrote to US President Roosevelt urging him to develop atomic weapons before the Nazis could do it. He felt strongly that physicists needed to help in the desperate fight against fascism, but later came to regret his role in the development of the atomic bomb.In the years that followed Einstein continued to make contributions to physics, but he also had a wide range of other interests, and was often called on to give his opinion on matters unrelated to science.
He spoke out on social issues and was a great supporter of world peace and racial justice. He formed close friendships with Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent black leaders who led the struggle for civil rights in the US. Einstein was also directly in contact with Mahatma Gandhi whom he described as “a role model for the generations to come”. Einstein was often asked to comment on religion. He did not follow any of the conventional religions, but he did believe in a higher power as summed up in this quote: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe; a spirit that is vastly superior to that of man.”Over a century has passed since Einstein presented his Theory of Relativity, yet he still remains the very embodiment of genius and free-thinking.
His life’s goal was to explore the beauty, power and majesty of the universe, and his theories of gravity, space, and time continue to influence new generations of scientists. But perhaps his greatest legacy lies beyond the realm of physics. We live in a time when science and technology seem to be overwhelming every aspect of our lives. Yet this great genius, who devoted so much to the advancement of science, had this to say to future generations: “If we want to improve the world we cannot do it with scientific knowledge alone, but with ideals. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi have done more for humanity than science can ever do.”