The Genius of Albert Einstein: His Life, Theories and Impact on Science

Reference Article: Facts about Albert Einstein, his life and influence on multiple scientific fields.

Portrait of Albert Einstein circa 1939.
(Image: © MPI/Getty Images)

Albert Einstein is often cited as one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. His work continues to help astronomers study everything from gravitational waves to Mercury’s orbit.

The scientist’s equation that helped explain special relativity – E = mc^2 – is famous even among those who don’t understand its underlying physics. Einstein is also known for his theory of general relativity (an explanation of gravity), and the photoelectric effect (which explains the behavior of electrons under certain circumstances); his work on the latter earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

Einstein also tried in vain to unify all the forces of the universe in a single theory, or a theory of everything, which he was still working on at the time of his death.

Early years

Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, a town that today has a population of just more than 120,000. There is a small commemorative plaque where his house used to stand (it was destroyed during World War II). The family moved to Munich shortly after his birth, and later to Italy when his father faced problems with running his own business. Einstein’s father, Hermann, ran an electrochemical factory and his mother Pauline took care of Albert and his younger sister, Maria.

Einstein would write in his memoirs that two “wonders” deeply affected his early years, according to Hans-Josef Küpper, an Albert Einstein scholar. Young Einstein encountered his first wonder — a compass — at age 5: He was mystified that invisible forces could deflect the needle. This would lead to a lifelong fascination with unseen forces. The second wonder came at age 12 when he discovered a book of geometry, which he worshipped, calling it his “holy geometry book.”

Contrary to popular belief, young Albert was a good student. He excelled in physics and mathematics, but was a more “moderate” pupil in other subjects, Küpper wrote on his website. However, Einstein rebelled against the authoritarian attitude of some of his teachers and dropped out of school at 16. He later took an entrance exam for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, and while his performances in physics and math were excellent, his marks in other areas were subpar, and he did not pass the exam. The aspiring physicist took additional courses to close the gap in his knowledge, and was admitted to Swiss Polytechnic in 1896, and in 1901 received his diploma to teach physics and mathematics.

However, Einstein could not find a teaching position, and began work in a Bern patent office in 1901, according to his Nobel Prize biography. It was while there that, in between analyzing patent applications, he developed his work in special relativity and other areas of physics that later made him famous.

Einstein married Mileva Maric, a longtime love of his from Zurich, in 1903. Their children, Hans Albert and Eduard, were born in 1904 and 1910. (The fate of a child born to them in 1902 before their marriage, Lieserl, is unknown.) Einstein divorced Maric in 1919 and soon after married Elsa Löwenthal. Löwenthal died in 1933.

Career highlights

Einstein’s career sent him to multiple countries. He earned his doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1905, and subsequently took on professor positions in Zurich (1909), Prague (1911) and Zurich again (1912). Next, he moved to Berlin to become director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute and a professor at the University of Berlin (1914). He also became a German citizen.

major validation of Einstein’s work came in 1919, when Sir Arthur Eddington, secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, led an expedition to Africa that measured the position of stars during a total solar eclipse. The group found that the position of stars was shifted due to the bending of light around the sun. (In 2008, a BBC/HBO production dramatized the story in “Einstein and Eddington.”)

Einstein remained in Germany until 1933, when dictator Adolf Hitler rose to power. The physicist then renounced his German citizenship and moved to the United States to become a professor of theoretical physics at Princeton. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940 and retired in 1945.

Einstein remained active in the physics community throughout his later years. In 1939, he famously penned a letter to President Franklin D. Rooseveltwarning that uranium could be used for an atomic bomb.

Late in Einstein’s life, he engaged in a series of private debates with physicist Niels Bohr about the validity of quantum theory. Bohr’s theories held the day, and Einstein later incorporated quantum theory in his own calculations.

Einstein’s brain

Einstein died of an aortic aneurysm on April 18, 1955. A blood vessel burstnear his heart, according to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). When asked if he wanted to have surgery, Einstein refused. “I want to go when I want to go,” he said. “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”

Einstein’s body — most of it, anyway — was cremated; his ashes were spread in an undisclosed location, according to the AMNH. However, a doctor at Princeton Hospital, Thomas Harvey, had performed an autopsy, apparently without permission, and removed Einstein’s brain and eyeballs, according to Matt Blitz, who wrote about Einstein’s brain in a 2015 column for Today I Found Out.

Harvey sliced hundreds of thin sections of brain tissue to place on microscope slides, and snapped 14 photos of the brain from several angles. He took the brain tissue, slides and images with him when he moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he was a medical supervisor in a biological testing lab. [Image Gallery: Einstein’s Brain]

Harvey failed a competency exam in 1988, and his medical license was revoked, Blitz wrote. Harvey eventually donated the brain to Princeton Hospital, where the brain’s journey had begun. Harvey died in 2007. Pieces of Einstein’s brain are now at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

What the studies found

Harvey’s 1985 study authors reported that Einstein’s brain had a higher number of  glial cells (those that support and insulate the nervous system) per neurons (nerve cells) than other brains they examined. They concluded that it might indicate the neurons had a higher metabolic need — in other words, Einstein’s brain cells needed and used more energy, which could have been why he had such advanced thinking abilities and conceptual skills.

However, other researchers have pointed out a few problems with that study, according to Eric H. Chudler, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. First, for example, the other brains used in the study were all younger than Einstein’s brain. Second, the “experimental group” had only one subject — Einstein. Additional studies are needed to see if these anatomical differences are found in other people. And third, only a small part of Einstein’s brain was studied.

Another study, published in 1996 in the journal Neuroscience Letters, found that Einstein’s brain weighed only 1,230 grams, which is less than the average adult male brain (about 1,400 g). Also, the scientist’s cerebral cortex was thinner than that of five control brains, but the density of neurons was higher.

A study published in 2012 in the journal Brain revealed that Einstein’s brain had extra folding in the gray matter, the site of conscious thinking. In particular, the frontal lobes, regions tied to abstract thought and planning, had unusually elaborate folding.

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