Albert Einstein: The man who thought, part one

Michael Lisinski


“I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves -- this critical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth.” – Albert Einstein


(Portrait courtesy of Ontario Tech Communication student Cassy Goulding.)

Albert Einstein – you’ve probably heard the name. He was TIME magazine’s Man of the Century in 1999. Today, his very surname has become a synonym for ‘genius’ (whether used as a compliment or a pejorative), and the figure of the wild-haired, mustachioed old scientist has become something of an archetype in the collective unconscious.

Many people know something about Einstein’s achievements; they’ll often remember the classic formula E=mc2, the phrase ‘general relativity’, and something about the rise of the nuclear age. What many people don’t know, however, is the collection of details that makes Einstein’s body of work (and the general theory of relativity in particular) so mind-boggling and unique, as well as what makes Einstein arguably the most brilliant scientist to have ever lived.

Einstein was a bright student, but he was hardly distinguishable. Like our two previous academics – Alan Turing and Jacques Derrida – Einstein disliked the rigid, memorization-heavy learning system in which he received his education. He learned better at home amongst his books, his engineer uncle, and a medical student who ate at the Einstein house once per week. He didn’t enjoy formal education until he reached university, where he finally felt the freedom to study what he was interested in. Also like Derrida, Einstein failed the entrance exam to his university of choice – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – the first time he took it. After graduating from a different school in Aarau, Einstein entered the Institute on his second try.

Einstein graduated as an average student and found difficulties landing a job upon graduation. He wanted to land a university position, but was only able to find stable work at the Swiss Patent Office. Nonetheless, Einstein loved his patent office job; he enjoyed the work, and the steady pay gave him time to study physics and write scientific papers. This scientific path would lead him to global renown.

Einstein’s early papers gained him enough attention to land him an assistant professorship at the University of Zurich. As his reputation grew, he then gained positions at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the Prussian Academy of Sciences. But his greatest work was still ahead of him.

The principle of relativity had puzzled scientists for a while. It states that objects moving in a straight line at constant speed (a ball travelling on a boat, for example) should show no difference from objects that are still. But because of electromagnetic theory, scientists had predicted that this shouldn’t hold true for light – they thought the velocity of light would change with motion. And yet in all of their experiments, it didn’t. Einstein solved this problem, but not through experimentation – he decided that what science needed was a new way to think about the concept of time.

Enter Einstein’s special theory of relativity. The theory, put forward in 1905, states that light always moves at the same speed in a vacuum, no matter how fast any observers are moving. It also states that the laws of physics are the same for all observers travelling at a constant speed. This sounds simple enough, but the implications are far-reaching. The constancy of light means that space and time change for different observers; for example, if you’re traveling at a faster speed than your friend, time actually moves more slowly for you than it does for him or her. Objects also increase in mass as they travel faster – the relationship between mass and energy is the famous E=mc2 equation.

Sounds too weird to be true? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson make it even stranger.



But wait, we're not even at the most mind-blowing part yet! Keep checking back on the Student Speak blog for "Albert Einstein: The Man Who Thought, Part Two", where we'll cover Einstein's later general theory of relativity.

Sources and Further Reading

Einstein's theories can be challenging to understand. Try reading more on his work to fully grasp his revolution of physics!

Online Einstein Exhibit from the American Institute of Physics

Explanation of Einstein's Theories of Relativity from LiveScience

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