Portrait of Albert Einstein, Science Museum, Blythe House, 1929. Object No. 1985-2019. © Science Museum
Chiefly famous for his theory of general relativity and his work in establishing quantum theory within physics, Albert Einstein was an American theoretical physicist born in Ulm, Germany. He began his education in Munich, but when his family moved to Italy, he continued his schooling in Zurich, Switzerland. In 1901 he was awarded his diploma to teach mathematics and physics, and became a Swiss citizen.
Einstein met his first wife, Mileva Marić, in Zurich - she was a fellow student at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School. They had a daughter, Lieserl, in 1902, and married in 1903. Unable to find a teaching post, Einstein accepted a position as a technical assistant at the Swiss Patent Office. However, he continued his academic work in his spare time, publishing original papers in theoretical physics and obtaining his doctor’s degree from the University of Zurich in 1905.
Known as Einstein’s annus mirabilis, 1905 was the year that, in addition to his doctoral dissertation, he published four other ground-breaking papers: on the photoelectric effect, on Brownian motion, on special relativity and on the equivalence of matter and energy - the famous E = mc2 equation. These papers changed views on the very nature of matter, space and time.
In 1909 he was appointed Professor Extraordinary at the University of Zurich, followed by professorships in Prague (1911) and Zurich (1912). In 1914 he became Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute and a professor at the University of Berlin. He became a German citizen in 1914.
During the First World War he continued his research. Einstein realised that his special theory of relativity - which stated that the speed of light in free space is the same for all observers, regardless of their motion relative to the light source - could be extended to offer a theory of gravitation. The theory of general relativity, published in 1916, postulated that gravitational attraction between masses occurs because of their warping of space and time.
In 1919, Einstein’s marriage to Marić was dissolved and in the same year he married his cousin Elsa Löwenthal.
During the 1920s he continued to work on probabilistic interpretations of quantum theory, but also began his work on unified field theory. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics ‘for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect’.
In 1933 the rise of the Nazis caused Einstein, who was Jewish, to renounce his German citizenship. He moved temporarily to Belgium, then England, before emigrating to the United States, where he remained for the rest of his life. He became a US citizen in 1940.
In 1939, Einstein co-wrote a letter with physicist Leo Szilard which warned US President Franklin D Roosevelt that the Nazis could be in a position to win the race to develop atomic weapons. This letter is considered one of the key motivations for Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project. Einstein later regretted his part in helping to stimulate the US nuclear weapons programme, as for much of his life he was a staunch pacifist.
Einstein retired from his academic post in 1945, though he continued to be politically active, an eminent advocate for the world government movement. In 1952 he was offered the presidency of Israel, but declined as he did not consider himself qualified. He died at Princeton, New Jersey, USA in 1955.