Biography: Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was born in Germany in 1879. Even as a small boy Einstein was self-sufficient and thoughtful. According to family legend he was a slow talker, pausing to consider what he would say. His sister remembered the concentration and perseverance with which he would build houses of cards. He enjoyed classical music and played the violin.

One story Einstein liked to tell about his childhood was of the wonders he experienced with a magnetic compass when he was four or five years old.

The needle's invariable northward swing, guided by an invisible force, profoundly impressed the young Einstein. The compass convinced him that there had to be "something behind things, something deeply hidden."

Albert Einstein's first job was as a patent clerk. In 1933, he joined the staff of the newly created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He accepted this position for life, living there until his death. Einstein is probably familiar to most people for his mathematical equation about the nature of energy. The equation goes E = MC2.

Albert Einstein wrote a paper that provided a new understanding of the structure of light. He argued that light can act as though it consists of discrete, independent particles of energy, similar to particles of gases. A few years earlier, Max Planck's work had contained the first suggestion of such a discreteness in energy, but Einstein went far beyond this.

His revolutionary proposal seemed to contradict the universally accepted theory that light consists of smoothly oscillating electromagnetic waves. Einstein, however, showed that light quanta, as he called the particles of energy, could help to explain phenomena that were being studied by experimental physicists.

For example, he made clear how light ejects electrons from metals.

At the time, there was also a well-known kinetic energy theory that described heat as an effect of the ceaseless motion of atoms. Einstein proposed a way to put the theory to a crucial experimental test. If tiny but visible particles were suspended in a liquid, he said, the irregular bombardment by the liquid's invisible atoms should cause the suspended particles to carry out a random jittering dance.

One should be able to observe this through a microscope. But if the predicted motion isn’t observed, the whole kinetic theory would be in grave danger. Such a random dance of microscopic particles has long since been observed and now the motion has been explained in detail. Albert Einstein had reinforced the kinetic theory and created a powerful new tool for studying the movement of atoms.

Albert Einstein and the atomic bomb

On August 2nd, 1939, just before the beginning of World War II, Einstein wrote to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Einstein and several other scientists told Roosevelt of efforts in Nazi Germany to purify a substance called U-235, which might in turn be used to build an atomic bomb. It was shortly thereafter that the United States Government began the serious undertaking known only then as the Manhattan Project.

Ultimately, the Manhattan Project was committed to expedient research and production that eventually produced a viable atomic bomb.