The journey of Albert Einstein Scientist biography.

The journey of Albert Einstein

The journey of Albert Einstein;

A crowd barged past dioramas, glass displays and wide-eyed security guards in the American Museum of Natural History. Screams rang out as some runners fell and were trampled. Upon arriving at a lecture hall, the mob broke down the door.

The date was Jan. 8, 1930, and the New York museum was showing a film about Albert Einstein and his general theory of relativity. Einstein was not present, but 4,500 mostly ticketless people still showed up for the viewing. Museum officials told them “no ticket, no show,” setting the stage for, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “the first science riot in history.”

Such was Einstein’s popularity. As a publicist might say, he was the whole package: distinctive look (untamed hair, rumpled sweater), witty personality (his quips, such as God not playing dice, would live on) and major scientific cred (his papers upended physics). Time magazine named him Person of the Century.

“Einstein remains the last, and perhaps only, physicist ever to become a household name,” says James Overduin, a theoretical physicist at Towson University in Maryland.

Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, Einstein was a precocious child. As a teenager, he wrote a paper on magnetic fields. (Einstein never actually failed math, contrary to popular lore.) He married twice, the second time to his first cousin, Elsa Löwenthal. The marriage until her death in 1936.

As a scientist, Einstein’s watershed year was 1905, when he was working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, having failed to attain an academic position after earning his doctorate. That year he published his four most important papers. One of them described the relationship between matter and energy, neatly summarized E = mc2.

Other papers that year were on Brownian motion, suggesting the existence of molecules and atoms, and the photoelectric effect, showing that light is made of particles later called photons. His fourth paper, about special relativity, explained that space and time are interwoven, a shocking idea now considered a foundational principle of astronomy.

Einstein expanded on relativity in 1916 with his theory of gravitation: general relativity. It holds that anything with mass distorts the fabric of space and time, just as a bowling ball placed on a bed causes the mattress to sag. During a solar eclipse in 1919, astronomers showed that the sun’s mass did indeed bend the path of starlight. (The temporary darkness around the sun enabled astronomers to chronicle the bending.) The validation made Einstein a superstar.

Two years later, Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics, not for general relativity, but for his discovery of the photoelectric effect. By this time, the 42-year-old physicist had made most of his major contributions to science.

In 1933, Einstein accepted a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where for years he tried (unsuccessfully) to unify the laws of physics. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940, and his fame grew as a public intellectual, civil rights supporter and pacifist.

Many consider Einstein’s theory of general relativity to be his crowning achievement. The theory predicted both black holes and gravitational waves — and just last year, physicists measured the waves created by the collision of two black holes over a billion light-years away. During their epic journey across the cosmos, the ripples played with space and time like a fun-house mirror contorting faces.

General relativity also is the bedrock of gravitational lensing, which uses the gravity of stars and galaxies as a giant magnifying glass to zoom in on farther cosmic objects. Astronomers may soon take advantage of such physics to see geographic details of worlds light-years away.

Einstein, who died of heart failure in 1955, would have applauded such bold, imaginative thinking. His greatest insights came not from careful experimental analysis, but simply considering what would happen under certain circumstances, and letting his mind play with the possibilities. “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” he said in a Saturday Evening Post interview. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Mark Barna

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