Physicist. Genius. Science pop star. Philosopher and humanist. Thinker and guru. On a par with Copernicus, Galileo or Newton. And: Albert Einstein – from Ulm!
The most famous scientist of our time was actually born on 14th March 1879 at Bahnhofstraße 20 in Ulm. Albert Einstein only lived in the city on the Danube for 15 months. His extended family – 18 of Einstein’s cousins lived in Ulm at one time or another – were a respected and deep-rooted part of the city’s society, however. This may explain Einstein’s enduring connection to the city of his birth, which he described as follows in a letter to the Ulmer Abendpost on 18th March 1929, shortly after his 50th birthday:
"The birthplace is as much a unique part of your life as the ancestry of your biological mother. We owe part of our very being to our city of birth. So I look on Ulm with gratitude, as it combines noble artistic tradition with simple and healthy character."
The miracle year" 1905 – Einstein becomes the founder of the modern scientific world view
The "miracle year" 1905 – Einstein becomes the founder of the modern scientific world view
Was Einstein a "physicist of the century"? There's no doubt of that. In his "miracle year" (annus mirabilis) of 1905 he published 4 groundbreaking works alongside his dissertation. Each of these was worthy of a Nobel Prize and turned him into a physicist of international standing: the theory of special relativity, the light quanta hypothesis ("photoelectric effect"), for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1922, the confirmation of the molecular structure of materials through "Brownian motion", and the theory of mass-energy equivalence.
Each of these works represented a completely new approach in its respective area of physics – and together resolved all the problems, enigmas and contradictions of classical physics. A phenomenal achievement, unique in modern science, which he accomplished in his evenings off – the 26-year-old Einstein was employed full-time at the Patent Office in Bern - at that time. With pencil and paper and none of the apparatus of a university, without assistants, labs or specialist libraries.
Einstein’s physics problems also occupied numerous other major scientists at the start of the 20th century. None of his colleagues, however, were similarly successful in considering the variety of natural phenomena as having a uniform connection, deriving general principles from this and translating the "unity of nature" into mathematical formulae. Thus, Albert Einstein became the founder of the modern scientific world view.
This concept of a world view was the focus of scientific work at the beginning of the 20th century. Ultimately, it was thought that the solution to the subproblems in physics would lead to an all-encompassing explanation of the world, a "world formula" so to speak. Einstein devoted himself like no other to this integrated approach. His General Theory of Relativity of 1916 was an important step in this process.
During the final 20 years of his life, he was working on unified field theory. The aim was to formulate a theory that would describe gravitation and other interactions, especially electromagnetism, in a unified way. Einstein did not manage to achieve this before he died. That he even attempted it, says something about his dedication to science.
To say that Einstein was ahead of his time would be a massive understatement. Want an example? Believe it or not, 99 years passed – in science and time – before scientists succeeded in measuring gravitational waves in 2015, finally proving what Einstein knew back in 1916.
Genius and humanist
Was Einstein a nerd? As a scientist, yes! He focussed on theories and physical worlds that none of his contemporaries were able to unlock.
As a man, however, his interests were extremely broad. Einstein showed an early interest in philosophy and was passionate about literature and music. He was not gregarious in the proper sense, but he did enjoy the company of other people. Nowadays we would probably call him an intellectual or a humanist.
Einstein also transferred his scientific theory – that all phenomena in nature are connected and only take effect as a whole – to social and political questions. He formulated ideas on systems of government and economics, commented on ethical and philosophical issues, and repeatedly and publicly denounced nationalist, racist and militaristic tendencies. Einstein was a profoundly moral person, who took science’s responsibility towards humanity very seriously. Research for research’s sake, with no ethical foundation, was unthinkable for him. This led him to a moral dilemma in 1939. He feared Nazi Germany would build an atomic weapon following Otto Hahn’s successful discovery of nuclear fission the year before. With a heavy heart, Einstein the pacifist decided to sign a letter to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to start a nuclear programme in the USA. Contemporary sources reveal that Einstein himself was not actively involved in the development of the bomb – he nevertheless felt the weight of the shared moral responsibility until the end of his life.
Albert Einstein’s life’s work is of incalculable value in improving our understanding of our world. At the same time, he also fought passionately to improve life on Earth. That was his fundamental distinguishing feature as a scientist. This exemplary combination of scientific brilliance and morality is certainly a big factor in his enduring popularity to this day.
Does that fully explain the Einstein phenomenon? Of course not. Albert Einstein had so many facets, so many talents and abilities. The complete picture only comes from understanding the whole. Only the whole. Just like Einstein’s general idea of physics and our world. Coincidence? Perhaps.