Albert Einstein: A life spent re-imagining physics

A visionary thinker and cultural icon

Einstein's archetypal boffin persona, firmly lodged in popular culture, is well-earned. His ideas and theories were so shockingly revolutionary, he changed the way the Universe was imagined, not just once, but several times.

Albert Einstein was proclaimed a genius while still in his 20s. But his later work was dominated by a fruitless search for a unified theory and increasing isolation from mainstream physics. So why are we still obsessed with him?

18 March 1879

A free spirit is born

Almost from birth, Einstein’s enquiring mind was developed by parents who encouraged his independence.

Aged just four, they sent him out to explore the local area on his own. Aged five, his father gave him a compass to play with. He was captivated by the motion of the needle. This was the genesis of his interest in science. Much later, his theories would be used to explain that motion.

The earliest known photograph of Albert Einstein.


A capable rebel

After his parents moved to Italy for better job prospects, the teenage Einstein remained in Germany to finish his education.

Despite his obvious capabilities in science and maths, his tendency to rebel against the prescriptive nature of school, where everything was unthinkingly memorised, led to some teachers giving him bad reports. His Munich schoolmaster said “he will never amount to anything”.

Einstein aged 14. He was good at science and maths but disliked formal education.


Adult life starts in chaos

After failing the entrance exam for a Zurich technical college, Einstein studied a new syllabus at school, and entered college on his second attempt.

Once there, he gained a reputation for missing classes and wasting time discussing science with friends in local cafes. At 17, he renounced his German citizenship in order to avoid military service. For the next four years, Einstein was not the citizen of any country. An academic career was put on hold after graduating with average marks, and finding his girlfriend and fellow student Mileva Marić had fallen pregnant.

Einstein’s first marriage, to Mileva Marić, in 1903 was an act of rebellion. Neither set of parents approved. The couple divorced in 1919.


Miraculous ideas from 'nowhere'

Between March and June, he produced four revolutionary contributions to science.

These included a paper entitled “on the electrodynamics of moving bodies”, which would become known as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. This showed that measurements of space and time were relative to motion and subsequently forced physicists to re-evaluate some of their most basic concepts. Einstein would later be awarded the Nobel Prize for one of the other papers, where he explained photoelectric effect.

Brian Cox demonstrates time dilation, which is predicted by special relativity. The Science of Doctor Who (BBC Two, 2013).


The young genius enters academia

It was not until 1909 that Einstein was finally offered an academic post – as a professor at the University of Zurich.

The appointment came two years after Einstein imagined his most significant thought experiment. Picturing a man falling off a roof, Einstein realised he would not feel his own weight. He called this the “happiest thought of my life” because it lead him to the general theory of relativity. Einstein also began demonstrating an interest in politics and moral questions, refusing to sign a “manifesto to the civilized world” defending Germany’s empire building at the start of World War One.

Einstein as a young professor in Zurich.

25 November 1915

Turning physics on its head

In 1915, Einstein announced his general theory of relativity, the culmination of an eight-year obsession with gravity.

With its astonishing implications about the nature of time and space, it displaced Newtonian mechanics and shook the physics world, suggesting that space and time were one and the same and that gravity was not a force as Newton described it but the effect of objects bending space-time. His theory was given the weight of observational evidence when it was used to correctly predict anomalies in the orbit of Mercury – a centuries-old problem that Newton’s theory of gravitation could not resolve.

Watch Brian Cox demonstrate general relativity. Wonders of the Universe (BBC Two, 2011).

19 May 1919

General relativity is confirmed – Einstein becomes a global icon

In 1919 the British physicist Arthur Eddington went to a small African island to observe the total eclipse of the Sun.

He wanted to put Einstein’s theory to the test. Einstein had predicted that gravity should bend light. The eclipse of 1919 provided the perfect opportunity. As the negatives were measured it became clear. Light was bent. Einstein was right. Our view of the Universe was changed forever. Just as important were the political implications. In the charged environment of a world returning from war, a British confirmation of a German pacifist Jew's theory had a powerful resonance.

Arthur Eddington's photograph of the solar eclipse which proved the general theory of relativity.

April 1921

America falls in love with Einstein

In 1921 Einstein went to New York for the first time.

His distinctive appearance and surprising demeanour saw him capture the attention of the press pack. To Americans, he came across not as an aloof intellectual with strange ideas about the nature of reality but as a warm, likeable and humble character, who often smiled and had a talent for providing journalists with quotable lines. The feeling was mutual; in an essay about his impressions of the country he wrote "The American is friendly, self-confident, optimistic, and without envy".

Einstein in 1921 with his second wife Elsa. His image became popular with the American press corps.

9 November 1922

Einstein wins the Nobel Prize

In 1922 Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the photoelectric effect.

This was largely because his better known work on relativity had remained controversial with some influential figures, including ophthalmologist Allvar Gullstrand, who served on the Nobel committee.

Einstein's Nobel prize medal, showing Alfred Nobel's likeness. Image: (C) (R) The Nobel Foundation. Photographer: Lovisa Engblom.


Lesser but brilliant work continues

In the years that followed Einstein never equalled the scientific successes of his early years.

But he did continue to make substantial contributions to physics. For example, his work with Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose predicted the existence of a new state of matter – a Bose-Einstein condensate. It also described strange quantum phenomena such as the behaviour of superfluids – a state of matter that behaves like a fluid, but has zero viscosity.

Ben Miller discovers the surprising behaviour of low-temperature helium. Horizon: What is One Degree? (BBC Two, 2011).

19 October 1927

The battle with quantum physics

Quantum physics was on an unstoppable rise – making sense of sub-atomic behaviour in a way that general relativity could not.

Einstein disliked the uncertainty of quantum mechanics and sought a more complete theory. At the 1927 Solvay conference in Brussels, Einstein came into disagreement with the leader of the quantum group, Niels Bohr. Their rivalry clarified the nature of wave-particle duality. Einstein spent most of the rest of his life trying to formulate a single theory which would unite relativity with quantum mechanics. It is a fundamental problem that eludes physicists to this day.

The 1927 Solvay conference. Over the following years Einstein would become an increasingly isolated figure in physics.

October 1933

A permanent move to Princeton

Einstein moved to the USA in 1933 and took up a post in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study, a move precipitated by Hitler’s rise to power.

At Princeton he published dozens of scientific papers, mainly related to some aspect of general relativity. But he remained consumed by the struggle to unite relativity and quantum physics. At various times he believed he had done it but would quickly fall into disillusionment as he realised problems remained.

Einstein with Charlie Chaplin. “They’re cheering us both – you because nobody understands you and me because everybody understand me.”

2 August 1939

Increasing political activity

In 1939 Einstein wrote to US President Roosevelt urging the development of atomic weapons.

He felt an increasing sense of duty for physics to contribute in the fight against fascism but came to regret his role in the development of the atomic bomb. In later years, Einstein spoke out on social issues, joined civil rights organisations, promoted socialism and defended the character of friends who were labelled Communists. All of these activities would strike many in McCarthy-era America as deeply suspicious. The FBI opened a file on Einstein, which grew to nearly 1,500 pages.

In a rare clip, Einstein expresses his regret over his role in the development of atomic weapons. Secrets of the Universe (BBC Four, 2014).

18 April 1955

An understated end

Einstein died aged 76 from an abdominal internal bleed, which he refused to have treated.

Despite making perhaps the single greatest contribution to our understanding of the Universe, he died frustrated by his failure to reconcile his theories with the new world of quantum physics, a struggle which is continued by physicists today.

Einstein's desk pictured in 1955, taken a few hours after his death.

31 May 1979

More predictions are confirmed

In 1979 astronomers saw something very unexpected in the night sky – two apparently identical galaxies.

But Einstein had seen this coming more than 40 years earlier. It was called gravitational lensing – which produced two images of the same galaxy, something he predicted would happen in very specific conditions, but was never observed in his lifetime. Although he never believed they existed, Einstein’s work also predicted the existence of black holes and gravitational waves, which have both now been detected by scientists.

The first ever gravitational lens – an image which confirmed a prediction Einstein had made decades earlier.


Einstein remains a cult figure

A century on from General Relativity, Einstein remains a cult figure: the embodiment of genius, eccentricity and free-thinking.

He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine six times, and was its ‘person of the century’ in 1999. Today his image rights continue to generate millions of dollars annually.

Einstein was Time magazine's person of the century in 1999.