Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879. At the time, the Einstein family owned an electrical firm that manufactured dynamos and electrical meters. His father wanted Albert to pursue a career in electrical engineering, but young Albert had a rebellious side and never much enjoyed formal learning.
He preferred to teach himself, whether it was science or philosophy or music — and that worked out fine for Einstein, who went on to become one of the greatest physicists of all time.
In 1905, a year now known as his annus mirabilis (miracle year), Einstein published four revolutionary scientific papers while still working at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Among them he outlined the theory of the photoelectric effect, introduced special relativity, and described the principle of the mass-energy equivalence, the latter now associated with the world’s most famous equation: E=mc2. He was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1921.
Beyond his scientific genius, Albert Einstein was a complex and colorful figure. He loved music almost as much as physics, his love life was active (and not always honorable), and his political views attracted the attention of the FBI. He also didn’t shy away from talking and writing about a wide range of subjects, leaving behind a trove of quotes that give us a fascinating insight into this unique character.
Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations. All this is put in your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children.
Einstein was an above-average student in many areas, but he especially excelled at mathematics. At 12 years old, he was given a book of geometry that he later called his “sacred little geometry book.”
During a single summer, he used the book to teach himself algebra, calculus, and geometry. At 13, he became fascinated with philosophy. He was particularly interested in the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his book Critique of Pure Reason.
If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music … I get most joy in life out of music.
Einstein began playing the violin at the age of five or six, but gave up lessons in his early teens because he found them boring and mechanical. Instead, he began teaching himself. At 13, he discovered the violin sonatas of Mozart and fell in love with them.
This changed the way he practiced and studied music, through passion rather than systematic learning. He later said, in regards to learning the violin, that “love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.” Einstein went on to become an accomplished musician.
I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
For Einstein, imagination and curiosity were fundamental to understanding and intelligence. In a letter to his biographer Carl Seelig, Einstein famously wrote, “I have no special talent, but am only passionately curious.”
Love and Marriage
I must love someone, otherwise it is a miserable existence. And that someone is you.
Einstein married twice, first to Mileva Marić from 1903 to 1919, during which time they had a daughter and two sons. While still married to Marić, he fell in love with his cousin Elsa Löwenthal. He divorced Marić, and married Löwenthal in 1919. They were together until her death in 1936, and it was to her that Einstein wrote the above quote.
Einstein’s extramarital affairs were well known, in part because he didn’t do much to hide them — but he was aware of his weaknesses. He once wrote in a letter to the son of a friend who died, “What I admire in your father is that, for his whole life, he stayed with only one woman. This is a project in which I grossly failed, twice.”
Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.
These words, written by Einstein in a letter to German physicist Max Born, are the source of the famous but much misunderstood — and misquoted — “God does not play dice with the universe.” They are a prime example of how people have tried to pin down Einstein’s religious beliefs, even when he was talking metaphorically about quantum mechanics.
Raised Jewish, Einstein was religious as a boy but later called himself an agnostic and said he didn’t believe in an afterlife. Perhaps most telling, however, was a letter he wrote in 1954 (a year before his death), in which he revealed, “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”
I have never had a particularly favorable opinion of the Germans (morally and politically speaking), but I must confess that the degree of their brutality and cowardice came as something of a surprise to me.
In 1933, Einstein went into exile, abandoning his homeland of Germany following the rise of the Nazis under Adolf Hitler. Einstein became increasingly outspoken about the regime, rallying against Hitler and, to some extent, putting aside his deeply held pacifism in the face of the growing threat.
“I should not, in the present circumstances, refuse military service,” he said at the time. “Rather I should enter such service cheerfully in the belief that I would thereby be helping to save European civilization.”
The United States
What strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life … The American is friendly, self-confident, optimistic, and without envy.
Einstein renounced his German citizenship after the rise of the Nazis. He moved to the United States and became an American citizen in 1940. Einstein had a positive outlook regarding his adopted home, but considered racism America’s “worst disease,” further saying that “Being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathize with how Black people feel as victims of discrimination.”
Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
Einstein wasn’t shy about expressing his political views. He was an outspoken critic of racism and nationalism, a pacifist, and critical of capitalism and in favor of socialism.
When Einstein moved to America, it didn’t take long before he was on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover, who called the physicist “an extreme radical.” By the time of Einstein’s death, the FBI file on him was 1,427 pages long.
I made one great mistake in my life — when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made. But there was some justification — the danger that the Germans would make them.
Einstein was a lifelong pacifist, but the rise of Nazi Germany tested his beliefs. He later said that in some circumstances, “force was appropriate — namely, in the face of an enemy unconditionally bent on destroying me and my people.” Still, he forever regretted his involvement in the development of the atom bomb.
I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.
Einstein died on April 18, 1955, aged 76, from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The previous day, he had been working on a speech to honor Israel's seventh anniversary. He was taken to hospital but refused surgery, feeling that his time had come.
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