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Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

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OverviewAlbert Einstein

Albert Einstein is often considered the smartest man to have ever lived. If someone does well on a math test, their friend might call them "an Einstein." Little do they know, however, that Einstein had been asked by a teacher to drop out of grade school, and that he couldn't even get into the Swiss military. Coming from humble beginnings and working his way up through the ranks to the position of Swiss patent clerk, Einstein was able to revolutionize the way that we view space, time, and gravity.

The Early Years

In his early years, Albert Einstein's mother was disturbed by how long it took him to learn how to talk. His elementary school teachers thought that he was a foolish dreamer, and one teacher had even asked him to drop out of his class. Young Albert hated sports as a child, and they made him dizzy and tired, but he made up for his hatred of sports with his love for music. He would play Mozart sonatas on the violin, usually accompanied by his mother. He also liked private games, such as building a house of cards.

For academics, he loved math and science. Max Talmud, a medical student and a friend to the family, went to dinner with them every Thursday night and brought Albert science books. Einstein's Uncle Jacob gave him math problems, and he received a book on geometry when he was 12. Over the next two years he taught himself calculus.

Even though he loved academics, he disliked school and eventually dropped out of high school. Without a high school diploma, he had to take special exams to get into college. He failed the first set and had to re-take them. After graduation, he couldn't get a job anywhere. He was even rejected by the Swiss military because he had flat feet, but he eventually found a tutoring job and earned three francs an hour.

Einstein finally got a job at a Swiss patent office, and earned just enough money so that his parents didn't have to support him, his young wife, and their new-born baby. Then, he started to work in solitude in the patent office, in between patent applications, on problems that had intrigued him as a child.

Special Relativity

In 1905, Einstein developed the Special Theory of Relativity. As a child, Einstein had asked himself what would a beam of light look like if you caught up with it? From this simple question came a profound answer:

Special Relativity says that the speed of light is the same in all fixed-velocity frames. One implication of this is that time slows down the closer to the speed of light you get. It also states that as an object approaches the speed of light, its mass proportionally increases and its length proportionally decreases, and time moves slower for it*. Thus it takes more energy to move it.

So, travel at the speed of light is impossible because the object's mass would be infinite, and it would take more energy than the entire universe to move an infinitely large object. The predictions and consequences of Special Relativity have been verified in all experiments that have been performed so far.

*Imagine that you get into a car and speed away at 90% of the speed of light. You look outside your window and notice a strange phenomena: Everything in front of you is a bluish tint, while everything behind you takes on a reddish hue. This is due to the Doppler effect. To an observer outside of the car, everything inside of the car seems to be moving very slowly. Someone takes out a set of binoculars and looks at your wrist watch, and sees that the second hands are barely moving. A second strange occurrence is that everything inside of the car appears to be squashed like a pancake. However, you don't think that you are being compressed, because relative to you, you are not moving at all! It is everything outside of the car that is whizzing by and is being squished.

Matter and Energy

A part of the Special Theory of Relativity is the equivalence of energy and matter. The following equation is one of the most famous and well-known across the world:


This equation very elegantly relates energy and matter. It says that they are fundamentally the same thing. It also says that from an extremely small amount of matter can be released a very large amount of energy. This is why atomic weapons are so powerful. This is also the basic principle behind the way the sun gives off energy, by converting matter into energy.

General Relativity

In 1907, Einstein said that when he "was sitting in a chair in the patent office at Bern when all of a sudden a thought occurred to me: 'If a person falls freely he will not feel his own weight.' I was startled. This simple thought ... impelled me toward a theory of gravitation. ..."

This was the fundamental principle for his General Theory of Relativity, which was published in 1916. Its foundation is that the laws of nature in an accelerating frame are equivalent to the laws of a gravitational field. This is known as the Equivalence Principle. In 1915, Einstein proposed a new theory of gravity, which is now called the General Theory of Relativity:

In 1666, Sir Isaac Newton had proposed a theory of gravity called Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation. Newton's Law had worked very well, but there were slight discrepancies between what was observed and what was mathematically predicted. An example is that Newton's theory cannot explain Mercury's peculiar rosette-shaped elliptical orbit. However, Einstein's General Relativity can.

General Relativity describes gravity as a warping of space itself, not as a force. Einstein pictured space as a three-dimensional version of a thin rubber sheet. If you put a heavy object on the sheet, it makes a dent, and therefore an object's path would be affected by that dent. So, planets orbit the sun because the space around the sun is curved in the 2-D equivalent of a funnel or basin.

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