For anyone wanting to know how space works, Albert Einstein (1875-1955) is an essential name to have on your reading list. The 20th-century physicist is considered one of the most influential scientists we ever had. His theories of special and general relativity helped us understand the relationship between space and time. And with one famous equation, he showed how matter and energy are related.
It’s hard to overestimate just how important Einstein’s influence is. Without his theories and inventions, we’d have a lot more to learn about our universe.
Born in Württemberg, Germany, Einstein then moved to Munich with his family just six weeks after his birth, according to his Nobel Prize biography. He also spent time in Italy and Switzerland as a student. In 1901, he earned a diploma at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School to teach physics and mathematics, but couldn’t find work. This famously led to him working in a patent office.
Einstein’s first breakthrough was in 1905, for his doctorate. The topic was describing mathematically a phenomenon known as Brownian motion, or how particles move in a fluid (either a gas or a liquid). The motion was known for some time; the name actually comes from Robert Brown, who first examined it scientifically in 1827, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. But it was Einstein who first made a formula explaining how it occurs.
But that turned out to be just the beginning of an extraordinary year. Four more papers of his were published in the German Yearbook of Physics, according to PBS, including two others that rocked the world of physics that was known at that time.
One of those papers, PBS explained, was on what occurs when light is shone on metal and releases electrons. Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect theorized that light could be described as packets of energy — or quanta. It was based on the work of Max Planck and earned Einstein the Nobel Prize in physics.
The final paper was on the special theory of relativity, which shows that mass and time are not constant at high speeds. As an object approaches light speed, time appears to slow down and mass grows exponentially until it becomes infinite. This led to the famous equation E = mc2, or energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, according to PBS.
While this “miracle year” already sealed Einstein’s part in history, there was more to come. Ten years later, Einstein developed his general theory of relativity. It concerned how a star’s light is deflected when a planet or another star orbits nearby, which helped predict the closest approach of Mercury to the Sun, according to Biography.com.
Einstein’s work in the 1920s, Biography.com continued, concerned the fate of the universe. While his equations showed “the universe is dynamic, ever expanding or contracting”, Einstein himself didn’t believe the work. It wasn’t until 1929 when Edwin Hubble showed that the universe was indeed expanding. Einstein later took responsibility for his mistake, saying it was his “greatest blunder”.
While Einstein’s latter years saw his physics output slow down and his withdrawal from the community, his legacy from his early years still remains. We have written many articles about Albert Einstein for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the speed of light, and here are some Albert Einstein quotes. We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Listen here, Episode 9: Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.