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Who Is Albert Einstein?

Albert Einstein's Inventions

Albert Einstein. Image credit: Library of Congress

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.

Brownian Motion

Brownian Motion. Image Credit: University of Pennsylvania

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.

Einstein's famous equation. Image via Pixabay.

Einstein’s famous equation. Image via Pixabay.

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.


Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • BrianFraser February 2, 2015, 2:52 PM

    Einstein’s famous equation is always presented in “local form” as E=mc^2 . This is the form used on timed tests in the schools because it is computationally friendly. But it could also be re-written as E/(1/c)^1 = m/(1/c)^3 which is the “non-local” form. The latter is not computationally friendly, but it is much more useful conceptually if you want to know how the universe is constructed.

    A few of my conclusions based on the non-local form:

    1. Mass is clearly a three-dimensional form of energy.

    2. The Universe not only has built-in math (enough of a mystery), it also has built in UNIT QUANTITIES: 1/1^1 = 1/1^3 .

    3. To get the dimensionless form, c is a unit of speed, and 1/c is is a unit of energy. Not surprisingly, 1/c appears in the denominator, much like ONE dollar appears in unit pricing at the grocery store. In this form, there is no need for G, the universal gravitational constant.

    4. The space/time dimensions of the terms are:
    c: s/t
    1/c: t/s
    m: t^3/s^3

    A space/time term (velocity) can be represented in a normal, vectorial reference system as composed of a magnitude and a direction. But the time/space terms are non-local, directionless, and have only a magnitude. Energy (t/s), for instance, is non-vectorial and has only a magnitude.

    5. All physics equations can be written in terms of pure space and time terms. Mass and charge are not needed as fundamental concepts. Nor are concepts such as gluons, and gravitons.

    6. Mass (t^3/s^3) is fundamentally non-directional in a spatial reference system. It is a “when” motion in a “where” reference system. If I jump out of a tree, the Earth rushes out to meet me (as per Einstein). If I jump out of a tree on the diametrically opposite side of the Earth, the Earth still rushes out to meet me in the same manner. The motion of mass is non-directional. In other words, the motion is spherically distributed; its intensity will be proportional to 1/r^2 .

    7. If I just sit in a chair, I have no spatial motion (at least not in our system of reference which is based on differential space). But my watch still ticks, and so my time coordinate is changing. I am actually in motion, but only of the temporal kind. That means my nature is like that of mass.

    8. Mass is what has the motion (or “is” motion). Photons might actually be stationary. (!)

    I wish the schools would present the non-local forms of the physics equations. While the local forms are very practical, the non-local forms give much more insight on how the Universe actually works.

  • PrometheusOnTheLoose February 2, 2015, 9:19 PM

    Einstein later took responsibility for his mistake, saying it was his “greatest blunder”.

    I wouldn’t mind having a “Greatest blunder” like that.

  • VAXHeadroom February 3, 2015, 11:45 AM

    The descriptions here of what “Special Relativity” and “General Relativity” really muddy what Einstein was investigating.
    Special Relativity explores and describes the motion of an electron in a circuit. The equations that govern the world from the electron’s point of view and the wire’s point of view prior to Einstein were quite different and nobody could figure out why. Special Relativity is the relationship between the two.
    General Relativity is similar, but relates the general motion of any body to its surroundings. This includes things light bending around a star and the motion of Mercury.