#11. Albert Einstein

“Ptolemy made a universe, which lasted 1400 years. Newton also made a universe, which has lasted 300 years. Einstein has made a universe, and I can’t tell you how long that will last.” George Bernard Shaw

“Way to go, Einstein.”My father to me, on many occasions and with much sarcasm

This one’s going to be hard. I know when he lived. I know that he had a couple theories of relativity. I know that modern scientists worship him. I know that his ideas led to the atomic age. And I know he was affable, pacifistic, and among history’s smartest individuals. When it comes to Albert Einstein, I know a lot.

But do I understand?

No. Look at his areas of scientific accomplishment organized by Wikipedia:

I mean, the “adiabatic principle” is just a Wikipedia editor making something up to see if we notice, right?

Damnit, Jim, I’m a high school history teacher, not a scientist. I don’t get most of that stuff! Therefore, there’s a chance that the only reason he’s kept from a deserved spot in my top ten is because neither I, nor you, nor the smartest person you know fully understands what Einstein understood. It is likely my ignorance that slots him as just the 11th most influential figure in Western history.

Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany on March 14, 1879.[1] From 5 to 15 he attended German schools, but then his father’s work as an engineer migrated the family to Italy. Young Einstein stayed behind to finish school, but the intense German education, particularly its emphasis on rote learning, repelled him. He cut classes, earned bad grades, and eventually dropped out to join his family south of the Alps. At 16, he looked to Switzerland’s respected Federal Polytechnic school, but he failed the entrance exam despite high marks in physics and math. The school’s principal suggested finishing secondary school to broaden his education before reapplying, which he successfully did one year later. That same year, sensing war ahead for his Kaiser’s German Empire, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and eventually became a Swiss citizen. By century’s end, the college graduate was about to embark on a successful run at a PhD, but there were few signs of the genius that stirred inside the man whose name would one day be synonymous with it.

That is until 1905. After earning his doctorate from the University of Zurich, he tried to find an academic teaching position, but no one hired him. Quite fortuitously, his unemployment allowed him to write. That year — called his annus mirabilis, or “miraculous year” — he published papers on the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion.[2] He also published the first part of an idea called the theory of relativity and a related paper about the equivalence of mass and energy. In the last of these he revealed history’s most famous equation: “e,” it turned out, equals “mc” squared.[3] These papers came successively between June and November, and it made Albert Einstein, at just 26 years old, a bona fide celebrity in scientific circles. He never again had trouble finding work.

Examples of such work included guest lectures at several European schools and professorships at the universities of Berlin in Germany and Prague in Austria-Hungary. After positive experiences in the latter, he became an Austrian citizen — his third citizenship (after German and Swiss). He then moved back to Germany to become the director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilheim Institute of Physics.

During these years of migration, he constantly studied. This stretch’s most famous idea was a second theory of relativity. The first, generated back in his miracle year, was thereafter known as his “special” theory of relativity. The second, in 1915, was his “general” theory of relativity, and its mind-and-space-bending proposal theorized that gravity caused curvatures in space, that gravity could curve light itself, and that two people traveling at different speeds experienced time differently. These were crazy ideas ridiculed by many contemporaries — until they turned out to be right.

A Nobel Prize in Physics followed, and soon the entire world demanded its most famous scientist. In the 1920s, he gave lectures in Britain, America, Singapore, the Middle East, and Japan. Along the way he met scientists, politicians, nobility, and an emperor. A second visit to the U.S. in the early 1930s made him feel particularly welcome, a warmth that contrasted with developments back in Germany, where Adolf Hitler (#17) and his Nazi Party steadily consolidated their power. Upon hearing his German cottage was seized (and then used for a Hitler Youth school), Einstein, a non-practicing Jew and a pacifist moreover, renounced his German citizenship for good. He then spent years traveling Europe, warning leaders of Hitler’s rise and working to rescue Jewish scientists from Germany. In 1935, he settled on his final home and applied yet again for new citizenship. By decade’s end, he was an American. He became a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he worked for the rest of his life.

His new country adored him. In addition to his peerless brilliance, he personified magnanimity. Charmingly, he often appeared silly, informal, modest, poorly dressed, and full of good humor; he endeared himself to every generation, particularly children. He was also a proto-Civil Rights Movement warrior. In 1946, he gave a speech on the topic of racism at the historic Lincoln University, and he later joined the NAACP. He described racism as America’s “worst disease” that was “handed down from one generation to the next.” Meanwhile, he pushed for a Jewish state that would welcome all Jews, particularly those affected by Hitler’s Holocaust.[4]

Once World War II erupted, this beloved and newly minted American citizen who abhorred tyranny and racism lobbied his new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to beat Hitler to the development of the atomic bomb.[5] Roosevelt took heed and prioritized uranium and nuclear research. This urgency culminated in the Manhattan Project, which armed the U.S. with nuclear weapons before the Axis and allowed the Allied Powers to win World War II.

There is some tragedy here. Considered by many to be the father of the nuclear age, Einstein guiltily spent much of his remaining years working against the proliferation of the worst weapons in human history. He deeply regretted his role in the production of atomic weaponry, lamenting in 1954: “I made one great mistake in my life — when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.” In 1955, he signed an appeal spearheaded by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, a paper henceforth known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which pleaded with world leaders to stop toying with humanity’s fate, curb the development of nuclear weapons, and rely on diplomacy to secure peace.

Then, just a few days after signing Russell’s manifesto, Albert Einstein, the world’s most beloved citizen, suffered an abdominal rupture and died. He was 76.

What a career. What a life! The greatest scientist of the twentieth century, Einstein remains the latest addition to the Mount Rushmore of history’s greatest scientists: Aristotle (#30), Galileo (#12), Newton (#SeeYouNextYear), and Einstein. That’s the list.[6]

Each of his papers from his annus mirabilis played massive roles in science. The photoelectric effect was a crucial discovery in the development of quantum theory, while Brownian motion did the same in atomic theory. He even found time that year to publish a revolutionary paper on light being comprised of photons.[7] Then, relativity changed the face of physics.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about his proposals was that they were almost all theoretical. It was all in his head and on the pieces of paper in front of him. Often, it was only later where his ideas proved valid.[8] He didn’t need to experiment to be right, which frustrated short-lived critics who found his ideas too controversial or outrageous to believe. The concept of gravity-induced curvatures in space sounded preposterous, but it was right. It seemed insane that at high speeds mass increases and time slows down (there are subjective perceptions of time and space!), but he was spot on. He knew his ideas sounded paradoxical, but he also knew he was right. He showed how the physics of the universe worked with little but mathematical formulas and logic.

These ideas dramatically evolved our ideas of space and time. Newton’s mechanistic vision of the universe was the triumph of the field for two centuries, but once Einstein came along, Newtonian mechanics became known as classical mechanics, which needed to be distinguished from, and some might even say relegated by, Einstein’s quantum mechanics. In a rare instance of Isaac Newton’s science falling short, classical mechanics did not explain the behavior of the tiniest or fastest objects. Quantum mechanics did.

When relativity was proven, The Times of London seized on the drama:


“Newtonian ideas overthrown.” It’s hard to now fully capture how big of a deal that was, but it was a huge deal. As we will see in our top five, Isaac Newton’s ranking as history’s great scientist is considerably supported. Yet, here, Einstein trumped him.

Just as impressive, no one has since been able to trump Einstein. His theories have survived every assault by every skeptic. Thanks to him, we continue to know that everything is, in fact, relative.

In the end, Einstein believed “nobody understands me” and yet “everybody likes me.” The latter ensures his indelible reputation in history, but the former might be the reason he’s limited to just the 11th most influential figure in Western history.


[1]To math nerds, March 14, written out as 3.14, is whimsically known as Pi Day. I’m genuinely amused that Albert Einstein was born on Pi Day. I really hoped he was born on 3.14 at 1:59, but it looks like a disappointing 11:30.

[2]Did you click on this footnote to learn more about those ideas? You came to the wrong place. Follow those links and leave me alone.

[3]”e = mc2″ written out: Energy (e) = Mass (m) times the speed of light (c) multiplied by itself. (“C” is the first letter of celeritas, the Latin word for speed.) The speed of light times itself is a colossally large number, so if one could find a way to convert a small amount of mass into energy, it would yield a huge amount.

[4]This push was, of course, successful. In fact, in 1952, Israel asked him to be its second president, a moving offer he had to decline.

[5]A clarification is in order: the letter to the President many attribute to Einstein was only signed by him. Instead, it was the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard who wrote the letter. Eight months before the August 1939 letter was written, German physicists discovered nuclear fission and published a paper on it. It was Szilard who first realized that harnessing nuclear fission could create a nuclear chain reaction. The work done by the Germans and by Szilard both worked off Einstein’s earlier discovery of mass and energy’s relationship. He had provided the bedrock of this process; splitting open even one atom released a great amount of energy. Thus, for better or worse, Einstein had helped usher in the “Atomic Age.” Szilard approached Einstein with this terrifying potential consequence of his equation, and Einstein replied, for probably the only time in his life: “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht. — “I did not even think about that.” Einstein eagerly signed Szilard’s letter to the President, providing it much needed weight.

[6]Maybe we chisel Stephen Hawking as a fifth face? Incidentally, Newton, Einstein, and Hawking once played poker with Lt. Commander Data on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You should really know these things.

[7]These photons, of course, were later used on the Enterprise’s torpedoes. (That’s right, two Star Trek references in as many footnotes. It’s my website, and you can’t stop me.)

[8]For example, his theory that gravity bent light — a process now known as gravitational lensing — was formed in 1911. It took a solar eclipse eight years later to prove it, when the apparent position of stars behind the sun revealed themselves to be slightly moved by its gravity. In fact, another theory — massive enough gravitational waves ripple out and affect space-time — was just proven in the last few years after astronomers witnessed the collision of two neutron stars 130 million light years away. How does he do it!


3 thoughts on “#11. Albert Einstein

  1. […] 2017 March: #30 (tie). Plato and Aristotle April: #29. Philip the Fair May: #28. Nicolaus Copernicus June: #27. Joan of Arc July: #26. Peter the Great August: #25. Gregory Pincus September: #24. Thomas Jefferson October: #23. Constantine the Great November: #22. Voltaire December: #21. Charlemagne 2018 January: #20. Henry Ford February: #19. Queen Elizabeth I March: #18. Thomas Edison April: #17. Adolf Hitler May: #16. Napoleon June: Halftime Report July: #15. Charles Darwin August: #14. George Washington September: #13. Charles Martel October: #12. Galileo Galilei November: #11. Albert Einstein […]


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