Albert Einstein is one of only three or four scientists in history who have changed the fundamental ways in which humans view the universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity changed humankind’s core assumptions concerning the nature of the universe and of Earth’s and of humans’ place in it.
The twentieth century’s developments in technology, science, and math owe their foundation to this unassuming scientist in a deep and fundamental way. He has touched our lives probably more than any other scientist in history. But for the first 26 years of his life, no one thought he had any chance of entering the world of science at all.
Raised in Munich, Germany, Albert Einstein showed no early signs of genius. He was described as a dull child who didn’t play well with other children. Grammar school teachers called him irksome and disruptive. At 16 he was expelled from school. Albert’s father encouraged him to apply to the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, and learn a trade to help support the family.
But Albert failed the entrance exam. A school administrator was, however, impressed with Albert’s math abilities and arranged for him to complete high school in nearby Aarua, Switzerland. At 17, Albert transferred to Zurich.
There he showed promise in math and science, but piled up far too many discipline reports. He was free with his opinions whether they were offensive or not. His teachers gave him bad reports. One called him “a lazy dog.”
Einstein hoped to teach after graduation but his grades weren’t good enough. He dropped out of science in disgust and supported himself with odd jobs. In 1902 he landed a job as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, assigned to check the technical correctness of patent applications. It appeared that all doors leading to a science career had been firmly closed.
It was while riding on a Berne, Switzerland, trolley car in the spring of 1904 that the image first flashed across Albert Einstein’s mind. It was an image of a man in an elevator that was falling from a great height. Einstein realized immediately that the image of this “thought experiment” could bring focus to a problem that had been plaguing him (and all of science) for years.
Einstein realized that the man in the elevator would not know he was falling because, relative to his surroundings (the elevator), he wasn’t falling. The man, like us, would not be able to detect that he (and his elevator) were caught in, and being pulled by, a gravitational field. If a horizontal light beam entered the side of the elevator, it would strike the far wall higher up because the elevator would have dropped while the light beam crossed. To the man, it would appear that the light beam bent upwards. From our perspective (relative to us), gravitational fields bend light. Light not only could be, but routinely was, bent by the gravitational fields of stars and planets.
It was a revolutionary concept, worthy of one of the world’s greatest scientific minds. Einstein regularly used these imaginative “thought experiments” to shed light on complex questions of general principles. It was a new and unique way to approach the study of physics and led Einstein to write a series of four papers, which he submitted to a science journal in 1905. One of those four papers presented the special theory of relativity (relativity principles applied to bodies either moving at a steady velocity or at rest). Impressed, the journal published all four papers in a single issue. Another presented Einstein’s relation between matter and energy.
The papers from this “amateur” mathematician had a deep, instant, and profound effect in the scientific community. One was accepted as a doctoral thesis by Zurich University, which granted Einstein a Ph.D.
Virtually all physicists shifted their studies to focus on Einstein’s theories.
In 1916, with war raging across Europe, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which described relativity theory applied to objects moving in more complex ways with nonlinear acceleration. The world applauded.
We know that the look and sound of moving objects appear and sound different depending on whether the receiver is stationary or moving. Special relativity is based on the mind-boggling concept that, no matter how fast you travel, the speed of light appears to remain the same.