Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein: the name itself conjures up an image of awe and admiration, for perhaps any person on Earth. By far one of the greatest and most famous scientists of all time, Einstein created an iconic image of a scientist with his tousled hairstyle, his moustache and that naughty twinkling of his eye as he was wont to say `now I will a little think’ . He was perhaps the first celebrity or ‘superstar’ scientist, establishing himself during an era when mass communication, television, radio etc were all technologies that were coming to the fore. He was also incredibly witty, charismatic and a great humanist, that makes his quotes some of the most popular ones around. His name is synonymous with “genius”, and is used endearingly to anyone who seems to be “smart” or precocious, or makes a witty comment. While his genius is unquestionable, Einstein also led a very colourful life.

Born into a Jewish family in 1879 Germany, Einstein grew up as any normal child would. Popular belief has it that he was “weak in mathematics”, at school. But if you read more about him, you realise that he had mastered differential and integral calculus by the age of 14! He excelled in physics too, and obviously showed an inclination towards it very early in his life. Growing up in Munich, he also got seriously interested in philosophy and music, both of which would remain life-long passions. Einstein played the violin, and could fiddle away a Bach or Beethoven violin sonata with ease! When Einstein was 13, his family moved to Italy. After completing his schooling in Munich, Einstein also joined them a year later. In 1895, he enrolled into a secondary school in Switzerland, a country that soon became his adopted home. Study at the Zurich Polytechnic was followed by a job in the Swiss patent office, in Bern, which he got after waiting for a job for more than two years after he had graduated. It is incredible how a lot of Einstein’s most profound discoveries were made while he worked at the patent office, at his “boring job”. I guess it shouldn’t surprise too many of us in India: our most famous scientist, Sir C V Raman, also made several scientific breakthroughs while working as an accountant in the Accountant-General’s office in Calcutta’s central business district!

Nevertheless, Einstein started publishing scientific papers while continuing for a few years at his day job at the patent office. This resulted in him being conferred a PhD (distance learning at its best!) by the University of Zurich, and by 1908 he was already considered a leading scientist. Over the next several years, Einstein was on the faculty of universities in Bern, Prague, Zurich and Berlin. Meanwhile, Einstein had a tumultuous, and often controversial, personal life. Several famous books  have been written on the subject, especially with new correspondence having come to light over the last few decades. His treatment of his first wife, Mileva Maric, and family is well-documented and notorious – a disowned first child born out of wedlock was abandoned; marriage brought two more children, and divorce destroyed the family: one of his sons ended up being a schizophrenic and killed himself at the age of 20. Einstein already had an affair with his first cousin, Elsa, during his first marriage. After divorce from Mileva in 1919, he married Elsa. She tragically died in 1936, after they had already moved to the United States. Einstein left Europe for good of his own accord in 1933, because by 1932 he had been convinced that things were going to get worse in Germany and detesting anti-Jewish propaganda and totalitarian politics, he did not want to stay there any more. He had a visiting position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and also an offer of a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton, a fledgling institution then, which gave him an opportunity to leave his native land without causing any flutter. Einstein relinquished his German citizenship and settled in America: first at Caltech, and then IAS, Princeton for the rest of his life.

And during all these personal upheavals, Einstein’s scientific output of very high quality continued at a mind-boggling pace. His work was unprecedented and remains unsurpassed; its quality unparalleled! It had all started with a bang in 1905, termed “Einstein’s Miracle Year”. He wrote three path-breaking papers that year (among many more): on Brownian Motion, the Photoelectric Effect (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1921; this is the Centenary Year to celebrate his Award) and the Special Theory of Relativity, that remarkable piece of work that shows how the speed of light cannot be bettered, and hence how time can dilate and mass can increase as objects move closer to the speed of light. This led to perhaps the most famous equation in the world, E = mc2, thereby creating an equivalence between mass and energy, which theoretically unshackled the energy contained within an atom, and explained to us how stars burn and produce energy. This also led to the eventual invention of the atom and hydrogen bombs, which altered history forever, as the former was used on humans by the USA at the end of World War II, when it bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands and maiming millions. The scars of that act will last till humans live on this planet. Einstein, as a great pacifist, was also scarred by these horrific acts of war and violence. He implored the US government to never use the bomb and his personal letter to FD Roosevelt, beseeching him to refrain from using the weapon, reached the White House as FDR was dying and the cover remained unopened. Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s hawkish successor, Harry Truman, ordered the first and only use so far of a weapon of mass destruction as soon as he became the President.

Coming back to Einstein, by 1911 he had formulated the basic tenets of the General Theory of Relativity (GR, or GTR), arguably the greatest ever achievement of the human mind. Einstein postulated that gravity can warp “space-time”, which he thought of as a continuum pervading throughout the Universe. Not only was the idea revolutionary and hard to comprehend, most scientists of the day had a hard time believing it. In 1919, the famous British astronomer, Arthur Eddington, conducted observations during the solar eclipse that proved that aspect of the theory: that gravity distorts space-time. He did so by looking at the position of stars directly behind the Sun during an eclipse, and found that their apparent position in the sky was marginally different from when the same stars are seen during the night. And the predictions of GR matched exactly with the observations. The Sun’s gravity had actually bent light! Today, the same principle is used to image faraway galaxies, which are obscured by nearer massive galaxies. This has allowed us to measure distances to some extremely faraway galaxies very accurately, and the phenomenon is known as “Gravitational Lensing”. Today, GR corrections are used in day-to-day applications, e.g. GPS satellites, without which we wouldn’t be able to use our Google Maps or satellite communication systems accurately and adequately. Most brilliantly, GR also predicts the presence of Gravitational Waves, and only over the last few decades has technology reached a level where it has been able to build gravitational wave detectors. In the last 6-8 years, these most sophisticated detectors (read about “LIGO”) have actually detected these predicted waves, which have emerged from massive cosmic events, like the merger of two black holes or neutron stars, billions of light years away!

So Einstein’s impact on our daily life and on our imagination, is MASSIVE, no pun intended! He always had a love for Eastern cultures and civilisations, and had close interactions with many famous Indians. His letters to Gandhi are famous, and although they never met, they had a great admiration for each other. Einstein helped SN Bose publish his famous papers in Europe, and that led to an immediate recognition of Bose to the world and created a great partnership and friendship, for which “Bose” and “Einstein” are often uttered in the same breath: “Bose-Einstein Condensate” and “Bose- Einstein Statistics”. Particles that obey the latter are of course known as bosons, and how ubiquitous that word has become thanks again to the discovery of the Higgs Boson a few years ago. Einstein’s meetings with Tagore remain close to the heart of most Indians, as they too shared a great respect for each other. And while Einstein’s theories and discoveries will last for all time, some questions remain unanswered, e.g. a unified theory to describe all forces: he could never reconcile gravity with the other three forces, he never accepted the breakdown of causality as in quantum uncertainty; or what really is happening inside a Black Hole and is all its mass really concentrated in zero volume, a singularity?

Let me end this with a few of my favourite quotes of Einstein:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds”

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much
as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

About Gandhi: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and
blood walked upon this Earth.”

Long live the spirit of this remarkable man!