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HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

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Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany. His father owed an electrical business and Einstein learnt a great deal about practical physics during time spent in the workshop. When the business failed, Einstein's father moved his family to Munich. Einstein started school in 1886. He was a shy child who did not talk very much. His parents even began to think that he was mildly autistic, or at least not as bright as the average nine year old. In 1888 he moved into the Luitpold Senior School but, although his grades were excellent in mathematics and good in other subjects, Einstein did not enjoy his schooling. He could not fit into the rote learning that the students were being asked to do at that time, and so he did most of his studying at home. When his family moved to Italy in 1893, Einstein stayed behind to continue his education. However, he was eventually "asked" to leave the school because he was considered too much of a rebel, so he joined his parents in Italy.

In 1895, still not having completed his secondary education, Einstein failed the entrance exam for the Electrical Engineering School in Zurich, Switzerland. He enrolled in a secondary school in Aarau, Switzerland in the hope that he would eventually be accepted for electrical engineering. Einstein was granted his wish in the following year. He gave up his German citizenship in 1896 and applied for Swiss citizenship. In fact, for five years he was officially "stateless", until his application was granted by Switzerland in 1901.

 

Albert Einstein

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Einstein graduated from the Electrical Engineering School 1900 with a teaching diploma in mathematics and physics. He tried to get a post teaching at university level but was unsuccessful. After one year of searching, he took up a temporary post as a teacher in a technical high school in 1901. This post was followed by another teaching position in a private school until, in 1902, with the help of the father of a college friend, he was offered a position in the patent office in Bern as technical expert, third class. He held this job for the next seven years, eventually being promoted to technical expert, second class!

Meanwhile, Einstein continued to work on mathematics and physics in his free time. In 1905 he presented his thesis and was awarded a doctorate from Zurich University. His thesis, like all Einstein's work, was based on theory. It described a completely new way of calculating the size of molecules. The year 1905 is often referred to by scientists as Einstein's Miracle Year (Annus Mirabilis). He was only twenty six and yet he wrote papers that would revolutionise the scientific world.

Following his doctorate, his second publication was on how particles move in fluids. Remember that Einstein dealt only in theory; it sometimes took a few years for scientists to design experiments to prove that he was right! Einstein's next publication was a real shock to scientists. He wrote that light did not always travel in continuous waves, as was the accepted theory at that time, but that light could be regarded as being made of particles. These particles, called photons or quanta, are delivered one after another as light is emitted by a source. It took until 1915 for this theory to be proved experimentally and to be accepted by other scientists. It is now the basis of the Theory of Quantum Mechanics.

As if the scientific world had not been surprised enough, Einstein's fourth publication of 1905 was truly revolutionary. The Special Theory of Relativity showed that energy and matter are linked together by the famous equation e=mc2. In this equation, e represents energy, m represents mass and c2 is the square of the speed of light. Einstein suggested that the speed of light in empty space is always found to be the same, no matter how the person measuring it is moving. This famous equation shows that a very large amount of energy can be obtained from a very small quantity of mass.

In 1908, Einstein took a second job as a lecturer at Bern University. One year later, and not surprisingly, he was made full-time professor of physics at Zurich University. By this time he was regarded as the leading scientific thinker of the age. In 1912 he put his mind to the question, "Why is the sky blue?". He proved that the molecules in the atmosphere absorb some of the blue light found in the white light from the sun. These molecules then radiate the blue light in all directions (unlike the sunlight that falls directly to Earth). This is the reason why we see a blue sky!

By 1914, Einstein was back in Germany, having accepted a research position as professor of the Prussian Academy of Sciences at Berlin University. He was also the director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics. One year later, Einstein published the General Theory of Relativity which, basically, replaced Newton's laws of gravity. Einstein was very apologetic with regard to Newton! He maintained that Newton's laws were still valid for smaller masses but did not work for extremely large masses. Einstein's theory says that space and time become curved near a mass, and that the larger the mass the more the space and time are curved. When we feel the sensation of gravity it is, in fact, the curvature of space and time that we are moving through! The General Theory of Relativity changed the way that astronomers look at the universe. It explains black holes and why light from distant stars is bent by gravity.

After the First World War, in 1921, Einstein made his first visit to the USA, where he lectured on his theory of relativity. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on photons, but he was unable to receive the prize in person because he was visiting Japan at the time. Einstein travelled a lot during the next few years, to South America and Europe, and this probably caused his physical collapse in 1928. After a year of rest he was "on the road" again, visiting the UK, Belgium and Switzerland. He eventually settled in the USA, after a visit in 1935, and started work at Princeton University.

Einstein died in the USA in 1955. He had donated his brain to science and, in 1999, it was shown that his brain was different; the parts of the brain that deal with visual images and mathematics were larger in Einstein's brain than in the average human brain!

 

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