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He deduced the equation E=mc2 at the age of 26. He was a key influencer in the United States’ entry into the nuclear arms race. He auctioned a manuscript for millions to help the war effort. His brain was preserved for future study. And a children’s book may have started it all.

Albert Einstein would have been 135 years old this month. From humble beginnings and periods of failure, he emerged as a Nobel Prize winner and presidential advisor, and is generally considered to be the most influential physicist of the 20th century.

Born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany, Einstein grew up in a secular, middle-class Jewish family. When he was 10, a tutor shared a children’s science book with him that would fire his imagination. According to biography.com, the book’s author “imagined riding alongside electricity that was traveling inside a telegraph wire. Einstein began to wonder what a light beam would look like if you could run alongside it at the same speed...." The book motivated Albert to write his first 'scientific paper' at age 16, titled The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields. “This question of the relative speed to the stationary observer and the observer moving with the light was a question that would dominate his thinking for the next 10 years," biography.com notes.

Einstein applied to the Eidgenössische Polytechnische Schule (Swiss Federal Polytechnic School) in Zürich, Switzerland, but failed most of the entrance exam. However, he did exceptionally well in the mathematics and physics portions, so the school offered him a spot on the condition that he first complete a special high school curriculum. He did so and then enrolled at the Zurich school, where he met his future wife, Mileva Maric, a Serbian physics student.

Like many “normal” people, Einstein had trouble finding a job after graduation. He took a series of jobs tutoring children until securing a position with the Swiss patent office, where he mastered his job quickly, leaving him time to dream and ponder his theories.

The year 1905 is often called Einstein’s “miracle year,” because he published four papers—the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy—that would alter the course of modern physics and launch his meteoric rise in the academic world. That same year, he introduced E=mc2, the equation that foreshadowed the development of nuclear power by suggesting that tiny particles of matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy.

Einstein considered the general theory of relativity, which he completed in 1915, to be his masterpiece because of its “mathematical beauty and because it accurately predicted the perihelion [the point in its orbit where it was closest to the sun] of Mercury's orbit around the sun." In the 1920s, he launched the new science of cosmology, which holds that the universe is dynamic—ever expanding and contracting. In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Einstein left Germany forever in 1932, after the new German government had passed a law barring Jews from holding any official position, including teaching at universities. He took a position at  the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, where he would spend the rest of his career studying key aspects of the theory of general relativity, including wormholes, time travel, black holes, and the creation of the universe.

In 1939, according to biography.com, Einstein and another scientist were “persuaded to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alert him of the possibility of a Nazi bomb. The letter is believed to be the key factor that motivated the United States to investigate the development of nuclear weapons. Roosevelt invited Einstein to meet with him and soon after the United States initiated the Manhattan Project” [which produced the first atomic bombs during World War II.]
Einstein further assisted the war effort by auctioning off personal manuscripts, including a handwritten copy of his 1905 paper on special relativity that sold for $6.5 million. The manuscript is now located in the Library of Congress.

In 1955, Einstein suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm but refused surgery, saying “I want to go when I want.” He died the next day at the age of 76.

But science was not done with him. His brain was removed during the autopsy—seemingly without the family’s permission—and preserved for future study by doctors of neuroscience. His brain is now located at the Princeton University Medical Center—a fitting end for the man who spent his last years at Princeton and whose brain conceived of such stunning and far-reaching ideas.

- All quotes from "Albert Einstein," The Biography Channel website, http://www.biography.com/people/albert-einstein-9285408 (accessed Mar 17, 2014).

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31 Mar 2014

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