Albert Einstein


Portrait of Albert EinsteinAlbert Einstein (1879-1955) is considered the most important scientist of the twentieth century. He was born to a middle-class German Jewish family. His parents were concerned that he scarcely talked until the age of three, but he was not so much a backward as a quiet child. He would build tall houses of cards and hated playing soldier. At the age of twelve he was fascinated by a geometry book. At the age of fifteen Albert quit high school, and followed his family to Italy where they had moved their failing electro technical business. First he attended a congenial Swiss school and the next year he entered the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. After working hard in the laboratory but skipping lectures, Einstein graduated in 1900 with an unexceptional record. For two years he could find only odd jobs, but he finally got a post as a patent examiner. He married a former classmate.


The year 1905 is considered as his Miraculous Year (Annus Mirabilis). Einstein wrote three fundamental papers, all in a few months. The first paper claimed that light must sometimes behave like a stream of particles with discrete energies, "quanta." The second paper offered an experimental test for the theory of heat. The third paper addressed a central puzzle for physicists of the day – the connection between electromagnetic theory and ordinary motion – and solved it using the "principle of relativity."


Einstein became an assistant professor at the University of Zurich in 1909, his first full-time physics job. In 1911 he moved on to the German University of Prague. He continued to publish important physics papers, and was beginning to meet fellow scientists, for example, at the exclusive Solvay Conference. The next year he returned to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich as Professor. In 1914 Einstein moved to Berlin, taking a research post that freed him from teaching duties. He separated from his wife and two sons. When the First World War broke out, Einstein rejected Germany's aggressive war aims, supporting the formation of a pacifist group.


After a decade of thought, Einstein completed his general theory of relativity in 1915. Overturning ancient notions of space and time, he reached a new understanding of gravity. Meanwhile he continued to sign petitions for peace. As Germany collapsed late 1918, Einstein became more involved in politics and supported a new progressive party. The next year he remarried. And his general theory of relativity received stunning confirmation from British astronomers: as Einstein had predicted, gravity bends starlight. In the popular eye he became a symbol of science and of thought at its highest.


Aided by his fame, Einstein championed the fledgling German republican government and other liberal causes. Partly as a result of this, he and his theory of relativity came under vicious attack from anti-Semites. He began travelling, attended an International Trade Union Congress in Amsterdam, and visited the United States to help raise funds for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The following year he received the Nobel Prize.


Einstein, together with other famous intellectuals (including Marie Curie, discoverer of radium), was invited to become a member of the League's Committee on Intellectual Co-operation (photo: League of Nations Photo Archive), aiming to mobilise international intelligentsia to work for peace. Believing 'that science is and always will be international,' Einstein was happy to join.


League of Nations Committee on Intellectual CooperationBut when the League was unable to deal with the French re-occupation of the Ruhr, he resigned from the Committee: 'I have become convinced that the League has neither the strength nor the sincere desire it needs to achieve its aims. As a convinced pacifist, I request that you strike my name from the list of members.' He explained: 'By its silence and its actions, the League functions as a tool of those nations which, at this point of history, happen to be the dominant powers'.


But he did not renounce the principles of the League. A year later, he said, with characteristic honesty, 'I've come to feel that I was influenced more by a mood of disillusionment than by clear thinking,' and re-joined the Committee. Its members grew very fond of him. 'He was a delightful colleague. The only points on which we had differences were due to his special kindliness. He was unwilling to condemn anyone.' Committee members were invited to give a lecture to the students of Geneva University; when it was Einstein's turn, he charmed them by playing his violin instead.


He attended meetings regularly until 1930, but then withdrew: the committee lacked 'the determination needed to make real progress towards better international relations', and, essentially a man who worked alone, he doubted his own suitability for committees. On the League of Nations' 10th anniversary in 1930 he said, 'I am rarely enthusiastic about what the League has accomplished, or not accomplished, but I am always thankful that it exists'.


Einstein contributed to the struggling new quantum theory. Meanwhile, he searched for a way to unify the theories of electromagnetism and gravity. In 1929 he announced a unified field theory, but the mathematics could not be compared with experiments; his struggle toward a useful theory had only begun. Meanwhile he argued with his colleagues, challenging their belief that quantum theory can give a complete description of phenomena.


UNESCO Albert Einstein MedalUnwilling to live in Germany under the new Nazi government, Einstein joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey in 1933. He turned away from strict pacifism, and warned world political leaders to prepare for German aggression. He also worked to rescue Jewish and other political victims of the Nazis.


In 1939 Einstein signed a letter that informed President F. D. Roosevelt of the possibility of nuclear bombs, warning that the Germans might try to build them. The next year Einstein became an American citizen.


In 1952 Einstein was asked to become the second President of the State of Israel, but declined. He was supporting many causes, such as the United Nations and world government, nuclear disarmament, and civil liberties.


The search for a true unified field theory for a more profound understanding of nature continued to fill Einstein's days. While corresponding about a new anti-war project and writing a speech for Israel, he was stricken and died.


The UNESCO Albert Einstein Gold Medal was created in 1979 to commemorate the centenary of Einstein’s birth. It is awarded by UNESCO’s Director-General to outstanding figures who have made a major contribution to science and international cooperation.





Article on Alert Einstein in Wikipedia.

The UNESCO Albert Einstein Gold Medal, designed by Max Léognany, issued in 1979.

Open letter to the General Assembly of the United Nations, October 1947.

Documents and speeches from the 1921 Nobel Peace Prize presentation.



Related subject


International Year of Physics



Stamp catalogue - birth centenary


German Democratic Republic                                 20 February 1979

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics                         16 March 1979



Stamp catalogue - 25th death anniversary


Aitutaki                                                               21 July 1980









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last revised: 1 March 2010