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Einstein, Albert (1879–1955)

German-American physicist, developer of the general and special theories of relativity, Nobel Prize winner, and vocal post–World War II peace and nuclear disarmament activist. Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany, on 14 March 1879. When he was fifteen years old, his family moved from Germany to escape a failed business venture. They settled in Pavia near Milan, Italy. At about the same time, Einstein, a Jew, renounced his German citizenship. In 1900, Einstein received his undergraduate degree from Zurich Polytechnic with majors in mathematics and physics. His first few years out of college were unhappy ones during which money was very tight. Einstein became a Swiss citizen in 1901 and finally found work the next year in the Swiss Patent Office. In 1905 he was awarded his PhD in physics from his undergraduate alma mater.

That same year, Einstein authored a series of pioneering articles in physics that would revolutionize the field and science as a whole. In 1908 he became an unsalaried university professor, and in 1911 he became an associate professor at the University of Zurich. From there, he enjoyed a storied academic career, holding teaching positions in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland. By the early 1920s he had become perhaps the most famous scientist in the world. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, although he earned this honor not for his theory of relativity but rather for his work on the photoelectric effect.

Einstein reapplied for German citizenship in 1914 to facilitate his work at the University of Berlin. However, the rise of the Nazi regime forced him to flee the country in 1933. He settled in the United States, where he became a professor of theoretical physics at the Princeton University Institute for Advanced Study. He retired from the post in 1945, although he would remain active in the sciences and in various international causes until his death. He was also famous for having given impetus to the Manhattan Project, which produced the world's first nuclear bomb. Using his fame and alarmed at the aggressiveness of the Axis powers, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 urging him to explore—for military purposes—the possibility of harnessing nuclear fusion to make bombs. By 1942, the Manhattan Project was in high gear.

After World War II, Einstein became active in both the Zionist cause and the incipient civil rights movement in America. In 1952, the leaders of the newly created State of Israel asked Einstein to be the nation's second president. The famed physicist declined the offer. By the early 1950s, he had come under scrutiny by right-wingers and acolytes of Senator Joseph McCarthy for his leftist political views. These included the advancement of socialist ideals, world government, and the abolition of institutionalized racism. When the civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois was accused of being a communist, an outraged Einstein stated that he would be a character witness in any potential trial. The charges against Du Bois were unceremoniously dropped.

Ironically perhaps, Einstein became an ardent proponent of nuclear disarmament after the war. He is famously quoted for having said, "I don't know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth—rocks!" Einstein joined with social activist Bertrand Russell and noted physician Albert Schweitzer to lobby hard for the abolition of nuclear tests and the immediate dismantlement of all nuclear weapons. Only a few days before his death, Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which unambiguously called for a halt to all nuclear testing and worldwide nuclear disarmament. The manifesto helped give rise to the ongoing Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Indeed, Einstein lent considerable credence to the postwar peace and nuclear disarmament movements. Einstein died in Princeton, New Jersey, on 18 April 1955.

Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.


Further Reading
Pais, Abraham. Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
 

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