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The Renaissance produced a brilliant thinker in the person of Isaac Newton and for two hundred years after his mind-boggling description of astronomy and physics his work formed the basis for various scientific theories with regards to physics. Newton was one of the key pioneers in the transition from astrology to astronomy and he formulated scientific laws that assisted scientists and ordinary people to understand the intricacies of planetary motions and how objects behaved in relation in the context of gravitational pull. However, a couple of centuries later, an unlikely game changer emerged and changed the way people perceived astrophysics. Einstein challenged the status quo and revealed gaps in Newtonian physics. Einstein changed the world. He influenced generations of scientists and space explorers. In the present time he is considered as one of the most popular and beloved scientists who ever lived.
His parents Hermann Einstein and Pauline Koch Einstein welcomed a healthy baby boy on March 14, 1879. Baby Einstein was born under the auspices of the kingdom of Wurttemberg in the German Empire.1 Both his parents were Jewish. His early struggle with a speech impediment and his rebellion against authorities compelled many people to conclude that he was a slow learner and that he would amount to nothing. Maja Einstein, his younger sister, remarked that Albert Einstein did not learn how to talk until he was more than two years old and this was a major source of concern for their parents. She said that his older brother had such a difficulty with language and those around him feared that he may never be as successful as his father.2
His slow development when it comes to language was exacerbated by his cheeky rebelliousness.3 One schoolmaster sent him packing and another schoolmaster warned him that he would never succeed in life.4 But they were all wrong because underneath the struggles, Einstein had a strong foundation in science, thanks in part to his father and relatives who inspired him and influenced him to become a scientist.
His father was an engineer and when Einstein was five years old his father and uncle founded an electrical manufacturing firm.5 It was also at this time when his father gave him a compass and when he looked into the compass, he realized that there must be an invisible power out there and the reason why his compass needle pointed North.6 Another defining moment in his life occurred when he was ten years old. A visiting medical student named “Max Talmud introduced him to Euclid’s book entitled Elements.”7 Later on Einstein referred to this masterpiece as “the holy little geometry book.”8
Although he had a brilliant mind, he had trouble finishing his studies. He finally graduated in 1900 and earned a degree in physics. After graduation he cannot find a job at the university and decided to work at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland in 1902. He married Mileva Maric in 1903. It is interesting to note that while working in the patent office Einstein was able to publish extraordinary scientific papers. In one of the most groundbreaking paper he published, he discussed the equivalence of mass and energy and produced an equation that is forever associated to his name.
He became an international figure in 1919 when a team of British astronomers led by Arthur Eddington was able to confirm one of his theories.9 The said astronomers were able to observe the “gravitational deflection of starlight by the Sun during an eclipse and this discovery proved Einstein’s theory about gravity and light.”10 As a result Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics.
His greatest achievements were the formulation of the Theory of Relativity and to provide the solution to what he perceived as gaps to Newtonian physics. Thus, it is important to understand Newton’s worldview and its significance to the scientific community in the modern era to correctly appreciate what Einstein did to revolutionize the world of physics.
Newtonian physics is anchored on three absolutes. First, Newton believed that time is constant in every part of the universe.11 Second, he believed that an object takes up the same amount of space no matter where it is located in the universe.12 Finally, Newton asserted that the mass of the object remains constant.13 Based on these absolutes Newton theorized that gravity is the force of attraction between objects and that the gravitational pull between objects was dependent on mass and distance.14 At that time these ideas were revolutionary because it enabled scientists to understand scientific principles that in turn allowed them to develop engines, rockets, weapons, etc. For example, the Wright brothers realized that in order for the airplane to fly it needed enough force to counteract the effect of gravity. At the same time it enabled astronomers to understand planetary motions.
Newtonian physics was very helpful when objects were observed from earth. But when astronomers shifted their gaze to outer space they found gaps in Newtonian physics as demonstrated by the experiments conducted by British astronomer Arthur Eddington. Starlight was deflected by the Sun and surely there must be another explanation for this phenomenon. Einstein offered an explanation and provided another explanation for the action of gravitation force. He said, “Gravity is the manifestation of spacetime curvature.”15 In other words, Einstein was able to prove that gravity is not only the result of the mass of the object but it is also affected by the energy and momentum of the object. This realization compelled Einstein to assert that a smaller object is not attracted to a bigger object because of gravity but due to the fact that spacetime curves in response to an object in its path.16In other words a massive object can warp spacetime and smaller objects in the vicinity are affected by the effect of this change and as a result its relation to the warping of spacetime influences its behavior.17 Einstein’s discovery transformed the way astrophysicists understand interplanetary motion and the behavior of objects in space.
Death and Legacy
A decade before his death Einstein became controversial because of his actions in relation to Nazi Germany and the fate of the Jewish people. Together with Jewish refugees he persuaded President Roosevelt to develop atomic bombs before Hitler did. This work led to the establishment of the Manhattan project and ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was deeply saddened by the turn of events, especially when he learned of the horrific effect of the atomic bombs on the two Japanese cities that were obliterated in 1945. Einstein made it known that he did not participate in the development of the atomic bomb and regretted the day he wrote the letter to Roosevelt. On the day he died, he suffered from internal bleeding due to aneurysm. He died in 1955 but he already cemented his legacy as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.
Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Kusky, Timothy. Encyclopedia of Earth and Space Science. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2010.
Lambourne, Robert. Relativity, Gravitation and Cosmology. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
McGlinn, William. Introduction to Relativity. MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
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Parker, Katie. The Theory of Relativity. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2010.
1 Timothy Kusky, Encyclopedia of Earth and Space Science (New York: Facts on File, Inc.,2010), p.241.
2 Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2007), p.9.
3 Ibid., p.9.
5 Kusky, p.241.
8 Ibid., p.242.
9 Ibid., p.243.
11 Katie Parker, The Theory of Relativity (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2010), p.22.
14 William McGlinn, Introduction to Relativity (MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), p.78.
15 Robert Lambourne, Relativity, Gravitation and Cosmology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.9.