Ten Things You Didn't Know About Albert Einstein
The Great Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein is arguably the most famous physicist of all time. He is most known for his Theory of Relativity as well as his wild hair and forgetful manner. He was always misplacing car keys and forgetting where his house was located when he would take walks. He also became a celebrity later in life and often surrounded by crowds wherever he went. I always wanted to learn more about him so I decided to do some investigation by reading Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Here are ten surprising facts I learned about him from the book.
1. He married his first cousin.
Einstein married his first cousin Elsa in 1919 almost immediately after divorcing his first wife Mileva Marić. Einstein’s and Elsa’s mothers were sisters and their fathers were also first cousins. Apparently, this wasn’t considered unusual or scandalous at the time. Elsa took on the role of personal manager for the famous physicist and would make sure he arrived at events on time and wasn’t taken advantage of by aggressive admirers. Elsa and Albert had no children of their own, but Elsa did have two daughters, Ilse and Margot, from a previous marriage. The couple stayed married until Elsa passed away in 1936.
2. He was nominated to be the president of Israel.
With the death of the first Israeli president Chaim Weizmann in 1952 a groundswell of support arose around making Einstein the new president. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion offered Einstein the position. The gesture showed how much of a hero Einstein was to the Jewish people and he was deeply moved by it. With the prime minister having most of the power, the role of president was a prestigious, but mostly ceremonial position. However, even with these light responsibilities Einstein was still not well suited for the job. He had few managerial skills and was often lost in thought of mathematical equations. Luckily, he realized it wasn’t the best use of his talents and he declined the offer.
3. There was a race to publish the General Theory of Relativity
Einstein worked furiously for years developing his General Theory of Relativity, which expanded his Special Theory by incorporating the motion of accelerating bodies into the equations. Surprisingly, another mathematician was racing to solve the mathematical equations before Einstein. Albert was always discussing his ideas with colleagues, but this one time it almost came back to haunt him. Einstein showed off the theory as he was developing it during a series of lectures at the University of Gottingen. Noted mathematician David Hilbert was in attendance and after the lectures he decided to try to beat Einstein to solving the difficult field equations for the theory. Both men were able to arrive at mathematical equations that gave expression to the theory in late 1915. In the end it appeared that Einstein was able to publish the final version of the equations first. Hilbert gave Einstein credit for the idea and felt he was just working on the equations that gave form to the theory.
4. He had an affair with a Russian spy.
Einstein had several affairs with various women even with his cousin Elsa while he was married to his first wife, but the most shocking was with the Russian spy Margarita Konenkova in the early 1940s. She was a lawyer that spoke five languages and her job was to try to influence American scientists. She likely believed Einstein had secrets about the atomic bomb program, but he didn’t. There is no evidence that she was able to get any valuable information from him. The affair ended when Konenkova returned to Moscow in 1945.
5. He believed in God.
Einstein came to believe in a divine being that designed an elegant universe with simple laws, but not one that focused on or intervened in the lives of individuals. He would famously say that God doesn’t play dice with the universe to emphasize his argument with quantum mechanics principles.
6. He was a democratic socialist.
Einstein was always an independent thinker and never fell in line with the politics that favored authority over individuality. Up until his death he regularly commented on political affairs, often writing open letters to the New York Times. He thought the best way to avoid war was to have a governing body like the League of Nations or United Nations, but one that had real authority to enforce world policy. He also thought democracy by itself would lead to large disparities in wealth hence his socialist leanings. Individuality and freedom of thought were most important to him. He was also a pacifist, but his views on this changed as the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s.
7. He spent the last years of his life searching in vain for a unified field theory.
Einstein believed that gravitational and electro-magnetic forces were manifestations of the same field. He resided at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton during the last twenty years of his life and would walk to his office every day to work on his unified field equations. However, he became bogged down in the mathematics with no real guiding principle or insight, like he had with relativity. Hence, he never made any real headway toward an all-encompassing theory that would capture all the forces in the universe. He was probably best known during this time for his gentle, grandfatherly nature and helping neighborhood kids with their difficult math problems.
8. He won his Nobel prize for the Photoelectric Effect and not the Theory of Relativity.
Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was validated in 1919 during a total eclipse when his equations were shown to accurately predict the bending of light from distant starts as they passed near the sun. However, it was still too controversial at the time for the Nobel committee members to agree to an award. The committee thought he needed to be recognized for his tremendous accomplishments, so they decided to give him the award in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect which showed that light is both a particle and a wave.
9. He contributed little to the atomic bomb program
Einstein’s most significant contribution to the American atomic bomb program was helping draft the famous letter to Franklin Roosevelt that alerted the president to the threat posed by the secret German atomic bomb program. Other than this note he had almost nothing to do with the development of the bomb or the Manhattan project due to his security clearance problems.
10. He never completely accepted quantum mechanics.
This opinion was captured by his famous quote that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Einstein thought that quantum mechanics was correct, but incomplete. He believed there existed a causality of events and that there was an underlying reality to the universe that is independent of the observer. He couldn’t accept that an energized atom could emit energy at any time and in any direction or that observing the event caused the result to change. Einstein would routinely get into arguments over this topic with Neils Bohr, the discoverer of the quantum model of the atom and the leader of the quantum theory movement. Later in life Einstein would humorously ask if a mouse observes does the universe change.
I never knew much about Einstein as a person, but after reading about him I came to like and appreciate him quite a bit. He was obviously a genius, but he was also a gentle soul that took on a grandfatherly role to those around him. He also provided well-thought out commentary about various political issues of the day. He wasn’t perfect, but he is one of the true giants in the history of physics.