Perseverance and Brilliance: Albert Einstein’s Extraordinary Theory

Colorized photograph of Albert Einstein ǀ Courtesy of DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Obtaining a quality education is essential to success towards a desired career. With this quality comes the opportunity for people to express themselves and to show originality. Although he was certainly a genius in his field, Albert Einstein was never able to fully grasp this opportunity, an absolute privilege of higher education that too many students today take for granted. Despite being incredibly talented in the field of physics, the final years of his undergraduate education were marked with mediocre academic performance in subjects that simply did not pique his interest.1 What followed was a series of obstacles Einstein had to overcome, tests that proved that his determination was just as remarkable as his intelligence.

Born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, a young Albert Einstein was prodigiously inclined to learning about science and mathematics. While his parents worked on their family-owned electrical engineering firm, Einstein worked on improving his natural talent in mathematics and sciences.2 At the young age of twelve, he had already mastered algebra and geometry, and, at fifteen, he was studying in Munich to pursue a career in theoretical physics. After withdrawing from school in Munich and spending a year of relaxation in Italy, Einstein was struck with the drive to complete his collegiate work at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.3 It was here, in his last year of study, that Einstein encountered his first obstacle.

By the late 1800s, Albert Einstein found himself struggling to settle into the college experience. He rarely attended his classes, hardly listened to the professors, and was overall disinterested in the lecture-style of learning. On one occasion, one of his professors told him, “You are a very clever boy… But you have one great fault: you’ll never let yourself be told anything.”4 Einstein preferred to learn on his own, relying on his friend’s, Marcel Grossmann’s, notes and the writings of prominent physicists James Clerk Maxwell and Ernst Mach to understand the content of his lectures.5 At the end of his studies at the Federal Institute of Technology, Einstein ultimately wrote a mundane and lackluster final essay, due in part to his supervisor’s wrongdoing, as it was he who prevented Einstein from truly letting his originality and passion shine. Two years later, the University of Zurich even went so far as to reject Einstein’s doctoral thesis for attempting to contradict the works of popular physicist Ludwig Boltzmann.6 Resenting the people who were supposed to launch his career, Albert Einstein had entered the ever-changing world of science as an ordinary, undistinguished graduate. However, with the power of his mind and the capacity of his endurance, he would leave this world as an extraordinary scientist.

Although he had successfully received his diploma from the Federal Institute of Technology in 1900, Einstein was unable to find a steady job as a consequence of his lackluster academic performance. Growing more and more worried about supporting his girlfriend and colleague, Mileva Maric, and their newborn daughter, Leiserl, Einstein was forced to take temporary jobs as a tutor and a substitute teacher. This was not to last, however, and, after two long years of receiving unsteady paychecks, Einstein eventually landed a job working at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, working as an “Expert III Class.”7 Although this job provided a stable income and a chance of prominence in the scientific community, Einstein would have to break many more barriers in order to receive his desired recognition.

A 1912 photograph of Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric | Courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1905, Albert Einstein published articles promoting a “special theory of relativity.” Without access to a lab at the patent office, the brilliant college graduate had conceptualized entire scenarios of physics in his head. One such scenario had to prove, in contradiction to theories proposed by legendary scientist Isaac Newton, that speed was not cumulative. For example, the speed of light is approximately 299,792 kilometers per second. If a train travelling at a high speed passes with its light on, is the light from the train travelling even faster than 299,792 kilometers per second? The simple answer, according to Einstein, would be no. However, like a true genius, Einstein had taken this specific scenario a step further. If a person at the station sees another person in a very fast-moving train, theoretically speaking, the person on the train will seem to age slower and the train itself will appear shorter in length than it actually is.8 Einstein’s beliefs implied that time, or the person’s age, and space, or the size of the train, could be warped.

Although receiving fifteen minutes of fame for determining that the speed of light is the same in any frame of movement and that space and time are connected, the first of Einstein’s papers did not fully garner him the praise that he deserved. The major criticism was yet another obstacle: Newtonian gravity was not solved based on Einstein’s principles. According to Newton, if two objects are near each other, the force of gravity would occur effective immediately. But how, Einstein wondered, could this be true if no effect is faster than the speed of light? Furthermore, these objects don’t have brains or physical connections holding them together. So, how do these two objects “know” how to interact?9 These were questions that needed to be expanded, problems that had to be solved. These were the problems that made Einstein’s theory of relativity generalized.

In 1907, Albert Einstein conjured up an idea that he would later call “the happiest thought of his life.” He came up with the “equivalence principle,” claiming that the effects of gravity are the same as the effects of acceleration. To prove this, he had imagined a man on Earth sitting in a closed room. If the man can’t see anything outside of the space, he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the force of gravity on Earth and the acceleration of the room in space at 1 g, a unit of acceleration equal to about 9.8 m/s^2. With this “equivalence principle,” Einstein claimed that the effects of gravity and acceleration not only feel the same, but are the same.10 In essence, the perception of gravity was not really the force between two objects, but rather the effect of acceleration of very large objects as they bend space and warp time.

Lattice analogy of the deformation of spacetime caused by a planetary mass, November 20th, 2015 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Over the next several years, Einstein worked to perfect his generalization of the theory of relativity. Incorporating his natural childhood talent in mathematics, he put countless hours into polishing complex equations and imagining various scenarios to explain the existence and nature of the universe. However, Albert Einstein was soon faced with obstacles that were not as easy to overcome as the incorporation of Newtonian gravity. As early as Einstein’s drafting stages, a war beyond the scale of any in existence was imminent. German-born scientists living all over Europe were in support of their country’s efforts to instigate a war that Einstein, a proclaimed pacifist, strongly objected to. Although still proud to be German, he had believed that patriotism should never be mixed with violence, an ideology that quickly left the barely-established expert at the Swiss patent office socially ostracized.11 Despite being under the accusation of abandoning his country’s purpose, Einstein continued to work on his rapidly-progressing theory in isolation. While Einstein had faced a great number of obstacles throughout his life, none proved to be as heavy to overcome as abandoning his position at the patent office.

Although he had obtained a doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1906, Einstein had quit the patent office to become a professor at a university, a career that, even for him, was difficult to obtain. Jumping from post to post, Einstein had previously worked as an unpaid lecturer at Bern University in 1908, a full-time professor at the University of Zurich in 1909, and finally as a full-time professor at the University of Prague and the Federal Institute of Technology in subsequent years.12 He worked tirelessly to provide for his family, but Einstein’s busy schedule at these institutions often conflicted with his developing theory.

Day by day, month by month, and year by year, Mileva Maric and her children had grown increasingly more exhausted from moving from city to city for her now-husband’s slowly accumulating success. He was now a semi-successful professor and lecturer; she was a child-bearer who never had the opportunity to earn a doctorate simply because she failed to pass an exam. Maric had grown jealous of Einstein, tortured by the fact that he was working to improve himself in what was also her dream of success. Generalizing the entire subject of physics is certainly a long and arduous process, even for someone so smart and passionate at his work. As a result, Einstein had grown emotionally detached in his marriage, had several affairs, and for the next eight years became more and more frustrated in a subject that seemed like a bottomless pit of knowledge.13 Just as all hope seemed lost, Einstein discovered another breakthrough. It wasn’t an equation, it wasn’t another scenario, nor was it even a game-changing idea like the equivalence principle; he found Elsa Lowenthal.

By 1912, Albert Einstein had started a romantic relationship with Elsa. As they were first cousins, their love affair was widely considered taboo. What would his colleagues think of him? Would he continue to be ostracized for love as well as his proclamation for peace during World War I? In the public eye, however, their relationship, or his pacifism, ultimately did not matter to his admirers in the years to come.14 In 1915, Albert Einstein published his first articles on general relativity, to mixed reviews. He was strongly criticized for using non-Euclidean geometry to prove that space actually curved around very large objects. Some scientists, especially Newtonian physicists, believed that these characteristics of general relativity were downright impossible. For another four years, scientists continued to doubt him, but Einstein was more than determined to prove that he was correct. In 1919, he had a major opportunity, and with his perseverance, he seized it.

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna, January 1st, 1921 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

A rare total solar eclipse was steadily approaching Germany, which was, in the minds of Berlin’s civilians, generally considered an incredible sight. Einstein had also considered the eclipse as an event to behold, but for a much different reason: he wanted to prove that if large objects bent space, the sun would do the same. As a result, the light reflected from the stars in the sky is also bent. Newtonian physicists, civilians, and Einstein himself were all anxious to directly observe such an incredible sight. All in attendance were in doubt of his beautiful theory, but as the moon had completely blocked the sun, their doubt turned to astonishment. The stars in the sky failed to appear in the same positions as seen at night; the positions of the stars during the eclipse were not only very different, but appeared at the precise locations that the brilliant scientist had earlier predicted. Einstein was correct.15

The solar eclipse of 1919 had transformed Albert Einstein into an overnight sensation. His theory quickly made the front page of many newspapers in several countries across Europe. In Germany, he was hailed as a national treasure, and his name along with the word “relativity” had been spoken in countless European households. Two years later, at the age of forty-two, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to this realm of science, a well-deserved award after a lifetime’s worth of hard work, perseverance, and tests of his intelligence.16 Today, he remains one of the smartest, most prominent, and most popular scientists in human history.

  1. Pedro G. Ferreira, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity (New York: Houghton Mufflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014), 2.
  2. Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, s. v. “Einstein, Albert (1879-1955).”
  3. Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008, s. v. “Einstein, Albert.”
  4. Pedro G. Ferreira, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity (New York: Houghton Mufflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014), 2.
  5. Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, s. v. “Einstein, Albert (1879-1955).”
  6. Pedro G. Ferreira, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity (New York: Houghton Mufflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014), 2.
  7. Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, s. v. “Einstein, Albert (1879-1955).”
  8. Pedro G. Ferreira, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity (New York: Houghton Mufflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014), 6.
  9. Pedro G. Ferreira, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity (New York: Houghton Mufflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014), 9.
  10. Jeffrey O. Bennett, What Is Relativity? An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 87-113.
  11. Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008, s. v. “Einstein, Albert.”
  12. Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, s. v. “Einstein, Albert (1879-1955).”
  13. Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, s. v. “Einstein, Albert (1879-1955).”
  14. >Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, s. v. “Einstein, Albert (1879-1955).”
  15. Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, s. v. “Einstein, Albert (1879-1955).”
  16. Science in the Early Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia s. v. “Nobel Prize.”
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13 Comments

  • I liked that this article included the fact that Einstein was considered a mediocre student because he simply wouldn’t listen to advice and liked to learn things by himself and did not care for subjects that did not matter to him. I also never knew about Einstein’s marriage and how devoted he was to it. Great and very informative article!

  • Albert Einstein is one of those figures in history that you know about but that you really don’t know much about him other than what he has done. This article does a really good job of showing more of the man that Einstein was which I found to be rather fascinating. Einstein is no doubt an incredible genius and I thought that is was rather reassuring that even Einstein didn’t get good grades and still accomplished so much. It makes me feel like anyone and everyone has potential.

  • In addition to Albert Einstein’s accomplishments, as a scientist and his mathematician, is impressive how dedicated he was as an academic student. I found it quite remarkable that the writer was able to not only capture Many of Albert Einstein’s successes or accomplishments in a short article, but Halle also expounded upon his personal life, specifically his marriage and affairs. It was interesting to read that Albert Einstein was so dedicated to his marriage that he was willing to struggle through various employment opportunities from place to place, merely to provide for his family. Unfortunately, it seems as though his first marriage did not end well, but he eventually did find love – – and this seemed to be the source of his motivation.

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