Biography of a genius

29th April 2005 at 01:00
The German philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote: "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." By this or any other standard, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a genius. More than that, he was a genius among geniuses.

Einstein saw the universe as a puzzle to be solved, and relished the challenge. His ideas were bold, imaginative and startling. So much so that he became not only the most famous scientist of the 20th century, but an international celebrity.

He was the first son of a middle-class Jewish couple from southern Germany.

His mother encouraged in him a love of classical music and a lifelong passion for the violin. But it was his father who sparked his interest in physics by showing him, at age four or five, a magnetic compass. The young Einstein was intrigued by it, and tried to imagine the mysterious force that kept the needle pointing north.

Despite an extraordinary talent for mathematics and great curiosity about the natural world, Einstein did not enjoy formal schooling. As a boy he attended a Munich prep school, but found its regimented ways and unimaginative curriculum stifling. He later entered the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, but found the teaching methods there no more suited to his tastes.

After gaining his degree, Einstein obtained employment as a technical assistant at the patent office in Zurich. He spent his spare time studying physics, and in 1905 obtained a doctor's degree from the University of Zurich. In the same year he published three scientific papers, all of which had a great influence on the development of physics - an unparalleled achievement. One of these papers described his special theory of relativity, which revolutionised physics and introduced the most famous formula in the history of science: E = mc2.

Einstein remained at the patent office for four more years before taking up a series of academic appointments in Zurich, Prague and Berlin. In 1915 he presented his general theory of relativity, which extended the special theory to take account of gravitational effects on space and time.

One of the predictions of general relativity was that light beams would bend when travelling close to the sun. This prediction was confirmed by astronomers during the total solar eclipse of 1919. Newspaper headlines announced the triumph of Einstein's theory, and catapulted him to international superstardom. In 1921 he was awarded the Nobel prize in physics.

When Hitler rose to power, Einstein left Germany for America, where he took up an appointment at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1939 he signed a letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt warning that the Germans might be planning to build an atomic bomb. This letter influenced the American government's decision to produce an A bomb themselves, though Einstein did not take part in its development. He later condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan and campaigned for a ban on atomic weapons.

Until the end of his life, Einstein sought unsuccessfully for a unified field theory which would explain gravitation and electromagnetism in one set of equations. Most other physicists at that time were drawn instead to the study of quantum mechanics, a theory that Einstein distrusted, though it has now gained widespread acceptance. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Einstein's dream of a grand unification of physical theory.

Einstein Year is running throughout 2005 to celebrate the centenary of the publication of his papers on special relativity, the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. For more information on events, activities and teaching resources, go to

The famous formula The best-known aspect of Einstein's special theory of relativity is the formula E=mc2. This tells us the energy (E) corresponding to a mass (m) at rest. To calculate the energy, simply multiply the mass by the speed of light (c) squared.

Einstein demonstrated that mass and energy are interchangeable. When mass disappears (in nuclear fission, for example), energy is produced. The speed of light (c) is very large and the square of the speed of light is larger still. So even a small amount of mass corresponds to a large amount of energy. This is the principle which gives us nuclear power and the atomic bomb.

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