Princeton, New Jersey: Physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), seated in book-filled office. (Getty Images)
Princeton, New Jersey: Physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), seated in book-filled office. (Getty Images)
By Sean Cunningham / March 13, 2019 5:00 am

Hear the words “Albert Einstein” and instantly you envision him: An old man with crazy hair, likely smiling or even sticking out his tongue. He is both the name and the very face of genius. It’s remarkable for a couple of reasons:

-Mathematicians/scientists tend not be recognized by the general public. (Quick, name a single living physicist.)

-While everyone knows the name “Einstein,” far fewer know what he actually accomplished, much less can begin to explain it. (By comparison, we hear “Edison” and think “light bulb.”)

Beyond this, we see Einstein as a cuddly senior citizen—sort of a Santa Claus with a gift for mathematics. Yet Einstein started producing the papers that changed our understanding of the world in his 20s (while still having to make a living as a patent clerk). By his 40s, he had not only produced an extraordinary body of work but been globally recognized for doing so. 

At which point Einstein’s scientific progress stalled for decades. He also suffered the frustration of being forever linked with the atomic bomb project, even though he was shut out of the actual work and came to view the entire effort as a mistake. While he remained a celebrated and downright beloved figure in the world at large, in the parts of the scientific community he increasingly seemed less a visionary blazing a new trail than a deeply stubborn man heading nowhere. 

This is how even Einstein came to discover some answers remain just out of reach.

A Barrage of Youthful Brilliance

When 85-year-old Rainer Weiss won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish), he estimated 1,000 additional people deserved credit: “It’s a dedicated effort that’s been going on for—I hate to tell you—it’s as long as 40 years, of people thinking about this, trying to make a detection and sometimes failing in the early days, then slowly but surely getting the technology together to do it.”  

This is the usual path of science: gradual and heavily collaborative. Making it all the more extraordinary that in 1905 alone Albert Einstein—born in Ulm, Germany on March 14, 1879—published five papers including his theory of special relativity and an explanation of the photoelectric effect. Four of the papers came out in just four months. He was still only 26. This was the beginning of the insights that continue to make technological advances possible today, ranging from GPS to solar cells. And, again, this was all Einstein’s side hustle, since he was making a living as a patent clerk.

The advances didn’t occur in a total void. Einstein built on the work of earlier giants, such as the physicist Max Planck. At minimum, Einstein used then wife Mileva Maric as a sounding board—some argue this mathematician was a genuine collaborator. He even found an essential bit of inspiration from a conversation with a fellow patent clerk (who was also a physicist), Michele Besso. But the fact remains that this was an extremely young genius, operating in obscurity and relative isolation, generating an astounding volume of breakthrough insights with absurd speed. 

Einstein finally gave up being a patent clerk in 1909. In 1915, he completed his general theory of relativity. (Relativity is, to put it mildly, a complex concept, but let’s say Einstein explained the relationship between space, time, and gravity, with radical implications for how the universe operates.)

And then something even more miraculous happened: Einstein got famous.

Triumphant Proof

Einstein discovered a way to observe the effect of gravity on light. He calculated the degree the stars near the edge of the sun would appear to be out of place during a solar eclipse. Arthur Eddington saw Einstein’s assertion. This British astronomer was willing to monitor the May 29, 1919 solar eclipse. He arranged to have one observation team sent to Sobral, Brazil and a second to the west African island of Príncipe.

In September, Einstein received a telegram confirming his calculations were correct.

In November, the headlines started. They included “REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE: New Theory of the Universe. Newtonian Ideas Overthrown” in the Times of London and “Lights All Askew In The Heavens/Men Of Science More Or Less Agog Over Results Of Eclipse Observations/Einstein Theory Triumphs” in the New York Times. The adulation was so intense that Einstein wrote to a friend in 1920: “I feel like a graven image.”

In 1922, 43-year-old Einstein received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Few, if any, practitioners of the sciences have made insights as revolutionary as Einstein. None have seen the world grasp the importance of their work and celebrate it globally with such speed. With the foresight to relocate to the United States as Hitler came to power, there seemed no limits to Einstein’s continued accomplishments.

Making the remaining decades of his life oddly humbling, even as his fame and reputation only continued to grow.

Suddenly Stuck 

“People get stuck as they get older,” a 29-year-old Steve Jobs proclaimed. It would be simplistic to say this happened to Einstein. Yet the fact remains when he died on April 18, 1955 in Princeton at age 76, Einstein still hadn’t accomplished his greatest ambition, the unified field theory that would explain all of nature’s forces. 

“Einstein was single-minded, and you can see the good and the bad in that,” said University of Chicago cosmologist Michael S. Turner. “He was single-minded in reconciling general relativity with Newton’s theory of gravity, and he hit a home run. But he was also single-minded about finding a unified field theory, and from 1920 on, his career was that of a mere mortal.”

Why did Einstein fall short? The major reason appears to be that Einstein believed that he only had to reckon with gravity and electromagnetism. Physicists have since learned there is a force binding together atomic nuclei and another governing radioactive decay. He was attempting to solve an equation without having all the numbers. 

Beyond this, Einstein may have begun to believe his own press clippings a little. While Aleksandr Friedmann pointed out a mistake in Einstein’s reasoning in 1922, Einstein chose to ignore it until 1929, when the astronomer Edwin Hubble confirmed the universe is expanding. Likewise, Einstein’s research paved the way for the theory of quantum mechanics, but he dismissed the field and declared, “God does not play dice with the universe.” (It should be noted “God” meant purely an organizing principle to the universe, not any type of deity—Einstein was also dismissive of religion, terming the Bible “a collection of honourable, but still primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”) Yet while Einstein could mock quantum mechanics, he couldn’t disprove it.

Giovanni Amelino-Camelia, a University of Rome physicist, said the world viewed Einstein as the genius whose instincts could solve any problems (which pretty much was the case with those papers he cranked out in his youth) and Einstein himself became trapped by that image: “It’s a success which has really been a mixed blessing for theoretical physics. If we didn’t have that one example, we would have no examples. And that would teach people how science is really done.”

Einstein himself felt the frustration, writing, “I have locked myself into quite hopeless scientific problems.”

The “triumph” he was linked with later in life may have disheartened him even more.

A Race He Wouldn’t Have Run

Einstein will forever be associated with the atomic bomb. After all, his insights made it possible. Yet it was something he never envisioned. When the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilárd came to see Einstein in 1939 and discussed producing an explosive chain reaction in uranium, a stunned Einstein announced: “I never thought of that!”

Einstein was an avowed pacifist. Nazi Germany, however, was monstrous enough he felt compelled to leave the sidelines. So he helped write and signed a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It noted: “In the course of the last four months it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium‐like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.”

Thanks largely to Einstein’s lobbying, the U.S. took on the challenge of building an atomic bomb. Einstein, however, did not directly contribute—due to his pacifism and other political views, he was deemed a security risk. Einstein would later be dismissive of his role: “My participation in the production of the atom bomb consisted in a single act: I signed a letter to President Roosevelt.”

Einstein came to wish he hadn’t offered even that bit of assistance. Germany, of course, did not build an atomic bomb. Nor did the U.S. need to use one to make Germany surrender. A weapon of unprecedented power had been unleashed on the world. At least in Einstein’s eyes, it never needed to have been made: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.”

Einstein’s life contained hardships on a personal as well as a professional level. After his death, the world discovered he apparently put his first child up for adoption and never saw her again. He had at least some estrangement from his two sons, one of who was schizophrenic. He tended to make bad investments, squandering the money he won. His first marriage ended in divorce and he was unfaithful to his second wife, who died 18 years before he did. 

Posters of Einstein adorn many a dorm wall. They invariably carry lighthearted/inspiring quotes: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” (It should be noted that Einstein apparently did not say this.) We should also remember two other statements of his, which are insightful but decidedly less optimistic:

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” 

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”