Einstein: A Unit Study

What do you do if you are a world-renowned scientist and your home country changes overnight into something or someplace to which you can never return? On October 17, 1933, Albert Einstein arrived in the United States shortly after the Nazi German government under Adolph Hitler came into power.

Einstein’s Beginnings

Albert Einstein was born March 14, 1879, in Ulm, the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Munich where his father and uncle founded a company that manufactured and sold direct current (DC) electrical equipment. When a young child Albert Einstein attended Catholic elementary school and later was moved to what was then called the Luitpold Gymnasium, a secondary school now called Albert Einstein Gymnasium, in Munich.

Einstein the Professor

After the failure of the family business, Einstein left Germany to join his family in Italy in 1894. He attempted to enter the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, but failed to meet the required standards for entrance, and attended the Aargua Cantonal School in Aarau, Switzerland instead. Upon completion of his secondary education, he ended up graduating from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic with a teaching diploma in mathematics and physics.

But he was unable to obtain a teaching position.  So he became an assistant patent examiner in the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Switzerland. By April 1905 Einstein was awarded his Ph.D., completing his thesis in which he estimated Avagadro’s constant, the number of atoms in one mole of a substance. That same year he also published four other papers that brought him out of relative obscurity and into the eye of the academic world.

By 1908, recognized as a leading figure in physics, he was awarded a position lecturing at the University of Bern.   A year later he resigned both his position as a patent investigator and a lecturer to accept a professorship of theoretical physics at the University of Zurich.  Over the next ten years Einstein held various teaching positions, becoming the president of the German Physical Society in 1916.

Einstein’s Revolution

But oddly enough, it was a solar eclipse that brought him world fame when on May 29, 1918, Sir Arthur Eddington claimed to confirm Einstein’s prediction based on the theory of relativity that light from another star would be bent by the gravity of the sun. Headlines read, “Revolution in Science — New Theory of the Universe — Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.”  Later accounts questioned the accuracy of the measurements used to support Einstein’s theory.

Einstein the American

In 1932, Dr. Einstein was offered and accepted a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, intending to live in the Untied States half of the year.  But during a visit to the United States in 1933 the Nazis party took control in Germany.  Laws were passed that forbid Jews from many of the rights other Germans enjoyed — including holding teaching positions at universities.  Einstein decided not to return, and shortly thereafter renounced his German citizenship.  He made the United States his permanent residence, receiving citizenship in 1940.

Einstein, along with Edward Teller and others, feared that Germany would be the first to build an atomic bomb, and that Hitler would not be hesitate to use the weapon.  Therefore he co-wrote a letter to President Roosevelt suggesting these facts.  His meetings with Roosevelt are credited with convincing the president to begin the project which eventually became known as the Manhattan Project.

On April 17th, 1955, after refusing surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm Albert Einstein died at the age of 76.

Einstein’s Achievements

Einstein’s groundbreaking achievements were obtained early in his career with the four scientific papers released in 1905.  These papers changed the way scientists looked upon the world around them.

  • Photoelectric effect.  Electrons are emitted from substances when they absorb light energy.  Einstein theorized that only fixed packages of energy are exchanged — a premise that led to the field of quantum mechanics.  It was for this paper that he won his Nobel prize.
  • Brownian motion.  Einstein provided the mathematical model that explained how collisions between particles take place, leading to atomic theory.
  • Theory of special relativity.  Titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” provided empirical evidence that the speed of light is independent of the motion of the observer — a constant that holds for both electrodynamics (Maxwell’s equations) and the laws of mechanics.
  • Equivalence of matter and energy.  The mass of an object is a measure of its energy content.  The famous equation E=mc^2 explained this relationship between mass and energy, and formed the basis of nuclear science.

Einstein contributed much more to the field of physics beyond these four theories.  However, these were by far the most revolutionary theories of the time and arguably the most revolutionary theories ever. They have shaped the scientific world for the decades since and will continue to shape them into the future.

Further Investigation

Biography: Albert Einstein
Interesting biography written in an easy-to-read style.

Dr. Albert Einstein Dies in Sleep at 76
Obituary from the NYTimes.

The Nazis and WWII
A look at the conflict from Einstein’s unique point of view.

Einstein-Roosevelt Letter
Copy of the letter Einstein sent to President Roosevelt regarding a nuclear bomb.

Newton Beats Einstein
Interesting article from the British Royal Society that looks at the contributions of Newton and Einstein and asks the question “Where are the Einsteins and Newtons of the future going to come from?”

What Became of Albert Einstein’s Brain?
Interesting write-up at Neuroscience for Kids.


That’s My Theory
Interactive from PBS where you decide which is the real Einstein.

Fly By a House at Near the Speed of Light
Interactive demonstration of the theory of relativity.

NASA’s Guide to Near-Light-Speed Travel
Video explanations for kids.

Make Einstein’s Toy
Make a version of a toy Einstein was given for his 76th birthday that demonstrates the theory of relativity.

Think Like Einstein
Do you have what it takes?  Enjoy this interactive from Nova and find out!

A Brief History of the Laser
One of Einstein’s legacies.

Einstein’s Zurich Notebook
Someone once said something to the effect that the only difference between a scientist and someone who dabbles in science is the notebook.  Be inspired!

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein: Young Thinker by Marie Hammontree
One of the Childhood of Famous Americans series for younger readers.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity by Robert Cwiklik
A favorite biography.

Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein
For those with a special interest, the original in the public domain.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Cute and informative coloring page for notebook (Einstein on pg. 7).

Albert Einstein Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

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