Einstein biography, 1879 to 1905
(Click on numbers to see related presentation slides)


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Hermann Einstein of Ulm in the kingdom of Wurttemberg, now Germany, married Pauline Koch on August 8, 1876 in a synagogue in Cannstatt.


Wurttemberg joined the German empire in 1871




On Friday, March 14, 1879 their first child was born. The birth certificate reads:

“No. 224, Ulm, March 15, 1879. Today, the merchant Hermann Einstein, residing in Ulm, Bahnhofstrasse 135, of the Israelitic faith, personally known, appeared before the undersigned registrar, and stated that a child of the male sex, who has received the name Albert, was born in Ulm, in his residence, to his wife Pauline Einstein, nee Koch, of the Israelitic faith, on March 14 of the year 1879, at 11:30 a.m. Read, confirmed, and signed: Hermann Einstein. The Registrar Hartman.”


In 1944, the home on Bahnhofstrasse was bombed. The birth certificate is still in the Ulm archives.


Albert Einstein had no middle name!!


His sister, Maria, was born in 1881. Albert called her Maja and was probably closer to her than to any other human being.


The family was not religious. Both parents were raised that way. Hermann was proud of the fact that Jewish rites were not practiced in his home.


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Maja’s biography of Albert in 1924 is the best source about his early years.


He was born with a big head. I guess head size does matter!! He did not speak for a long time. Between 2 and 3 he began to speak in whole sentences. He was a quiet child, preferring to play by himself. He had tantrums and occasionally threw things at his sister. This ceased at age 7.


Albert studied violin between 6 and 13, and later learned to improvise on piano. Bach and Mozart were among his favorite composers.


In 1880 the family moved to Munich to begin a new business with Hermann’s brother Jakob.




At 5 he received instruction at home. This came to an abrupt end when he had a tantrum and threw a chair at his teacher (probably frustration at being taught in a way he did not like). At 6 he entered public school, the Volksschule. “He was a reliable, persistent and slow-working pupil who solved his mathematical problems with self-assurance though not without computational errors.” (Maja) “He did very well.”


In August 1886, Pauline wrote to her mother: “Yesterday Albert received his grades, he was again number one. His report card was brilliant.” (Pais p.37)




At age 4 or 5, Albert was shown a compass by his father. This excited him very much. In later life, he said of this event: “I had experienced a miracle.” Uncle Jakob gave him mathematical problems. After he solved them, “the boy experienced a deep feeling of happiness.” (Maja) At age twelve, he experienced his second miracle, Euclidean geometry. From 12 to 16 he studied differential and integral calculus by himself.


Albert remained quiet and aloof from his classmates. Building a house of cards was a favorite past-time.




In 1888 he entered the Gymnasium and stayed until age 15. In each year he earned either the highest or next highest marks in mathematics and in Latin. He disliked school, authoritarian teachers, servile students, rote learning. He also disliked sports. He made few friends.

From 10 to 15, Albert was influenced by Max Talmud, a medical student. Every Thursday he came to dinner at the Einstein’s. He gave Albert popular books on science and, later, the writings of Kant. The two spent hours discussing science and philosophy. Albert did not read light literature, play with boys his age, and his only diversion was music.




Albert was taught Judaism at home. He went through an intense religious phase when he was 11 years old. He composed songs in honor of God. This ended a year later when he was exposed to science. He did not become bar mitzvah. He never mastered Hebrew.


Hermann and Jakob’s business slowed and they moved to Milan Italy in 1894, and then to Pavia in 1895. Albert stayed behind to finish school.

Alone in Munich Albert was depressed and nervous. The prospect of military service worried him. He went to Italy to join his parents. He told them he would prepare for admission at the ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) in Zurich and that he planned to give up German citizenship. He became happier and more communicative. In October 1895 he went to Zurich but failed the entrance exam. He did well in math and science but not in political and literary history, French, or essay writing. With a high school diploma, the Matura, he could simply enter the ETH.


On October 29, 1896 he became a student at the ETH having passed the Matura exam with grades: (6 is max)

                German                                   5

                Italian                                      5

                history                                     6

                geography                               4

                algebra                                    6

                geometry                                 6

                descriptive geometry              6

                physics                                    6

                chemistry                                        5

                natural history                         5

                drawing (art)                           4

                drawing (technical)                4


His father’s business failed in 1896, and again two years later. Not being able to help, troubled Albert. When his father again got work, the melancholy passed.


His friendships with Marcel Grossman and Michele Besso began in his student days. At the ETH, Albert spent most of his time in the physical laboratory, “fascinated by direct contact with observation.” (Pais 44). His professor, Heinrich Weber, did not encourage him and did not permit him to conduct an experiment on the earth’s movement against the aether. Albert enjoyed Hermann Minkowski as a teacher. However, he relied far more on self-study. He studied Lorentz, Boltzmann and Darwin. Grossman shared his lecture notes with Einstein.


His final grades at the ETH were:

                theoretical physics                  5

                experimental physics              5

                astronomy                               5

                theory of functions                 5.5

                essay on heat conductivity     4.5

This qualified him as a Fachlehrer together with three other students in 1900 (he scored fourth out of five students). The other three became assistants at the ETH but Albert did not and was jobless. He blamed Weber for not getting an assistantship. One other student, Mileva Maric, failed the exam. She again failed in 1901. Her glaring weakness was mathematics. After a year of trying for another position Albert was still without work.

However, in December, 1900 he finished his first paper, on intermolecular forces, and published it in Annalen der Physik. In 1901 he was granted Swiss citizenship.

In 1901 he wrote to Ostwald in Leipzig and to Kamerlingh-Onnes in Leiden looking for a university position. No luck. Nine years later Einstein and Ostwald would receive honorary doctorates from Geneva. The next year Ostwald would be the first to propose Einstein for the Nobel prize.


In 1901 Albert finally got a job as a high school substitute teacher. He wrote:

“After having taught for 5 or 6 hours in the morning, I am still fresh and work in the afternoon either in the library on my further education or at home on interesting problems… I have given up the ambition to get to a university since I saw that also under the present circumstances I maintain the strength and desire to make scientific efforts.”


In September, 1901 he got a job in a private school in Schaffhausen. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on the kinetic theory of gases and sent it to the University of Zurich. It was rejected (or withdrawn?). It was published in Annalen der Physik in 1902. The failed dissertation was his last set-back.

Marcel Grossman’s father got Albert a job as a patent clerk in Bern. In June, 1902 he began his new job as technical expert third class.

Hermann Einstein died in 1902. Albert had plans to marry Mileva Maric, but was strongly opposed by his mother. Albert and Mileva had a daughter, Lieserl, in 1902.


They married January 6, 1903. In 1904 their son, Hans Albert was born. Hans became a well known hydraulics engineer at UC Berkeley. A second son, Eduard, was born in 1910. He was a gifted child but later (1965) died in an asylum for schizophrenics. No one knows what happened to Lieserl.

Albert did well at the patent office. In 1903 and 1904 he published papers on the foundations of statistical mechanics.

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“No one before or since has widened the horizons of physics in so short a time as Einstein did in 1905.” (Pais 47). In that year Einstein produced six papers:


1)   The photoelectric effect and the light quantum, completed March 17. This paper lead to his Nobel prize and was written before his PhD thesis.

2)   Doctoral thesis on a new determination of molecular dimensions and Avogadro’s number, completed April 30. The published thesis became his most often quoted paper in the modern literature.

3)   The Brownian motion paper received by Annalen der Physik  on May 11. This was a direct outgrowth of the thesis and became his second most highly cited paper.

4)   The first paper on special relativity was received for Annalen der Physik June 30.

5)   The second paper on special relativity containing       E = mc2 was received for Annalen der Physik September 27. (Actually what is really there is the statement that a body that emits energy L as radiation has a decrease in mass of L/V2, where V is the speed of light.)

6)   A second paper on Brownian motion was received by Annalen der Physik December 19.


Little in his earlier published work hints at this extraordinary creative outburst. Later in life he said that his papers of 1901 and 1902 were worthless. The next three papers in 1903 and 1904 were of mixed quality and none left much of a mark on physics.

On July 24, 1905 the faculty of the University of Zurich approved the doctoral thesis and Einstein became Herr Doktor. He had no major professor, and during his life no PhD students of his own.

At the end of his life, Einstein wrote that the greatest thing Marcel Grossman did for him was to recommend him to the patent office with the help of his father.

We now turn to the papers of 1905. The first one is titled:


"On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Generation and Conversion of Light", AdP 17, 132 (1905).

What is it about according to common usage? The photoelectric effect.

What is it really about? The light quantum hypothesis.

Some history: Gustav Kirchhoff's pioneering work on black body radiation in 1859 suggested that there existed a universal function of frequency and temperature for all black bodies. (In essence a black body is any object that absorbs all radiation incident upon it.)


It was this challenge that eventually lead to Planck's distribution in 1900:

For high frequencies, i.e.  , Wien's law was known:


However, experiments in the classical regime, , were inconsistent with Wien's law:  and agreed much better with .

Planck's law agreed with both regimes, and for  gave

Planck used a statistical mechanics argument in which radiation energy was treated as comprised of packets of energy in the amount .


Einstein took this idea seriously and interpreted it to mean that light consisted of quanta with energy .

Most of the 1905 paper is about the volume dependence of the entropy for radiation. For gases and dilute solutions he knew that the entropy depended on the quantity

for  independent particles and reference volume . For radiation, using the quantum hypothesis, he got

where .

"From this we further conclude that monochromatic radiation of low density(within the range of validity of Wien's radiation formula) behaves thermodynamically as if it consisted of mutually independent energy quanta of magnitude

While this appeared inconsistent with Maxwell's continuum theory of radiation, Einstein took it seriously, especially for the interaction of light with matter.


Section 7 is about Stokes' rule:          

Section 8 is about the photoelectric effect:

This implies that if the frequency of light is high enough for the energy of a quantum, , to equal the work function, , then the energy of emitted electrons is linear in frequency with a slope given by Planck's constant. This provides a measure of Planck's constant that is independent of the black body law.

Section 9 is about the UV ionization of gases

These examples cover only 30% of the paper.

Robert Millikan's meticulous 1916 studies clinched the case for most physicists, but not all.

Einstein later said this was the only truly revolutionary contribution of 1905. Einstein emphasized the "provisional" nature of the quantum hypothesis and other physicists were eager to conclude that he had retracted the idea. This was far from the case.


On November 10, 1922 Einstein's residence received a telegram (he was on his way to Japan) telling him he was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for 1921. On the same day Niels Bohr was told he had received it for 1922.

The citation reads:"for his services to theoretical physics and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect."

"It is a touching twist of history that the Committee, conservative by inclination, would honor Einstein for the most revolutionary contribution he ever made to physics." (Pais, p. 511)

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The next topic is Brownian Motion. Einstein’s thesis and two other papers were written about this topic. The title of the thesis is:

“A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions”, eventually published in AdP 19, 289 (1906).

Of the other two papers, the main one is titled:

“On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in Liquids at Rest Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat”, AdP 17 549 (1905).

Clearly they are about Brownian Motion according to common usage.

What are they really about? The reality of atoms and molecules and the magnitude of Avogadro’s number.

For students at the ETH it was possible to get a Doktor’s degree from the University of Zurich. Usually these were based on an experimental thesis supervised by H. Weber. Einstein was not on good terms with Weber and again submitted his own theoretical work through Weber’s assistant, Kleiner. Kleiner got Burkhardt to check the calculations. Burkhardt missed a critical error. It is said that Kleiner returned the thesis and said it was too short. Einstein added a single sentence and it was accepted. Pais says there is no evidence for this cute story. The thesis was indeed short, coming to less than 20 pages.

During the nineteenth century the reality of atoms and molecules was still hotly debated. Some chemists took the idea seriously as did a few physicists who worked on the kinetic theory of gases. Of course atoms and molecules had to be so small that there was no way to see them. What their size was and how many were in a mole of matter, Avogardro’s number, were profound issues at the turn of the century when Einstein began to think about them.


Loschmidt had the idea that one could determine both size and number from a pair of relations, an idea that Einstein followed. The two ingredients were: the change in viscosity of a fluid caused by adding a dilute solute, and a formula for the diffusion constant for the solute as a function of the fluid properties.

The determination of the former comprised the bulk of the thesis and used hydrodynamics in a difficult calculation to give

in which  is the shear viscosity and the correction factor is the volume fraction of solute molecules.  is Avogardro’s number and  is the radius of the solute molecule. Einstein got the coefficient of 5/2 wrong and Burkhardt missed this error. The second result was Einstein’s real contribution

in which  is the diffusion constant of the solute,  is the gas constant and is the temperature. We have two equations in the two unknowns  and . By performing macroscopic measurements of viscosity and by using a microscope to determine , one obtains molecular sizes and Avogadro’s number.

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Brownian motion per se is not mentioned at all in the thesis. It is only mentioned in passing in the paper where Einstein writes in the first paragraph:

“It is possible that the motion to be discussed here are identical with so-called Brownian molecular motion; however, the data available to me on the latter are so imprecise that I could not form a judgment on the question.”

Jean Perrin did the first really accurate measurements in 1909 and received the Nobel prize for this and related work in 1926. This really clinched the reality of molecules.


The third topic is the theory of relativity. There are two papers from 1905:

“On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” AdP 17 891  (1905), and “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on its Energy Content?” AdP 18 639 (1905).

Common usage says these papers are about the special theory of relativity. At the time there was no general or special theory so these papers were simply about relativity. However, what they are really about is the invariance of the speed of light, c, and the fallacy of absolute time.


Consider two reference frames labeled by K and K’, and imagine that K’ moves relative to K with velocity v along a common x-axis. All physicists use the same values for Planck’s constant h and for the charge of the electron e in each reference frame, regardless of the relative motion. This can be phrased by saying that h and e are invariants. Einstein postulated that the speed of light c should also be an invariant.


In Galilean relativity one has

The last equation was for a long time taken for granted and is the idea of absolute time.


This poses a problem. Suppose a body moves to the right along the x-axis of frame K with velocity u. From the perspective of frame K’ moving with velocity v relative to K the apparent velocity of the body is u-v. Indeed, if the frame K’ moves relative to K so that v = u then the body appears to be at rest in K’.


By looking at Galilean invariance in differential form we see how the velocity difference arises formally.


        Relative to K the velocity of light is c. Would it not be c-v relative to K’? The requirement that it is an invariant means that relative to K’ it is also c. This requirement forces a connection between the coordinates and time in K’ and in K given by the Lorentz transformations

in which

and .


These equations are called the Lorentz transformations. Lorentz published them in 1904, and Poincare published corrections to the electrodynamics part of Lorentz’ paper in 1905. In Pauli’s history of the subject he writes:


“It was Einstein, finally, who in a way completed the basic formulation of this new discipline. His paper of 1905 was submitted at almost the same time as Poincare’s article and had been written without previous knowledge of Lorentz’ paper of 1904. It includes not only all the essential results contained in the other two papers, but shows an entirely novel, and much more profound, understanding of the whole problem.”


The Lorentz transformations can be written for infinitesimal changes in

Now the velocity in K’ is given by



This is the velocity addition formula with a correction in the denominator. Remarkably, for  too!!! c is an invariant !!



The invariance theory of Einstein completely changes everything. Space and time are intimately commingled. The geometry of the world is four dimensional space-time. The laws of nature are expressible in terms of Minkowski 4-vectors (and higher order tensor generalizations) that obey Lorentz invariance.


If all physical laws are to exhibit Lorentz invariance, then conservation of energy and conservation of linear momentum must be reconsidered. It turns out that the invariant quantity is a 4-vector of the form

Conservation of energy and momentum are merged into a single 4-vector conservation law. The fourth component can be written as


or in the more familiar form

I have used the Minkowski method here. Einstein based this result on consideration of a body emitting light and how this reduced the mass of the body in proportion to the energy carried off by the light. He was thinking of light quanta again.

If we expand the energy equation, we get the new rest mass energy:

The leading term is the rest mass energy and the next term is the usual kinetic energy. It is remarkable that the rest mass energy’s existence should come from the geometry of four dimensional space-time. It has had an explosive impact on mankind.


One kilogram of matter converts into 9 x 1016 Joules of energy. The atomic bombs used in WWII released 63 x 1012 and 84 x 1012 Joules of energy.

The gestation period for Einstein’s thinking about relativity was 7 years, 1898-1905. Early in 1905 he had a conversation, probably with M. Besso, and suddenly everything fell into place. Within 5-6 weeks the paper was published.


Einstein’s theory received a beautiful geometric expression in the hands of Minkowski. Einstein did not see the full beauty himself for some time. For example he missed the formula

for the momentum of the photon even though he surely had photon momentum in mind when he argued for .

Maja says Albert was anxious about whether the first relativity paper would be accepted by AdP. He expected an immediate reaction even if critical. He was greatly disappointed when his paper went unmentioned in the following issues of the journal. Eventually Planck wrote to him with some questions. This made Einstein very happy, especially since it was Planck who wrote.

What was motivating Einstein during this incredibly creative period?


In his own words: Cosmic Religious Sense.


On November 9, 1930 the article titled Religion and Science by Professor Albert Einstein appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It was so provocative that on November 16 responses by eight New York City area theologians followed. Five or six were actually sympathetic to what he had to say.


Einstein described the evolution three levels of religious experience. The first he called the religion of fear, a primitive human reaction to “fear of hunger, of wild animals, of illness, and of death.” Social feelings give rise to the next stage, a social and moral religion associated with which is an anthropomorphic idea of God, a “God of Providence, who protects, decides, rewards, and punishes.” “An important advance in the life of a people is the transformation of the religion of fear into the moral religion.”


“Only exceptionally gifted individuals or especially noble communities rise essentially above this level; in these there is found a third level of religious experience, even if it is seldom found in pure form. I will call it the cosmic religious sense.”

“The religious geniuses of all times have been distinguished by this cosmic religious sense.”


“It seems to me that the most important function of art and science is to arouse and keep alive this feeling in those who are receptive.”

“What a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world and what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed in the world there must have been in Kepler and Newton to enable them to unravel the mechanism of the heavens, in long years of lonely work!”


“Anyone who only knows scientific research in its practical applications may easily come to a wrong interpretation of the state of mind of the men who, surrounded by skeptical contemporaries, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered over all countries in all centuries. Only those who have dedicated their lives to similar ends can have a living conception of the inspiration which gave these men the power to remain loyal to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious sense which grants this power.”

Einstein overused religious references and the word God—doing it so often that Niels Bohr had to chide him (Gerald Holton, 1996).

In 1939 he rephrased his view in response to a Chicago Rabbi:

“The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image-a personage who makes demands of us and who takes an interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being.”