German-born physicist Albert Einstein was the greatest scientific thinker of the 20th century.
He developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars – along with quantum mechanics – of modern physics.
He won the Nobel Prize in 1921.
He pushed FDR to develop a powerful new weapon to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II, leading to the Manhattan Project.
He devised the world’s most famous equation – E=mc2 – demonstrating the equivalency of mass and energy.
His work changed the way we view the universe. It also had a tremendous impact on modern technologies, making possible everything from semiconductors to fiber optics to lasers to nuclear power.
Today, Einstein’s name is synonymous with genius. His face – with that shock of unruly hair – is recognized worldwide.
Yet the man was no drab academic.
Einstein enjoyed the outdoors, often hiking for days in the Alps or Apennines. He loved classical music – especially Mozart and Schubert – and was passionate about sailing.
He had an impish wit and self-deprecating sense of humor. He often said that to punish him for his lifelong contempt for authority, Fate made him an authority himself.
(When asked how he created that iconic hairstyle, he cited “negligence.”)
While Einstein did not speak until he was nearly 3 years old – the family maid called him “the dopey one” – it is a myth that he was a poor student. While it’s true that one teacher amused posterity by claiming he would never amount to anything, Einstein was a strong student. Before age 15, he had mastered differential and integral calculus.
He was endlessly curious about the structure of reality. As a young man, Einstein devoured books on physics, mathematics and geometry, and proclaimed throughout his life that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible – that it can be explained through the methods of science and the language of mathematics.
His groundbreaking work changed the way we think about space… and even time. He showed that both are relative – and said that the distinction between past, present and future is only “a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow featured Einstein – along with Thomas Jefferson, William James, Eleanor Roosevelt and others – on his short list of history’s greatest self-actualizers: people with the rare ability to fully realize their deepest talents and highest aspirations.
In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Einstein was a great humanitarian, one who exuded kindness and compassion. In newspaper columns, essays and interviews, he offered his opinions about what really matters.
Just a smattering of his thoughts:
- There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
- To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective standpoint, to be sheer folly.
- If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.
- Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
- Work is the only thing that gives substance to life.
- Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.
- The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow-creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.
- Man is here for the sake of other men – above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.
- The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.
- To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.
- Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury: To me, these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone – best both for the body and the mind.
- The most precious things in life are not those one gets for money… Great wealth is not necessary for a happy and satisfactory life.
Throughout his life, Einstein’s great passion was deciphering the laws of the universe.
In his writings, he often used religious metaphors such as “I want to know God’s thoughts” or “God does not play dice with the universe.”
Yet when people used his words to describe him as religious, he objected.
Einstein professed belief in Spinoza’s God, a deity revealed by the orderly laws of the universe, not in the daily lives of human beings.
His “religion” was an attitude of awe and humility toward Nature.
In his essay “The World as I See It,” Einstein wrote, “It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.”
Einstein failed in his ultimate quest for a complete explanation of the universe, a unified field theory that would tie together electricity, magnetism, gravity and quantum mechanics. But he accomplished much in his 76 years.
He showed that absolute time had to be replaced with a new absolute: the speed of light. He solved the riddle of the photoelectric effect. He provided empirical evidence for the atomic theory. He laid the foundations of cosmology.
But with his curiosity, wisdom, humor and the example of his life, he did something else.
He showed us how to live.