Epitome of genius

It is the 100th anni­ver­sary of his Nobel Prize: Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

With E = mc2, he wrote what might be the world’s best-known formula. With the theory of rela­ti­vity, he revo­lu­tio­nised the meaning of time and space and arti­cu­la­ted a theory that ever­yone has heard of, though very few people under­stand. But Albert Einstein didn’t win the Nobel Prize for the theory of rela­ti­vity. Instead, he recei­ved it in 1921 ‘for his services to theo­re­ti­cal physics, and espe­ci­ally for his disco­very of the law of the photo­elec­tric effect’. He wrote this paper in 1905, a year in which he wrote five ground­brea­king papers, inclu­ding the one on special rela­ti­vity. ETH’s online biogra­phy of Einstein says that 1905 was an annus mira­bi­lis for him. One striking fact about this achie­ve­ment is that he wrote these papers in his spare time: his day job was at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern.

An uneven career path

The reason that Einstein was not conduc­ting his rese­arch at a univer­sity at that time was due to his perfor­mance as a student at the Poly­tech­ni­kum in Zurich (as ETH Zurich was known then). He hardly atten­ded any of his ‘Physics prac­ti­cal course for begin­ners’ lectures and recei­ved a ‘fail’ mark. He did manage to graduate with a diploma, but he was the only one of the five gradua­tes who didn’t secure an assistant­ship. His papers in 1905 helped him to turn back towards a univer­sity career path. After posi­ti­ons at the Univer­sity of Zurich and the Univer­sity of Prague, he finally found his way back to ETH – though not for long. He only stayed for one and a half years, though he did formu­late the first draft of the gene­ral theory of rela­ti­vity during this time. He then moved to Berlin and the Prus­sian Academy of Scien­ces. After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, he emigra­ted to the US and took on a posi­tion at Prince­ton Univer­sity in New Jersey, where he stayed for the rest of his career.

Today, Albert Einstein is synony­mous with genius. Wiki­pe­dia calls him one of the grea­test physi­cists of all time, and ETH acknow­led­ges him as its most famous alum­nus. There is a cafe­te­ria at ETH called Einstein & Zweist­ein, and various origi­nal docu­ments in the posses­sion of ETH Zurich – and viewa­ble online – testify to his achie­ve­ments while in Zurich. There will be another high­light at the end of Septem­ber: a very special kind of meet and greet. Albert Einstein – or at least a digi­tal version of him – will be present at ETH’s main buil­ding in Zurich and available for conver­sa­tion. He might then be able to answer your ques­ti­ons about time and space…

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