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Albert Einstein

October 30, 2022



Albert Einstein overhauled our understanding of the universe—from the sub-atomic level to beyond the edges of the cosmos. Today his ideas are in evidence everywhere, from televisions and GPS systems, to our understanding of black holes and the Big Bang. But who was Einstein as a person? What were his theories that upended established scientific beliefs? And how did his work inadvertently contribute to some of the 20th century’s most devastating acts of warfare? 

This is a Short History of Albert Einstein. Written by Dan Smith. With thanks to David Bodanis, author of Einstein’s Greatest Mistake, and E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.

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It's the middle of October 1907 in the Swiss city of Bern.

A man in his late 20s closes the front door of his apartment, then heads down the stairs and out of the building.

He straightens his hat, smooths his moustache, then starts out on his usual route to work.

As he passes through the old city gate, he pauses beneath the famous clock tower.

He's always been fascinated by its ancient astronomical timepiece, with its representations of the planets and the heavens.

Swept along by the tide of commuters, he continues his journey.

By the time the clock chimes eight, he's climbing the steps of the patent office where he works as a clerk.

Inside the building, he makes his way to his desk, perching on a high stool among banks of smartly suited colleagues.

Shelves line the walls from floor to ceiling, their files full of documents submitted by hopeful inventors in search of official patents.

The clock has recently been promoted to the role of technical expert Class II.

His job is to analyze invention after invention, weighing up each one's originality and practicality.

Before he gets started, he pulls his tobacco from his pocket and tucks a pinch of it into the bowl of his pipe, which he has on the go pretty much non-stop.

He strikes a match, lights it.

He works best through a fog of smoke, somehow finding clarity amid the haze.

Settling in, he gets started on his first application of the day.

The document tells him the inventor has a gadget they claim can keep multiple clocks in perfect synchronicity.

But it relies on perpetual motion, something this clerk knows from his own studies is impossible.

He stamps the documents to let the applicant know they have failed, then gets started on the next, but he finds his mind wandering, as it often does.

Though he's in the office for eight hours a day, he usually completes his tasks in less than four.

The rest of the time, he mulls over scientific conundrums of his own.

Now, he gazes out of the window, watching some workman repairing a roof.

It's a perilous job, and he finds himself thinking about the risk of falling.

Then, his brain jumps on a step or two.

He starts to imagine a person falling freely through space.

Pushing the thought a little further, he realizes such a person would not feel their own weight.

He scribbles down a note on a sheet of paper to that effect.

Soon, it's no longer an idle daydream, but the spark of a chain reaction in his mind.

A domino run of extraordinary ideas and leaps of the imagination that culminate in an intellectual explosion.

Now, his scribbling hand can barely keep up with his thoughts.

He is so engrossed, he barely registers his boss, Herr Halle, making his rounds of the office.

Luckily, Halle is an easygoing sort as long as the work gets done.

He pretends not to notice his clock, stuffing sheets of his own calculations into his desk drawer.

A drawer that he has cheekily nicknamed his Bureau of Theoretical Physics.

But perhaps it is not so cheeky after all.

Because this lowly civil servant is Albert Einstein.

And thanks to this vision of the falling man, he is about to begin a rewrite of everything the scientific community thinks it knows about gravity, time and space.

Though now widely accepted as one of the greatest minds in history, the path to success wasn't a smooth one for Albert Einstein.

Facing both academic and political prejudice, he was well into his third decade before he found recognition.

But once he started, he didn't stop.

Einstein overhauled our understanding of the universe from the subatomic level to beyond the edges of the cosmos.

Today, his ideas are in evidence everywhere.

From our televisions and cameras to GPS systems and fiber optics, even our understanding of black holes and the big bang is shaped by his studies.

But who was Einstein as a boy, a husband, a father?

What were the theories that upended established scientific beliefs and catapulted him into the limelight?

And as a humanitarian, how did this celebrated scientist inadvertently contribute to some of the 20th century's most devastating acts of warfare?

I'm John Hopkins, and this is a short history of Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein is born on the 14th of March 1879 to Askenazi Jewish parents in the German city of Ulm.

His father, Hermann, is an electrical engineer who sets up a series of businesses that never quite take off.

The Einstein's aren't rich, but they're comfortable.

Two years after Albert arrives, he gets a baby sister, Maya.

But his parents are already beginning to worry about the slow development of their son.

He does not speak coherently until he is five, and a condition called echolalia, sometimes an indicator of neurodiversity, causes him to repeat other people's words and phrases.

Soon, though, he develops a fascination for his father's engineering projects and with how things work.

When he is five, he is given a compass to distract him from a bout of sickness.

Albert is transfixed by the way the needle finds north without any mechanical intervention.

Perhaps it is now that he begins to notice the way the universe is ruled by unseen forces.

Despite his late blooming, once at school, Albert shows an exceptional talent for maths.

But if a subject fails to interest him, which is the case with literature, for example, and botany, he refuses to engage.

His Greek teacher famously tells him that he will never amount to anything very much.

But luckily, the culture of the Einstein family values attitude above everything.

David Bedanes is the author of Einstein's Greatest Mistake and Equals MC squared, a biography of the world's most famous equation.

So Einstein had a great advantage in his family. They had this very typical German-Jewish sense of humor.

If there was an obstacle in front of you instead of freaking out at it, they would try to find the humorous way around it.

His little sister, Maya, wrote that when Einstein was about seven years old, he got really angry at her and threw a big ball at her in the head.

And she wrote later, and that shows it takes a thick skull to be the sister of a world-famous physicist.

And I love that sort of sense of humor, the way that instead of getting angry at something, you shift around it.

The Einstein's move to Italy, where Albert's father hopes his business opportunities will not be stifled by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany.

When he is sixteen, Einstein applies to the Zurich Polytechnic in Switzerland two years ahead of his peers.

But although he's strong enough in his core subjects, his other grades hold him back and is forced to reapply.

In 1896, Albert gives up his own German citizenship to avoid military conscription, and at the second time of asking, takes his place at the Zurich Polytechnic.

Five years later, he will become a Swiss citizen.

His university days prove a fruitful and happy time in his life.

If you really want to have original breakthroughs, you need two things.

You need isolation and time to think, but you can't have too much isolation and too much time to think.

You need people who support you.

He had a supportive group of friends.

They were intelligent. His best friend, Michaela Besso, became a good electrical engineer in Italy.

Other friends became university-level physicists and stuff.

But most of all, they had that sort of pluck and confidence and humor that you can often get when you're nineteen and twenty and twenty-one.

They would stay out late at night, sometimes flying kites, sometimes just walking in the beautiful hills of mountains outside of Zurich, and then they'd race back.

Sometimes they'd spend the whole night out and come back and get a quick coffee and then go to classes early in the morning.

He also meets his wife-to-be there, a Serbian mathematician and physicist called Milaiva Maric.

A talented scientist, she is the only woman among the several hundred students at the Polytechnic.

Their romance is a meeting of minds as well as hearts.

But life after university proves disappointing.

At the turn of the century, Einstein graduates almost bottom of his class and cannot find an academic posting.

There weren't that many jobs for physicists, plus he had mouthed off to some of his teachers, and they did not write him letters or recommendations.

In 1902, he starts work at the patent office.

Although hardly his dream job, it proves to be a good move.

But imagine if you're looking at all the patents, imagine you get to see all the high-tech stuff in Silicon Valley come across your desk as a patent officer today.

It's pretty exciting.

That same year, Maric returns temporarily to her family home in what is now Serbia, where she gives birth to a daughter, Lisel.

Being unmarried, Maric and Einstein had endeavored to keep the pregnancy a secret in Switzerland to avoid a scandal.

Now, though, the child disappears from records.

Maybe she dies in infancy or is put up for adoption, but Einstein will never mention her in public again.

Maric returns to Switzerland and marries Einstein in 1903.

The first of their two sons, Hans Albert, is born the following year.

Einstein himself, though, is in a rut, conscious of time running out.

If his career as a physicist doesn't take off soon, he doubts that it ever will.

But in 1905, everything changes.

Seemingly from nowhere, he publishes a string of landmark papers in the well-respected German journal Anaheim der Physik.

And though the initial response to these articles from a virtual unknown is muted, they will eventually rock the academic world on its heels.

The first paper looks at radiation and the energy properties of light.

These ideas first emerged when Einstein was at university, but he has since finessed them while at the patent office and during many long nights of private study.

Now, Einstein concludes that light exists both as a wave and a particle at the same time.

He discussed what's sometimes called a photoelectric effect.

We take for granted that if you hold your phone up and press click to take a picture, the bits of light or whatever light is flying through the air, somehow they affect the stuff inside your phone.

And they make electricity go around and circuits go around and you get the pixels and you get the pretty picture.

We take that for granted, but think about it.

There's light, which is kind of invisible stuff.

And there's solid stuff, electrons and metal circuitry and colored images or whatever inside your phone.

How does invisible stuff light?

How does it enter into metals and make solid chunks of things move around?

And Einstein found some very, very simple equations that seemed to explain what was going on.

Very impressive work.

Another of his 1905 papers provides observable evidence of the existence of atoms and molecules.

Until now, while some scientists believe in the physical reality of atoms, others consider them to be merely theoretical.

But in his study of particles suspended in a stationary liquid, Einstein mathematically proves that the observed movement, known as Brownian motion, is caused by atoms.

Evidence at last that these building blocks of the universe are not merely the stuff of theory.

However, much of Einstein's work takes place not in a lab or at a workbench, but in his head.

Because Einstein is a master of the thought experiment.

In the simplest terms, a thought experiment is a test devised in the imagination to check a hypothesis that lacks physical proof.

He's been mulling over one such experiment since he was just 16.

What, he wonders, would it be like to travel alongside a light beam?

Would the light appear stationary?

The way a train might, if viewed from another train, traveling in the same direction and at the same speed.

But there's a problem.

Ever since childhood, Einstein has been in love with Scottish mathematician James Clark Maxwell's work on electromagnetism.

But Maxwell's findings conflict with his idea of a stationary light beam.

So, what else is happening?

Later, Einstein imagines a moving train being struck by lightning at both its ends simultaneously.

How, he wonders, would that look to someone standing on the railway platform?

What about someone traveling on the train?

How would it be different?

These two thought experiments inspire what becomes known as Einstein's special theory of relativity.

Later, when Einstein is asked for a summary of his work by a journalist, he retorts, all my life I've been trying to get it into one book and he wants me to get it into one sentence.

Even so, the standard summation is that the laws of physics are the same for all observers moving at constant velocity relative to each other and that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant.

But what is really important are the implications of a theory.

For the best part of three centuries, Newton's ideas have been accepted wisdom.

According to him, space is static, like emotionless stage on which the action of life plays out and time is absolute forever going forward at the same rate for everyone.

But now, Einstein, the unknown patents inspector, shows us something different.

Take that train being hit by lightning at both ends.

The observer on the platform sees the two bolts hit at the exact same moment.

But for the person sitting in the middle of the train, it's different.

Because the train is moving forwards and the speed of light is the same for both bolts, the passenger sees the bolt at the front of the train first, since it has less distance to travel.

So the passenger sees one strike happen before the other.

Neither observer is wrong, but each sees the same event in a different time frame.

Now, what if that passenger drops their ticket to the floor just as they pass the person on the platform?

To the passenger, the ticket drops in a straight line downwards.

But to the person on the platform, the ticket begins its trajectory in line with them, but hits the floor a second or two later when the carriage has moved past them.

With that observer, the start and finish point of the ticket are on a slant.

Again, the same event, but two different and correct interpretations depending on where it is viewed from.

Suddenly, time and space do not seem so fixed after all.

But still, Einstein's work is not done for the year.

A final paper emerges out of the special theory, just three pages long.

It includes the earliest formulation of what becomes the best known equation in history, E equals mc squared.

In these few symbols, Einstein brings together what had, up until now, been thought of as separate realms.

E is energy, being lightning bolts, the wind, a bomb exploding and so on.

And m is mass, or simply physical things, mountains and planets, cars and coffee cups.

In his groundbreaking equation, he shows that energy and mass are merely different states of the same thing.

The equation E is equal mc squared, in which energy is put equal to mass, multiplied with the square of the velocity of light, showed that very small amount of mass may be converted into a very large amount of energy and reach the Earth.

The mass and energy were in fact equivalent.

Though he has no idea just yet, with this pioneering understanding of how energy works, he is ushering in the nuclear age.

If this pen I'm holding in my hand were to turn entirely into energy, the mass of it would be multiplied by the enormous number c squared.

And the explosion would be so big that I'm speaking in North London, not only would my lovely house not be here, and not only would Hamstead Heath, which I see out my window not be here, but what had been the south of England would be under the North Atlantic and the North Sea.

In time, 1905 will become known as Einstein's Anas Mirabilis, his miracle year.

But life does not change overnight for him.

Perhaps because of the magnitude of his work and its revolutionary nature, other scientists are slow to catch on.

Even though Einstein's theoretical arguments are convincing, for many in the scientific community, the doubt he casts on Newtonian physics is too much to process.

But after a few more years in the patent office, people start to take notice.

Luckily, some of the top scientists in Germany, especially a man named Max Planck, when he read the paper thought, this is really interesting.

Nobody's ever taken this sort of angle.

And through Max Planck and also some other people, I think by around 1907, Einstein got a teaching job at the university.

Einstein now embarks on a new body of work that will outdo everything he has already achieved.

He realizes that his special theory has limitations.

This just looks at a special case where two observers are, so to say, very roughly gliding along at constant speed.

In our universe, there are lots of things that don't move steadily at a constant speed.

If you drop something from like a high window, it starts slowing goes faster and faster and faster.

So special relativity won't apply there. And you want to try to look at what goes on from the perspective of different things that are accelerating from reference frames that are moving at not even speeds next to each other.

You need different sort of mathematics.

Luckily, Einstein is just the man to dream up such a thing.

It begins with that idea of a figure in freefall, which came to him one quiet day in the office.

Einstein imagines his subject hovering in an enclosed box, like an elevator.

The subject wouldn't know whether they were suspended in midair in the box because they are in freefall in a gravitational zone, like the Earth's atmosphere, or because they were floating away outside of gravity.

And what if the subject was standing on the floor of the elevator and dropped a coin which also fell to the floor? Even observing that gravity, they couldn't know if the elevator was resting in a gravitational field or somehow being accelerated through a non-gravitational space.

After much thought, Einstein realizes that gravity is not a force at all, but is the same thing as acceleration.

He calls this idea the equivalence principle, because gravity and acceleration are equivalent to each other and describes it as the happiest thought of my life.

Figuring all this out takes years, during which he masters entirely new realms of mathematics.

The offers of professorships also start to roll in at Zurich, Prague and Berlin.

But success takes its toll on his personal life.

His wife is bringing up their two sons mostly single-handedly and feels increasingly distanced from her husband.

When they were first together, he and his first wife, they got on really, really well.

There's charming letters between them.

But once he became famous and they had kids, they didn't have enough money at the beginning for childcare.

So people had come over. Together, the two of them had been kind of bohemian and friendly.

But as the child started crying, it was his sexist time.

When we take care of the kid, the visitor would want to talk to Einstein.

He was moving up, she wasn't moving down, but she was at the level of somebody well-trained in science to be a secondary school teacher, and then a housewife.

So that hurt her esteem a little bit.

Einstein is a staunch opponent of the war and joins a pacifist organization calling for the unification of Europe to avert future conflict.

In a letter to a friend, he blames the war on the sexual character of the male that leads to such explosions.

There's a good reason that such an analogy occurs to him.

By now, he is already two years into an ill-advised affair with his cousin and childhood playmate, Elsa Lerventhal.

It proves the final straw for his marriage.

The Einstein split, and Albert ultimately marries his mistress.

He was the opposite of his first wife.

His first wife had been a sort of intense intellectual.

The second one was very pleasant, good in several languages.

She'd been in the acting world, she had nice friends, and they got on well.

They had a sort of bourgeois Berlin apartment for a while.

It will prove a troubled, if long-lasting, marriage.

Elsa is a socialite, more interested in dining with the right people than in her new husband's reimagining of the universe.

Now, Einstein's ex-wife struggles alone to care for her sons, especially the younger Edward, who suffers from schizophrenia.

Einstein's elder son resents their abandonment and becomes estranged from his father.

But Einstein's eye continues to wander during his second marriage.

He embarks on a series of affairs, including with his secretary, a degree of business women and wealthy widows, and even a suspected Soviet spy.

By 1915, Einstein is almost ready to go public with something that will bring together his special theory and the equivalence principle.

He is booked to deliver four lectures on his latest work at the Prussian Academy of Science in Berlin in November.

But he has a crisis of confidence, believing that his mathematics is incomplete.

In a theatre packed to the rafters with Europe's greatest scientific minds, he scrambles together enough material for the first lecture.

When he returns a week later, he begins by giving a series of corrections to his previous talk.

Then again, the following week.

Away from the stage, he burns the midnight oil along with ounce after ounce of tobacco.

But by the last lecture, he has it.

The mathematical proofs he has been in search of for years.

With renewed energy, at the final lecture, he describes how gravity is in fact a warping of time and space.

He depicts a universe comprised of the spatial dimensions with which we are familiar, but with the added dimension of time.

In this space-time realm, he explains how gravity acts upon matter and how matter generates gravity.

People often say, imagine there's a bed which has a rubbery sheet on it, but really taut.

Like in the United States Marine Corps, when the bed is perfectly flat, you drop a coin on it that should bounce off, but put a weight in the middle of a really, really taut large bed.

In the middle of the bed, the weight will make the sheet sag down a little bit.

Now, if you take a tiny ball bearing and shoot it right at that center thing, the ball bearing goes down into the dip in the middle.

However, if you shoot the ball bearing with your flicket with your finger, like a marble, flick it a little bit to the side of that central dip in the sheet, the ball bearing will go straight, and then as it gets near that central dip, it'll curve a bit.

And if it's close to the center of the dip, it'll curve a lot.

If it's further away, it won't curve at all.

Einstein thought, what if that's the sort of thing that's going on in our solar system?

What if that's the sort of thing that is going on everywhere?

There wherever there is a big solid chunk of mass, like the sun or the planet or something like that, it actually curves and bends down the space around it so that as we think we're moving in the simplest path, we're following a path that follows that curve.

Einstein has unpicked the steps that make up the complex interaction between space, time, energy, and matter.

One implication of his insights is that gravity affects not only mass, but also light.

While traditional wisdom assumed that light travels in straight lines, Einstein convincingly argues that the sun's gravity can bend starlight.

It's mass, he says, curves the space through which light beams travel.

But there's a problem.

Neither he nor anyone else has been able to provide evidence of this.

As such, his general theory remains just that.

A theory.

It's the middle of a May afternoon in 1919, on the northwest tip of the small island of Principay, off the West African coast.

From out of a hastily constructed hut appears a live Englishman, perspiring heavily in the 45 degree heat.

He affectionately pats the nose of one of the mules his team used to transport their equipment through the thick forests that surround this remote place.

The man's name is Arthur Eddington from Cambridge University, and he's possibly the only astronomer with the mathematical knowledge to fully grasp the significance of Einstein's work.

Along with his companion, a technician named Cottingham from the Greenwich Observatory in London, Eddington is here to prove Einstein's great theory.

A project the German physicist enthusiastically supports.

Eddington has been on the island, a Portuguese colony, for several weeks already.

It has been a challenging time at the tail end of the storm season, but today, he hopes, is when the hard work pays off.

The two men check over their equipment, batting away mosquitoes as they work, propped nearby at their rifles, primed and ready to chase off the local monkeys who have been bothering them.

Eddington glances nervously into the heavens where clouds are gathering.

It has already rained heavily this morning, but if he is to succeed, he must have clear skies.

Anything else will be a disaster for the experiment.

He goes over to the telescope, an expensive piece of kit that he's had shipped all the way from England.

It is several feet long and looks not unlike a cannon.

His jacket is draped protectively over its lenses, but as he checks his watch, he sees it is nearly time.

Praying for the rain to hold off, he uncovers it, entrusting the fate of the project to the elements.

Cottingham moves into position, and the two men wait until exactly 13 minutes past two, the moment at which the total eclipse of the sun will begin.

Right on cue, the skies begin to darken, and the jungle fills with a shriek of birds, panicked by the sudden bloom.

They are plunged into almost complete darkness, but Eddington is buzzing with excitement.

This is the moment for which he came to this inhospitable place, the moment when he might just prove Einstein's ideas about the bending of starlight.

At Cottingham's signal, the experiment begins.

Eddington inserts a photographic plate into the telescope.

Cottingham counts down the seconds until the exposure is complete.

In a practiced move, Eddington puts in a new plate while delicately storing the old one.

They have perhaps five minutes.

During the eclipse, the sun's own light is hidden and will not obscure the light from the distant Hyades star cluster that Eddington is trying to capture.

After 16 exposures, the sky fills with sunlight again.

Infuriatingly, the clouds choose this moment to fully dissipate.

There's a somber mood as they hastily begin to pack up their equipment.

Though they're eager to start the laborious development process, the men have no idea whether the shots are good enough.

Only time will tell.

It's not until six months later in November 1919 that Eddington is ready to report his findings.

At the grand Burlington House in London's Piccadilly, he strides out to address a joint session of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.

In front of a large portrait of Newton, Eddington shares his photographic plates.

They reveal the bending of light from the Hyades cluster in perfect accordance with Einstein's predictions.

The general theory has its experimental empirical proof.

The news causes a global phenomenon.

Almost overnight, the proof turns Einstein into a global superstar.

Though few truly understand what his theory of relativity represents, everyone from politicians to film stars now clamour to be photographed with him.

Charlie Chaplin becomes a personal friend, telling him, They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.

Many people misconstrue the general theory's implications, removing it from its scientific context, and attempting to frame it socially and politically, despite Einstein's intentions.

He actually called it the theory of invariance. He didn't like the word relativity, because it gives you the impression that everything's relative and nothing serious.

A lot of people thought, wow, this great man is saying that everything is relative, that no moral standards apply, that women can drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, as opposed to the previous era when women couldn't drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.

Einstein said, that's really foolish.

The theory of relativity also grips the popular imagination, because it seems to represent the hopeful spectacle of nations cooperating.

World War I had just ended, and Germany and England were really at each other's head, thousands, hundreds of thousands of young men being killed on each side.

And then suddenly, one year after the war ended, an English astronomer took the idea of a German Swiss astronomer and looked into the heavens, a sort of secular heavens, but still the heavens, and found that there was a unity there, that there was a simple principle that explained everything on Earth.

Others take solace in Einstein's message that time and space are perhaps even more mysterious and complex than previously assumed.

If they are not the absolute realms we have been told, the opportunities for humanity could be endless.

Maybe the permanence of death itself could be reframed.

Einstein's personality is also key to the spread of his fame.

With his scruffy suits and increasingly unkempt hair, there is something relatable about him.

He loved cafe society and talking and chatting with his friends, telling dumb jokes which they had heard, having cheese and beer and coffee.

So he was sort of like an ordinary person.

One time he was going to a conference in one of the great European cities, and there are a lot of press photographers waiting for him, where the first class train compartment was going to have his passengers come out, and they waited and waited.

Everybody came out, but no Einstein.

And they looked way down to the end of the platform and coming out from the third class compartment, there was Einstein with his violin case and a little suitcase and his pipe just walking along an ordinary person.

You think of ivory towers and people with huge foreheads sitting and thinking stuff that ordinary people can't.

The idea that somebody up there is genuinely on our side made him strongly beloved.

Following Eddington's proof, the pressure grows to award Einstein a Nobel Prize.

Though he was first nominated in 1910 for the special theory of relativity, Einstein's path to the accolade has been stricken with obstacles, including anti-Semitism.

Even now he is opposed by another Nobel laureate, Philip Leonard, who in times to come will publicly rally against what he calls the Jewish physics.

There is also a technical question as to whether the theory of relativity qualifies, as Nobel rules require, as a discovery or invention.

His opponents argue that he has discovered no law but merely proposed a theory.

But by 1922 the momentum is with Einstein.

Most of the Nobel committee see that they will lose all credibility if they fail to recognize him.

In the end he gets his prize, but not for his work on relativity at all.

Instead it is for his important but much less celebrated work on the photoelectric effect, the first of his 1905 papers.

While the theory of relativity is science at the cosmological level, that earlier work on the nature of light is concerned with an altogether different scale.

But Einstein also worked on the micro-small level, on the quantum level, the teeny, teeny, tiny levels inside atoms.

His discoveries about light have proved pivotal in the evolution of quantum mechanics, the branch of science concerned with understanding the universe at the atomic and subatomic level.

This field has undergone huge development while Einstein has been devoting his time elsewhere.

But despite being key to its evolution, quantum mechanics troubled him deeply.

He does not like the idea championed by some that uncertainty must become an accepted part of the quantum world.

Quantum pioneers like Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg produce what becomes known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

In the subatomic world they argue, the very act of observation influences the result of experimentation.

It's kind of like if you want to measure the pressure of air inside your car tires.

To measure the pressure you put a little device on the tire, but of course the moment of measuring it, you actually lose a little bit of air pressure.

They believe that a quantum particle, such as an electron, exists in multiple states all at the same time, only choosing a specific state when it is observed.

But Einstein sees it differently.

He thinks that rather than accepting uncertainty, scientists just need to get better at doing the science.

The philosopher that he really respected was Spinoza from the 1600s in the Netherlands.

And this notion that there's these forces around us that's unclear what they come from or what they are, they don't intervene the way that some literal religious stories are.

They don't intervene in detail in our lives.

But how curious that there is this structure around us that things follow these patterns and laws that is not like random chaos.

How wonderful that we can kind of grasp that.

And so Einstein was very disappointed when on the micro level that didn't seem to be applying.

Einstein also starts to have doubts around his general theory.

His work seems to predict a universe that is expanding to accommodate all the energy once contained in condensed mass.

But virtually every serious astronomer thinks this is nonsense.

What can it be expanding into for Stardust?

Eventually Einstein is swayed by their belief that the universe is static.

To accommodate this, he revises his general theory, adding caveats to his original, elegantly simple equations.

He includes what is called the cosmological constant, which allows for the idea of a static universe.

But it very much complicates the mathematics involved.

Sort of like if you have a beautiful Maserati or a Porsche or something, and somebody says, no, it's going too fast. You got to have this big rock tagged onto it with a rope.

And you say, really? They say, no, honestly, you have to do that.

And I say, OK, so you do it.

So his equation, which had been really beautiful, beautiful symmetry between a mass energy and space time, suddenly got this ugly term added on.

But over the next few years, the work of a new generation of astronomers, including Edwin Hubble, reveals that the universe is expanding as Einstein predicted after all.

Einstein calls his revision his greatest mistake and blames himself for following the herd.

Unfortunately, Einstein drew a terrible conclusion from that.

The conclusion he drew was that if your equations are really beautiful and simple and the experimentals say it doesn't hold that the universe is different, they might be wrong.

So now Einstein refuses to believe the growing body of evidence in the quantum world, too.

While its leaders believe unpredictability and probability are vital tools and not shortcomings, such a philosophy of uncertainty simply does not fit with Einstein's vision of the universe.

It's the 24th of October, 1927, a cool autumn day in Brussels, Belgium.

Albert Einstein, now aged 48, makes his way through the picturesque Leopold Park along a path around a crystal clear lake.

The leaves crunch beneath his feet as he walks his pace leisurely.

He is headed for a grand, grey stone building, the Solvay International Physics Institute.

Einstein has been invited to an exclusive conference here, but he feels tense as if he's about to enter enemy territory.

This year there are 29 delegates, 19 of whom have won or will win a Nobel Prize.

Aside from Einstein, there are such legendary names as Marie Curie, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Paul Durack and Irvin Schrodinger.

They're here for five days to discuss the nature of electrons and photons, in reality to decide the future of quantum theory.

Einstein makes his way up the imposing steps and into the conference room.

As his fellow delegates start to arrive, he takes his seat and lights up his pipe.

He had been asked to give a report on the state of quantum mechanics, but after much towing and throwing he declines.

I have concluded I am not competent to give such a report, he says.

The job falls instead to Niels Bohr.

Einstein and he are friends, having first met in 1920, but they do not see eye to eye on the new science.

A few years younger than Einstein and dressed in a pinstriped suit and watch chain, Bohr stands to address the room.

In the sub-atomic realm, he tells his audience, we cannot hope to deal in fixed laws and accepted ideas of cause and effect.

We must accept instead that we can speak only in terms of probabilities and chance.

Einstein shuffles his papers uneasily.

This cannot be true, he thinks.

Though he identifies as culturally Jewish rather than being observant as such, he still clings to the idea of what he calls a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.

And surely any such spirit wouldn't play dice with a cosmos like this.

But he says nothing for now.

He will wait for the less formal environment of dinnertime.

Then he will make his case.

It's an argument he is desperate to win.

His life's work, he thinks, depends on it.

As Bohr's speech is greeted with a plight round of applause, Einstein mulls over how to disprove it.

But while Einstein comes up with thought experiment after thought experiment about imposing certainty on the quantum world, every time he shares them, Bohr and his cohorts undermine them.

The battle comes to a head in 1930.

Einstein describes an experiment that uses an ultra-precise clock to help record the energy of an atom.

A device so brilliant that, contrary to what his opponents say, it can measure the atom without impacting the result.

He seems to show that subatomic certainty is possible after all.

At first, Bohr cannot find fault.

Then he realizes that Einstein's method fails to comply with his own theory of relativity.

Einstein's device works on the principle of emitting an atom from a container, then weighing the container to work out the energy of the atom.

But he has forgotten that, according to relativity, the emission of the atom will cause a repositioning of the box in space-time, which will in turn, in theory at least, cause a change in the precise timekeeping that allows the device to work in the first place.

Einstein realizes that Bohr has bested him.

His elation gives way to a fog of disappointment.

He will never accept that uncertainty is the reality of the quantum world, but the episode marks the end of his serious efforts to prove as much.

And one by one by one, Einstein's friends and his supporters sort of moved away from him.

And by the end, by the early-mid 1930s, he was really quite isolated.

He was super famous in the wider world, but among the physics community, he was considered a fossil.

He spends the last decades of his life attempting to define what he terms a unified field theory.

His intention is to integrate his own work with the apparently incompatible elements of his hero Maxwell's ideas on electromagnetism and gravity, a sort of theory of everything.

But though he is destined not to succeed, his work later becomes a keystone of string theory.

The idea that everything we see and experience in the universe is made up of vibrating subatomic strings.

String theory today is believed by many to offer the best chance of reconciling the Einsteinian and quantum universes.

Even as Einstein's scientific life falters, his status as a humanitarian and a global figurehead has never been higher.

Having moved back to Germany in 1914 to take up academic postings in Berlin, he emerges a fierce opponent of fascism, speaking with moral authority as a prominent Jew.

So Einstein was a target, and in the 1920s, this is before the Nazi Party had reached any size in Germany, there were a number of cranks and fools who tried to have conferences attacking him and saying that there was Jewish science and it was all wrong.

So Einstein was very dangerous to the authorities, so he had to leave Germany when Hitler came into power.

In the early 1930s, he was invited to head up a department at Princeton University in the US.

In due course, he becomes a US citizen, but the posting doesn't have quite the prestige that it might suggest.

He was hired by this new institution, officially called the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, which many people changed its name, they called it the Princeton Institute for Advanced Salaries, because they wanted to get great scientists and they gave him huge salaries.

Now it's a great place, but at that time it wasn't so good because the salaries were so big and there was so little teaching that you were allowed to just sit there and think that a lot of the people, especially if they were older, they became too isolated.

But his sense of right and wrong is as acute as ever.

When the great African-American singer Marianne Anderson is on tour, she finds herself refused accommodation thanks to racist hotel policies.

Hearing of her predicament, the recently widowed Einstein causes a stir by hosting her at his home.

The development of the atomic bomb poses an especially tricky moral quandary for him, given that his famous E equals MC squared equation paved the way for its development.

In 1939, he signs a letter to America's President Roosevelt, warning of the dangers if Germany gets the bomb first.

America, he says, should take steps to stockpile uranium and progress its own atomic bomb development to counter the Nazi threat.

Within two years, the White House establishes the Manhattan Project to develop its own weapon.

Whether or not the decision is influenced by Einstein's concerns is moot.

Certainly, he has no significant role in the project itself, not least because J. Edgar Hoover's FBI deems him a security risk.

But with the bomb within America's grasp, Einstein fears the authorities lack a firm grasp of its implications, and he calls for an internationalization of military power to mitigate its use.

When news breaks on the 6th of August, 1945, that the USA have dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, his only words, recorded by his secretary, are, Oh my God.

Reflecting a decade later, he says to his friend and fellow scientist Linus Pauling, I made one great mistake in my life, when I signed that letter to President Roosevelt, recommending that atom bombs be made.

In his personal life, his later years are filled with sadness.

His first wife, Milaiva Marich Einstein, dies in 1948, and although they had long been estranged, her death hits the almost 70-year-old Einstein badly.

Their son, Edward, will spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric clinic in Zurich, but in later life, Einstein is somewhat reconciled with his oldest son.

Now, more of a beloved, wise elder than a leader of the scientific avant-garde, in 1952, Einstein turns down an offer to become the president of the recently inaugurated state of Israel.

Einstein suffers his own poor health, being diagnosed with a serious heart complaint in 1948.

In April 1955, he is taken to hospital in Princeton with excruciating chest pain.

A few days later, he feels a little better and is allowed home.

His quest for the unified field theory calls him back.

He finds his glasses, a pencil and some paper, and sets down to work.

Sometime in the early hours of April 18th, alone at his desk, his heart gives out.

A nurse is called and arrives while he still clings to life.

Beckoning her close, he whispers something into her ear.

But it's in German, a language she does not understand.

Then he is gone.

The last words of the world's favorite genius are left to spin forever across the curve of space-time.

In 1999, Time magazine names Einstein as their person of the century, noting that he serves as a symbol of all the scientists.

It is a fair assessment of a man who changed our understanding of the universe and our place within it.

His science even raises the specter of time travel, at least at the quantum level.

His work is evident in the proliferation of the microchip and the development of lasers and is used in everything from barcode scanners to precision surgery.

And his equations continue to guide the cutting-edge work of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

He came up with the 1905 was very good special relativity, but there were few people on his tail getting close.

Poincaré and France and Lorenz and the Netherlands, if he hadn't done it, one of them may have come up with similar things fairly soon.

What he did in 1915, the general theory of relativity, maybe nobody would have come up with that for a century or more.

His ideas are fabulous.

It's the largest transformation of our worldview since Newton in the 1600s.

There might be other ones in the future, but this is absolutely fundamental.

It might well last for centuries.

In the next episode of Short History of, we'll bring you a short history of the conquistadors.

And the more we delve into it, the more we have to better understand not only how the conquistadors are working themselves, it's this kind of conflict between individual gain and group gain, and what's good for the king of Spain and for the burgeoning empire.

But we also have to better understand Inca society, the Inca political arrangement, and Deon culture, and why it is that a group of invaders are allowed to survive for so long, just as they do in Aztec, Mexico.

And I think there's an irony there that the Spaniards portrayed Indigenous peoples as barbaric and bloodthirsty.

But if they really were that barbaric and bloodthirsty, invading Spaniards would have been slaughtered in far greater numbers than they were.