Albert Einstein’s contributions to science revolutionized our understanding of space, time, gravity and the universe. His theories boldly contradicted popular beliefs at the time, but unlike other controversial scientific geniuses, many Albert Einstein theories were validated during his lifetime, which gave him superstar status.
He won the Nobel Prize and came up with the most widely recognized equation in history. Scientists aren’t often treated like rock stars, but according to Discover Magazine, Einstein — with his unforgettable signature look and witty personality — was widely known as a public figure. He even caused a riot once, when a mob of 4,500 people broke down the door to a Chicago lecture hall that was showing a film about Einstein and his general theory of relativity.
A Simple Equation for a Complicated Concept
Einstein was born on March 14, 1899, to a Jewish family in Germany during the rise of Nazism. He left his home country and became a Swiss citizen, and later an American citizen. His discoveries still provide the foundation for today’s scientific endeavors, 140 years later.
According to NPR, when Einstein started his career, physics was in crisis. The theories developed from Galileo’s era until Einstein’s covered mechanics, electromagnetism and thermodynamics, but none of these branches of physics could explain certain phenomena that was being observed by astronomers. Einstein unlocked the next wave of discoveries and, in 1905, he destroyed notions of space and time with his special theory of relativity.
While previous ideas held that light either propagated through an imaginary material called “ether” or through empty space, Einstein said that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers. He said that the speed of light in a vacuum is independent of the motion of observers and proposed that space and time are interwoven into a single continuum. According to Einstein, mass and energy are just different manifestations of the same thing. This idea is represented by his memorable equation, E = mc2, which means a quantity of energy equals a quantity of mass times the speed of light squared.
It’s All Relative
Special relativity described how everything is moving relative to everything else. A fast-moving object appears a bit shorter and time passes more slowly than a relatively stationary observer. These effects are usually very subtle, but they are more pronounced when the speed of the moving object approaches the speed of light. Furthermore, according to NPR, Einstein demonstrated that no object with mass could ever reach the speed of light, because mass grows with speed and becomes infinitely large at the speed of light.
Einstein expanded his theory in 1916, when he published his theory of general relativity, which explained gravitation. Previously, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion explained the concept of gravity but didn’t explore where the force originated. According to Space.com, Einstein said that space and time are pliable, and gravity results from massive objects causing a distortion that warps space-time. The force between the objects depends on how massive each one is and their distance from each other.
Einstein’s Impact Beyond Relativity
In 1921, Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the photoelectric effect. Previously, light had been thought of as a single wave, but Einstein said it should instead be thought of as a stream of particles (which we now call photons).
Einstein spent the second half of his life developing a unified field theory, an ideal law of physics that remains unfulfilled. He tried to unify all the forces of the universe in a single theory, and he worked on this theory until he died of heart failure in 1955.
During his lifetime, Einstein was famous as an intellectual, a civil rights supporter and a pacifist, according to Discover Magazine. Beyond his era, his theories continue to be supported by new scientific evidence. His theory of general relativity predicted black holes and gravitational waves, both hot areas of research in astronomy today. Some lesser-known Albert Einstein theories laid the foundation for gravitational lensing, played a part in the creation of the atom bomb, helped chemists understand molecules and atoms and more. He debated quantum theory with Niels Bohr, helping shape today’s innovative quantum mechanics. Albert Einstein’s contributions unlocked new discoveries in physics and changed the way we perceive our very existence.