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Monday, March 14, 2016

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879: bio, video, gravitational waves, and the post-mortem saga of his brain

The greatest aim of all science [is] to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest possible number of hypotheses or axioms.


Einstein with an Einstein puppet**
To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of the devoutly religious men.

~ Albert Einstein (What I Believe)

Our defense is not in armaments, nor in science, nor in going underground. Our defense is in law and order.

~ Einstein (New York Times Magazine, 2 August 1964)

If my theory of relativity is proven correct, Germany will claim me as a German, and France will declare that I am as a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare me a Jew.

~ Einstein (address at the Sorbonne, December 1929*)

Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom—God knows why—the bored public has taken possession of.

~ Einstein (letter to Heinrich Zangger, 1922)

Even though without writing each other, we are in mental communication, for we respond to our dreadful times in the same way and tremble together for the future of mankind ... I like it that we have the same given name.

~ Albert Schweitzer (wiki) (1875-1965) (of Einstein, letter, February 1955)

Quintessential theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (wiki) (1879-1955) was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Germany. After an unpromising start in school, Einstein took Swiss citizenship at the age of 15 and while working as a patent examiner in the Swiss patent office in 1905, produced three seminal papers - on the photoelectric effect and the quantum theory of light, Brownian motion, and his theory of special relativity - that forever changed modern physics. 

The general theory of relativity (see video below on recent discovery of gravitational waves) followed in 1916, by which time he was professor of physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where he continued his theoretical work until 1934, when he fled Germany for the United States to escape Nazi persecution. He was among the prominent physicists who warned President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 about the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, which led to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. 

Awarded American citizenship in 1940, Einstein spent his last years at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, where he sought to develop the so-called "unified field theory" which still eludes physicists today. He is now recognized as the greatest physicist of the 20th century, if not of all time.

Here's a brief biography:


And an explanation of the recent discovery of gravitational waves (based on Einstein's general theory):


After his death in 1955, Einstein's brain (wiki) was removed - without permission from his family - by Thomas Stoltz Harvey, the Princeton Hospital pathologist who conducted the autopsy. Harvey took the brain home and kept it in a jar. He was later fired from his job for refusing to relinquish the organ.

Many years later, Harvey, who by then had gotten permission from Einstein's son Hans Albert to study the brain, sent slices to various scientists throughout the world. There's more here on the postmortem travels and travails of the brain, plus this: the first formal study of Albert Einstein's brain, which describes some differences in structure and morphology.

* N.B. An earlier variant of the same idea (in November 1919):
"By an application of the theory of relativity to the taste of readers, today in Germany I am called a German man of science, and in England, I am represented as a Swiss Jew. If I come to be regarded as a bĂȘte noire, the descriptions will be reversed, and I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans and a German man of science for the English!"
** This photo was taken by Harry Burnett at Cal Tech in Pasadena where Albert Einstein was teaching. Einstein saw the puppet perform at the Teato Torito and was quite amused. He reached into his jacket’s breast pocket, pulled out a letter and crumpled it up. Speaking in German, he said, “The puppet wasn’t fat enough!” He laughed and stuffed the crumpled letter up under the smock to give the puppet a fatter belly.

Further reading:

Princeton's digital archive of Einstein's papers.

Prior to their divorce, Einstein had for his first wife a rather stringent list of behaviors that he put into writing. He produced another set of criteria for their divorce, including a promise to give to her the proceeds of his not-yet-awarded Nobel Prize.

The plot to kill Einstein

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