September 26, 1905: Einstein Publishes a Paper


In his long and prolific career, Albert Einstein published over 300 scientific papers in addition to hundreds of books and articles.  One of his most famous scientific papers, published on September 26, 1905, was “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Køper” or “On the Electro-dynamics of Moving Bodies.”  We mere mortals know it (slightly) better as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.  Don’t ask me to begin to explain it (I can’t), but I can report that special relativity is important in the fields of quantum mechanics, atomic physics and nuclear physics.

Einstein was only 26 when he published his paper, just months after having received his PhD.  It was one of four groundbreaking papers he published within the space of a single year, which has since been referred to as Einstein’s annus mirabilis—Einstein’s miracle year.  (The other three papers dealt with the equivalence of mass and energy—E=mc2; Brownian motion; and the photoelectric effect.  Don’t ask me to explain them either.)

Einstein was visiting the United States when Hitler came to power in January 1933, and he never returned to Germany.  In March 1933 he learned that his house had been raided (it was later seized and eventually converted into a Hitler Youth camp).  On May 10, 1933, his works were targeted (along with those of Freud, H.G. Wells, Proust, Remarque, and many many others) for Nazi book burnings by students in university towns throughout Germany.

Following short stays in Belgium and Great Britain in mid-1933, Einstein elected to accept a position at the recently formed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

Those of you who have seen the movie Oppenheimer witness, in one of the early scenes, an avuncular, slightly disheveled Einstein (he was once described as looking like “a reliable old-fashioned watchmaker in a small town who perhaps collected butterflies on a Sunday”) conferring with Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute.  It was Einstein’s initiative with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (explaining nuclear fission and warning that Germany might already be on the road to developing an atom bomb) that, more than anything else, gave rise to the Manhattan Project.

Notwithstanding Einstein’s preeminence—he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921—not everyone in the U.S. was pleased with his decision to move permanently to America in October 1933.  According to historian Richard Ketchum:

“[W]hen it was learned that Einstein  . . .  planned to emigrate to the United States, a women’s ‘Patriotic Corporation’ tried to prevent his admission on the grounds that he was a Communist, and the National Patriotic Council, labeling him a German Bolshevist, announced that his theory of relativity ‘was of no scientific value or purpose, not understandable because there was nothing there to understand.’”

Einstein became a U.S. citizen in 1940, and died in Princeton in 1955, age 76.

We’ll let Einstein have the last word vis-à-vis his xenophobic critics:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not yet completely sure about the universe.”

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