Theoretical physicist, patent clerk, statesman, philosopher, amateur violinist, father of modern physics, superstar, one of the smartest humans in history, and the most famous scientist of the 20th century. Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879 — April 18, 1955) was single-handedly responsible for pretty much every genius-related trope in modern media: the brilliant yet witty and genial old man, the fly-away hair, the mild loopiness and absent mindedness, etc, etc.
Born in Ulm, Germany, Einstein was the son of an engineer. He was gifted in math and science from an early age. (The urban legend that he failed mathematics in high school was completely untrue. He did fail the entrance examination to The Zürich Institute of Technology, due toFrenchnote On the other hand, Wernher von Braundid fail ninth-grade algebra, so you can use that to cheer your kid up about his bad grades if you like.) He first started thinking about relativity at the age of 16, as he tried to imagine how a light wave would look if he traveled with it at the speed of light.note The idea of relativity was sort of "in the air" when Einstein was growing up in The Gay Nineties, as the similarly-multitalented Austrian Ernst Mach was articulating it at the time. There is no question, however, that Einstein's contributions were revolutionary
After graduating, a friend got him a job at a patent office, a quiet post that gave him plenty of unsupervised free time to work on physics. Nothing special happened until 1905, dubbed Annus Mirabilisnote "Wonderful Year", when he published four papers, in which he explained the photoelectric effect (which eventually got him a Nobel prize, and provided a major breakthrough in quantum mechanics), Brownian motion (which proved the existence of atoms once and for all—a scientific mystery that has been around since the days of classical Greece), special relativity (a theory explaining the previously observed fact that light travels at the same apparent speed regardless of the speed of the observer, which predicts some bizarre consequences, like that two observers moving relative to each other will not agree on how quickly time passes), and matter-energy equivalence (where we get the equation E = mc2). Needless to say, the papers had a revolutionary impact on science, most notably kicking off the age of nuclear energy.
In 1916, Einstein published the Theory of General Relativity, where he unified Newton's theory of gravity with special relativity; he postulated that gravity is not a force, but simply a curvature of the space-time continuum created by a massive object. The theory predicted the existence of black holes, higher dimensions, wormholes, and the possibility of time travel (sci-fi writers know who to thank).
Einstein left Germany for the US during the early rise of Nazism, where his Jewish heritage made him an easy target. In 1939, he signed a famous letter to Roosevelt supporting the opening of research into the atomic bomb. Einstein was never involved in the Manhattan Project because the FBI was deeply suspicious of his staunch pacifism and supposed "communist sympathies"; during the Cold War, the FBI kept very close tabs on him and even considered kicking him out of the country. In fact, he had almost nothing to do with the letter: It was written by Leo Szilard in consultation with fellow Hungarian physicists Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, and they asked Einstein to sign it only because his famous name would draw attention.
In the US, Einstein became something of a pop culture icon, with newspapers and reporters beating a path to his door. He also became something of a star amongst children, who wrote him thousands of letters about all manner of topics. Einstein was an influential member of the civil rights, pacifist, socialist, and Zionist movements; David Ben-Gurion even offered him the (mostly ceremonial) post of President of Israel (its powers are similar to those of the British Monarch). He turned it down (much to Ben-Gurion's relief, as a pacifist saint is not exactly something that a fledgling nation beset by enemies needs), and the post went to Chaim Weizmann (himself a scientist).
Einstein died in 1955. He spent most of the time after his arrival at the United States attempting to reconcile quantum mechanics with relativity, a quest that continues to this day.
Einstein has often been accused of plagiarism. It is true that other scientists had written about relativity before Einstein. In fact, relativity as a concept is first considered by Galileo in 1632, although Galileo's work didn't include anything like time slowing down as you speed up or lengths contracting. It was Hendrik Lorentz that first came up with the idea that light speed is constant, and it was Henri Poincare who originally came up with the equation E = mc2, only he wrote it as "m = E/c2". But to Einstein's credit, he was the only person to realize that relativity can be applied to the entire universe. Also, Lorentz and Poincare made very different physical assumptions than Einstein - namely the existence of a perfect reference point and the Luminiferous Aether. Though Lorentz and Einstein would become friends, Einstein never got over (what he perceived to be) Poincare's scientific conservatism.
Einstein received his Nobel prize for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, not relativity. At the time of the awarding, physical proof for relativity was still somewhat scant, and the more conservative members of the award committee disliked relativity and held up the award process for a few years. Eventually, they compromised and awarded the prize for the photoelectric effect, a safer option. Many treated this as an Award Snub.
His views about religion were complex. He was a member of the American Humanist Association and can mostly be called an atheist/agnostic who was influenced by Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza and believed in Spinoza's definition of God, which is ambiguous and somewhat... well, rather different from the norm. Spinoza posited an impersonal, amoral, non-sapient god in a kind of pantheism, in which God permeates and transcends nature. Einstein did say that he considered most of the beliefs of organized religion to be childish, but he liked the teachings of Christ and Buddha. Regardless of his beliefs on religion, Einstein truly believed that the universe was a perfect clockwork where all pieces could be predicted exactly. The emergence of quantum physics, which Einstein had ironically directly influenced, was an idea that Einstein bitterly disliked. He spent much of his later career unsuccessfully attempting to prove quantum theory wrong.
Tropes about Einstein
Absent-Minded Professor: He could not remember his own phone number. Or rather, didn't bother to memorize it since it was easy to look it up in a phone book. There are also stories about him keeping clothing at various businesses between his home and workplace due to him tending to forget to get completely dressed before leaving home in his later years.
Celebrity Resemblance: Invoked quite brilliantly (of course) as a way to avoid unwanted conversations. Whenever he was approached on the street by strangers who recognized him and wanted to discuss his theories, he would respond, "Pardon me, sorry! Always I am mistaken for Professor Einstein."
Deadpan Snarker: When the antisemitic tract 100 Authors Against Einstein was published, Einstein responded with: "Why a hundred authors? If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!" (Okay, so 99 were replacing a lightbulb).
Last Words: Einstein spoke his last words in German, but the person with him did not understand the language. So we will never know what he said. During his tenure at Princeton, the university employed grad students to follow him and eavesdrop/take notes, just in case he mentioned something ground-breaking off-hand.
Old Shame: Einstein disliked the implication that relativity predicted an expanding universe, and so added a "cosmological constant" to cancel out the expansion. He recanted the constant when Hubble proved that the universe is really expanding, and called it the "biggest blunder of his life". Fun stuff: as it turns out, there is a cosmological constant...because the universe is actually expanding faster than general relativity predicts. The constant is expressed in contemporary cosmology as dark energy.
Offered the Crown: Israel wanted to give him the post of its second President (a figurehead position, with powers similar to those of the British monarch) after the first one, Chaim Weizmann, died in 1952.
Post Mortem Conversion: He predicted this might happen to him in a speech to the French Philosophical Society:
"If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew."
In Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, set after the original time travel event, the Russians use a new time machine to erase Einstein in 1927, before the original time travel event, but after Einstein removed Hitler from time itself (1924).
IQ (1994 film). Walter Matthau plays Albert Einstein as a romantic matchmaker between his (fictional) niece Catherine and local auto mechanic Ed Walters.
Albert Einstein: "What she needs is to go out with someone like you. The problem is...she would never go out with someone like you.
Ed Walters: "Well that's easy, just lend me your brain for a couple of days. (beat) "What?"
Albert Einstein: "Are you thinking what I am thinking?"
Ed Walters: "What would be the odds of that happening?"
Einstein: The uncertainty principle will not help you now, Stephen. Hm? All the quantum fluctuations in the universe will not change the cards in your hand. I call. You are bluffing. And you will lose! Hawking: Wrong again, Albert. [reveals four-of-a-kind]
Einstein & Eddington, in which Einstein is played by Andy Serkis (i.e. Gollum)
Dexter's Laboratory: Dexter himself praises and cherishes Albert Einstein so much, he even has a poster of of him in his room.
Like Dexter, fellow boy-genius Jimmy Neutron admires Einstein. In one episode he was inspired to be a model hall monitor after finding out from his principal that Einstein was a hall monitor as a kid. It was later reviled that the hall monitor that his principal was talking about was actually the principal's sister, Eunice, who looks like Einstein.
In Time Squad, Einstein masqueraded as a Texan used car salesman named Big Al because the pay was better and he felt more accepted by the community.
The Steve Martin play Picasso At The Lapin Agile, about an imagined meeting between Einstein and Pablo Picasso.
Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian had several Einstien bobbleheads brought to life.
In the Heechee Saga future, Robinette Broadhead has an A.I. created to be Einstein. Every single writing by and about Einstein is used to create an A.I. as close to the real thing as possible. This creates a problem later on when the A.I. discovers that God really does play dice with the universe.
Matt Smith has written fanfic featuring Eleven and Einstein. A bunch of Who fans are demanding to be allowed to read it.
A short episode written by a contest-winning kid revealed that he and The Doctor are engaged in a prank war, filching one another's petty (and occasionally not so petty) possessions for no adequately explained reason.
The song "Einstein on the Beach (For an Eggman)" by Counting Crows, which is about the guilt for his part in designing nuclear weapons.
The song "Albert Einstein - Everything Is Relative" by Silicon Dreams, which is about, eh, every wrong trope they could apply, as already the title hints.
The Nicholas Roeg film Insignificance, about the imaginary meeting of Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio in a hotel room. The characters are billed as The Professor, The Actress, The Senator and The Ballplayer: but it's not difficult to figure out who's who.
In one cartoon, a frustrated-looking Einstein is leaning on a blackboard where several incorrect versions of his Theory of Relativity are written, all with a wrong number in place of the 2. Behind him a maid has just cleaned his counter, and he turns as she says, "There we go, everything's squared away, all squaaaared away."
In another cartoon, he and Thomas Edison are on Jeopardy!. The third contestant (who has a score of negative-100, in comparison to the high scores of his two opponents), says, "Listen, I know the game is almost over, but just for the record, I don't think my buzzer was working properly."
In one episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, Plucky convinces Shirley to channel Einstein's genius into him so he can pass a hard math test. (Plucky doesn't find out until it's too late that Einstein flunked math in grade school, which Shirley tells him later.)
One episode of the cartoon The Mummy (a spin-off of The Mummy Trilogy films) has Imhotep kidnap Einstein to help him decode the Scrolls of Thebes.
In the short story The Old Man And C by Sheila Finch, Einstein became a violin teacher instead. A master violin teacher with world-famous students, but he's troubled in his old age by the feeling that he really should have been doing something else with his life.
Lex Luthor considers Einstein one of his idols, and refuses to commit any acts of evil on his birthday.
Jor-El mentions in Superman Returns that out of all Earth scientists, maybe Einstein is the only one who "understands".
In Back to the Future, Doc Brown's 1985 dog is called Einstein, who is his first living test subject for his time-travel experiments, and much of the movie takes place in 1955, the same year Einstein died. Doc also keeps a portrait of Albert Einstein in his home, alongside Thomas Edison, Sir Isaac Newton, and Benjamin Franklin.