Jewish Heritage Month: Albert Einstein

Photo of Albert Einstein
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Magazine/Corbis

In honor Jewish American Heritage Month, we’re recognizing the economic, cultural, political, social, and scientific contributions of influential Jewish immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape the vibrant and rich tapestry of America.

We focus on physicist Albert Einstein, who developed the theories of relativity and later won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Einstein was born in 1879 in Germany. He was raised in a secular Jewish family and set himself apart for his inquisitive and analytical style as a child. At ten, a family friend and medical student introduced Albert to science, inspiring him to write his first major paper, “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.”

In the 1880s, Albert was left at a relative’s boarding house to finish his education while his father relocated the rest of the family to Italy. But Einstein used a doctor’s note to withdraw from school and join his family after facing military duty. He later enrolled in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, renounced his German citizenship, and became a Swiss citizen.

After graduation, Einstein worked as a clerk in a Swiss patent office, a job that provided enough downtime to work on ideas he had developed in school.

In 1905, Einstein published four papers in one of his era’s most reputable physics journals. He based two on his theory of relativity, which defined his career and the study of physics in general. His theory explained that space and time are connected while referring to the combined structure as space-time. By 1915, he had completed his now-iconic theory. His findings of planetary orbits offered new descriptions of how gravity works. They were later confirmed by British astronomers studying the 1919 solar eclipse. He won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

In 1933, Einstein took a position at Princeton University’s, Institute of Advanced Study in New Jersey. At this time, Adolf Hitler’s growing Nazi regime precluded Jewish scientists from working in academia, even targeting Einstein to be killed. Six years later, Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning him of a possible Nazi bomb and encouraging the U.S. to develop nuclear weapons.

Einstein became a naturalized American citizen in 1940. He Einstein enlisted as a member of the NAACP in the late 40s. He drew similarities between the treatment of Jews in Germany and Black people in the United States. After World War II, he continued to work on key aspects of his theory of relativity, including time travel, wormholes, and black holes.

Albert Einstein died in 1955 at the age of 76.