Albert Einstein is one of the most renowned scientists of our time. He’s best known for his theory of relativity, but he also played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb.
Einstein was born in 1879 in Germany, and he showed an early interest in science and mathematics. He studied physics at the University of Zurich, and he later taught physics at the ETH Zurich and the University of Berlin.
Einstein’s theories revolutionized our understanding of the universe. His work on the theory of relativity led to the development of nuclear weapons during World War II.
After the war, Einstein campaigned for peace and nuclear disarmament. He died in 1955, at the age of 76.
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics). His work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science. He is best known to the general public for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2, which has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”.
He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”, a pivotal step in the development of quantum theory. Near the beginning of his career, Einstein thought that Newtonian mechanics was no longer enough to reconcile the laws of classical mechanics with those of electromagnetic theory. This led him to develop his special theory of relativity during his time at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern (1902–1909).
However, he realized that the principle of relativity could also be extended to gravitational fields, and with his subsequent theory of gravitation in 1916, he published a paper on the general theory of relativity. He continued to deal with problems of statistical mechanics and quantum theory, which led to his explanations of particle theory and the motion of molecules.
He also investigated the thermal properties of light which laid the foundation of the photon theory of light. In 1917, Einstein applied the general theory of relativity to model the large-scale structure of the universe.
When Einstein published his equation, he never intended to be associated with bombs. He considered himself a pacifist and openly declared he would “unconditionally refuse to do war service, direct or indirect… regardless of how the cause of the war should be judged.” (Ronald Clark, “Einstein: The Life and Times,” pg. 428). In 1933, as a result of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, his attitude on peace changed. While still promoting peace, Einstein no longer fit his previous self-description of being an “absolute pacifist.”
Instead, he became what Clark calls a “relative pacifist”, still condemning all war but believing that some wars may be justified.
Einstein’s new attitude towards war can be seen in his involvement with the development of the atomic bomb. In 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt warning him of the potential development of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type”. He urged Roosevelt to begin research into the feasibility of such weapons, as it was clear that Nazi Germany was also working on them. This letter ultimately led to the creation of the Manhattan Project, the American effort to develop an atomic weapon before Germany could.
Einstein later regretted his involvement in the Manhattan Project. In a letter to Swedish physicist Bertrand Russell, he wrote: “I made one great mistake in my life…when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification for it at the time.” (Bertrand Russell, “The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell”, pg. 544). He went on to become a passionate advocate for nuclear disarmament, campaigning for a world free of nuclear weapons until his death in 1955.
While Albert Einstein is best known for his work in physics, he was also a talented mathematician and philosopher. He made important contributions to both fields, and his ideas continue to influence our understanding of the universe today. Albert Einstein was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, and his work has had a profound impact on our world.
Signing a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging that the bomb be developed was Einstein’s greatest contribution to the development of the atomic bomb. Concerned physicists thought that Germany might be developing an atomic weapon following Germany’s uranium atom splitting in December 1938 and continued German aggression. This possibility increased after the fall of France in June 1940 and the subsequent German occupation of much of western Europe.
British intelligence had intercepted and decoded some German military communications, including references to a possible “uranium gun” or “uranium machine.” In July 1940, British physicist John Cockcroft went to the United States to brief American scientists on what was known about the German program.
Einstein’s letter, which was also signed by Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, warned Roosevelt that America might not be able to develop its own atomic bomb before Germany. The letter helped convince Roosevelt to authorize the top secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic weapon.
While Einstein did not participate directly in the Manhattan Project, he continued to offer his expertise to the war effort. In 1945, he helped assess the potential damage from an atomic bomb explosion and advised against using them on Japanese cities.
Einstein’s work on the theory of relativity and his discovery of the photoelectric effect won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. But it was his role in the development of the atomic bomb that would ensure his place in history.
Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner were among the concerned scientists. However, Szilard and Wigner had no clout with those in charge. As a result, in July 1939 they explained the concern to someone who did: Albert Einstein. According to Szilard, Einstein said that “the notion of a chain reaction never crossed my mind,” although he was quick to grasp the idea.
When they left, Szilard told Wigner: “We have to get hold of Albert Einstein.” But getting hold of Einstein was not easy. In the summer of 1939 he was vacationing in the Poconos. When Szilard and Wigner finally tracked him down, they convinced him of the need for action. Thus began a series of events that would eventually lead to the development of the atomic bomb.
Einstein agreed to write a letter to President Roosevelt, warning him of the possibility of German scientists developing an atomic weapon. The letter, which was also signed by Szilard and Wigner, warned that “extremely powerful bombs” could be built using nuclear fission. It urged the president to provide funding for research into the potential use of nuclear energy.
The letter was hand-delivered to Roosevelt by Alexander Sachs, an economist and close friend of the president. Roosevelt responded by ordering the formation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium. This group, which included Einstein, would eventually recommend that the US government begin a program of research into nuclear weapons.
The Manhattan Project, as it was known, would ultimately lead to the development of the atomic bomb. Albert Einstein played a pivotal role in getting it started. But he later expressed regret at his involvement, saying he wished he “had never heard of Hiroshima”.