Albert Einstein, widely regarded as the pre-eminent scientist of the modern era, ranks with Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton as one whose ideas and scientific achievements radically altered and expanded our view of the universe.

Dawn of the atomic age

Einstein was the first scientist to understand the relationship between matter and energy—that matter and energy are interchangeable in much the same way that water and ice are different forms of the same substance.

Considered one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century, this understanding ushered in the “atomic age” and forms the basis for much of modern day technology. Practical applications include space exploration, hospital diagnostic procedures, medical imaging, smoke detectors, telecommunication satellites—to mention only a few.

Commenting on Einstein’s discovery, Swami Kriyananda writes:

This realization that matter, far from being solid, is a vibration of energy is increasingly defining our understanding of reality and, above all, convinces us that we live in a New Age…

A bright and precocious student

Einstein was born March 14, 1879, in Wurttemberg, Germany to an upper middle class German Jewish couple. He grew up in a warm, intellectually stimulating family environment. From early childhood he was tutored at home and studied the violin, which became a life-long passion.

As a student, he generally received good grades, while excelling in mathematics and Latin. Though not a child prodigy, the notion that he was slow, retarded or mentally challenged is unfounded. In fact, he was bright and precocious but his unwillingness to conform to the rigid authoritarianism of the German schools led some of his teachers to mark him for failure.

His real learning came from independent study in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. By age 12 he was familiar with Euclidean geometry and already studying advanced mathematics and calculus.

A moment of deep intuitive insight

After Einstein’s family moved to Italy in 1895, he completed his high school and university education in Zurich, Switzerland. Upon graduating, he failed to obtain a university job even though a doctoral candidate, but finally landed a position as a technical examiner at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland in 1902.

Working in isolation, Einstein now had time to devote to the most controversial scientific ideas of his time. The turning point in his career came in 1905. After weeks of deep thought, Einstein woke up one morning feeling “the greatest excitement.” The solution to a whole series of problems, including the theory of relativity, came to him in a moment of deep intuitive insight.

Four papers that changed the world

Within a six-month period, Einstein wrote four groundbreaking papers that appeared in one of the leading scientific journals of the time. His first paper, proving that light was both a particle and a wave, would win the Nobel Prize in 1921 and lay the groundwork for modern-day quantum theory.

His second paper proved the existence of molecules and atoms—a fact now taken for granted, while his fourth paper (through his now famous equation, E = mc2)  showed the equivalence of matter and energy.

The third of these papers, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, introduced his special theory of relativity. Ten years later, in 1915, Einstein would complete his work on the General Theory of Relativity, considered by many “perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of human thought.”

In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington, Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge University and a strong supporter of Einstein, arranged a much-publicized expedition to West Africa to confirm Einstein’s theory of relativity.

By photographing a solar eclipse, Eddington proved that Einstein’s mathematical calculations were correct and that estimates based on Newtonian physics were wrong. The success of this experiment brought Einstein, now living in Germany, sudden worldwide acclaim.

Has life become meaningless?

Newtonian physics with its straight lines and right angles was comprehensible to ordinary people but Einstein’s theory of relativity was altogether different. The most people could understand was that the concepts of absolute time and space had been dethroned.

Philosophers and writers quickly seized upon the theme of relativity and tried to apply it to moral and spiritual values. During the 1920s, the belief began to circulate that there were no longer any absolutes—not only of time and space but of good and evil, right and wrong—and that life itself was meaningless.

Regarding this development Swami Kriyananda writes:

Einsteinian relativity never robbed us of universal values. It only undermined the fallacy of absolute moral values. Only God, who is beyond relativity, may be called absolute. Values themselves cannot be that. They are, however, universal.

Many basic values apply in varying degrees to everyone. To help someone in need is a virtue not because scripture says so, but for the simple reason that nature implants in us an urge toward self-expansion. We satisfy that urge toward expansion in many ways: in sympathy, knowledge, understanding. A self-serving attitude, on the other hand, is contractive, and goes against that natural urge. Even if a whole culture endorses it, the result, for its people, is general unhappiness.

Belief in a cosmic religion

Starting in the 1930s, Einstein gave a number of talks on the relationship between science and religion. He felt strongly that religion and science should complement each other, saying, in one of his famous quotes: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Because he rejected certain tenets of Western religion, including the soul’s immortality and the idea of a personal God, Einstein was often accused of being an atheist, which he denied. He described his beliefs as a “cosmic religion”:

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists… My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself [through scientific discovery]…. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.

For Einstein, this “cosmic religious feeling” was the “strongest and noblest driving force behind scientific research,” and an important link between science and religion. Indeed, in his opinion, “the religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it.”

Commenting on Einstein’s religious views, Swami Kriyananda writes:

[M]any scientists have believed in God. Einstein, one of the greatest of them, described scientific discovery in terms of “mystical awe.” His transcendent outlook, however, had nothing to do with church affiliation of any kind. Indeed, he was suspicious of any attempt by so-called “authority” to limit the freedom of scientific inquiry.

Under constant threat of death

The post WWI years were a challenging time for Einstein. Divorced and remarried, he traveled widely speaking in support of world government and Zionism, and against the militarism, fascism, and anti-Semitism espoused by the emerging Nazi party in Germany.

As an outspoken Nazi critic, Einstein became the target of Nazi propaganda and lived under the constant threat of death. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he left Germany for good and accepted a position at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1940.

As the world edged closer to war, Einstein, though committed in principle to non-violence, recognized that “organized power can only be opposed by organized power.” Fearing that Hitler was already developing an atomic weapon, he wrote Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 and advised the development of an atomic bomb.

Although Einstein was not directly involved in the project, the bomb’s creation marked the first practical use of his equation, E = mc2. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 caused Einstein great concern for the future of humanity.

An attempt to show all creation as maya

During the last three decades of his life, he relentlessly pursued a “unified field theory.” Later known as the “theory of everything,” it was Einstein’s attempt to develop a set of mathematical equations that would explain the entire workings of the universe.

Applauding Einstein’s efforts, Paramhansa Yogananda writes in Autobiography of a Yogi that his theory was, in essence, an attempt to explain all creation as maya—a delusion:

In his Unified Field Theory, the great physicist embodies in one mathematical formula the laws of gravitation and of electromagnetism. Reducing the cosmical structure to variations on a single law, Einstein reaches across the ages to the rishis who proclaimed a sole texture of creation—that of a protean maya.

Although Einstein died without achieving his goal, he laid the groundwork for a new generation of physicists who have taken up the challenge. Much of the recent research in field of “string theory” can be traced to Einstein.

Opening vast new fields of discovery

Assessing Einstein’s legacy, Swami Kriyananda states that what makes Einstein’s discoveries so great is that they opened up new fields of discovery well beyond the scientific audiences to whom they were directed:

Einstein’s theories have opened the way to an infinity of investigations. His Theory of Relativity, for example, has had a seminal influence not only on every scientific discipline, but also on the humanities: philosophy, sociology, psychology, religion—the list appears to be never-ending.

Einstein died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on April 18, 1955 at Princeton, NJ. At his request, there was no funeral, no grave, and no marker. That same day his body was cremated and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed place.

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