Jürgen Schmidhuber
ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879 - 1955)
and the "Greatest Scientific Discovery Ever"
Albert Einstein
1879: Born in Ulm. 1886: Start of education in Munich. 1896: Leaves Germany; moves to Switzerland (Swiss citizen 1901-1955). 1905: Working in an unlikely place (the patent office in Bern), he introduces special relativity theory, explains the photoelectric effect, writes a ground- breaking paper on statistical mechanics, and gets a doctorate of ETH Zurich for something else. 1908: Habilitation (postdoctoral thesis) in Bern; Privatdozent. 1911: Full professor in Prague. 1914: Moves to University of Berlin, encouraged by Max Planck, founder of quantum physics, the other pillar of 20th century physics.
1915 / 1916: Introduces general theory of relativity, widely regarded as the most remarkable scientific contribution of the 20th century. 1921: Nobel Prize for (by his standards) comparatively minor achievements. 1924: last major scientific contribution (at age 45, on waves & matter).
warps of spacetime - after an image of Univ. Amsterdam
Mass warps spacetime
Einstein in his most productive years
1932: at age 53, he plans to spend 7 months a year in Berlin, 5 at Princeton (US), but Nazis grab power, and he does not come back. At age 61, he obtains US citizenship in addition to his Swiss one; at age 66 he retires. 1952: Gets an offer to become president of Israel. 1955: Dies in Princeton.

Left: Einstein during his most productive years.

Einstein: person of the century, according to a US news magazine
Albert Einstein: person of the century, according to TIME magazine. The photograph was taken decades after his last major scientific contribution.

For several years, Schmidhuber's brother Christof (a theoretical physicist @ Munich, Caltech, Princeton, Bern, CERN) lived next door to Einstein's former apartment in Bern, Switzerland.

Schmidhuber's motivation: to build an optimal scientist.

Fibonacci web design

Einstein is frequently listed among the greatest scientists of all time, often together with fellow physicists Galileo and Newton. Does it make sense to compare them? Galileo is known as the "father of modern physics", Newton brought the field to a first culmination point through his Principia Mathematica (the most influential book in the history of physics, according to Stephen Hawking), and Einstein provided the next such peak: Nobel laureate Paul Dirac called General Relativity probably the greatest scientific discovery ever made; Max Born called it the greatest feat of human thinking about nature.

2000 years from now it will look as if Galileo / Newton / Einstein lived almost at the same time, during an outbreak of European scientific creativity spanning a few centuries. But from the present point of view Einstein's achievements are still very recent; hence his ideas have had the least time to unfold their impact. In the beginning of the 20th century he came up with this great theory explaining the universe, but initially its impact on daily life was negligible. Since then, however, more and more extremely practical devices have been developed based on Einstein's insights, and this trend is continuing, even accelerating. In this sense, he is continually gaining on Galileo and Newton - it seems a safe bet that his perceived importance is bound to grow even further. Recently he already was voted greatest physicist ever (poll for Physics World magazine; source: BBC News, 29 Nov 1999).

If sheer popularity was our yardstick (but of course it should not be), the race would already be over - Einstein is the only truly famous scientist who ever lived, the only one whose fame matches that of the most popular rock stars ever. Similarly, his formula E=mc2 appears to be the only truly famous scientific formula, even though most laymen do not really understand what exactly it means.

Nevertheless, we should not forget that it was Archimedes who provided the basic tools that made possible the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. Since he started out from much more limited prior knowledge, and since there has not been much scientific progress for such a long time after his death, his work appears to be even more unique and outstanding. It seems likely that for quite some time many will consider Archimedes as the greatest of them all.

-JS, September 2006

Archimedes, greatest scientist ever