Albert Einstein is one of the smartest human beings who ever lived, and he's probably the smartest person that the average individual can name off the top of their head.
He was responsible for unifying mass and energy with his famous E=mc^2 equation, the world’s most famous equation. Additionally, he developed the general theory of relativity and, in so doing, laid the foundation for all modern science. Einstein also won the Nobel Prize for his scientific efforts.
But that's getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let's back up a little. Let's start at the beginning.
The Birth of a Genius
Einstein was born to a German middle-class Jewish family in 1879. For those of you who don’t already know, “Pi Day” is also Einstein’s birthday (how awesome is that?). His father was a well-respected engineer who worked with direct current electrical equipment.
At the time, direct current and alternating current were in a market war with each other (similar to recent blue-ray vs DVD war). Because of this, the Einsteins moved to Munich in 1880 so they could better compete with alternating current. It was a battle direct current eventually lost.
According to some of Einstein’s biographical sources, early in his life, Einstein was shown a compass by his father. Immediately, the young genius realized that something must be causing the needle to move, even though there was nothing currently observable causing this motion.
Between that and Einstein’s interest in building models and mechanical devices, he showed an aptitude for math and science.
After Einstein’s Father’s business failed, the family moved to Italy. In this time, Einstein published his first paper titled “On the Investigation of the State of Ether in a Magnetic Field.” Whereas the paper was not widely circulated, it marked the beginning of his contributions to science. Eventually, Einstein moved to Switzerland where he was awarded a teaching diploma in math and physics in 1900.
Unfortunately, due to the poor job climate and Einstein’s less-than-stellar school record, he had problems finding a teaching job, so he started work in a patent office. Specifically, he evaluated patents for electromagnetic devices. One of the biggest issues of the time was the synchronization of time (something we take for granted now). While thinking about this problem, among others, Einstein realized that space and time were fundamentally connected. And this is where his scientific career truly started.
A New Age in Science
In 1905, Einstein published a flurry of papers dealing with various different topics. These were the claim that light must (sometimes) act like a stream of particles, experimental proof for the existence of atoms, offering a solution for the issue of connectivity between electromagnetism and motion, and finally the unification of mass and energy in his famous E=mc^2 equation.
Shortly after publication of these papers, Einstein got a teaching job at the University of Zurich, then later at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague. Over the course of the next decade, Einstein continued to refine his theory of general relativity. In 1916, he published the paper on general relativity which tied his theory of special relativity with the Newtonian laws of universal gravitation. This essentially unified gravity with spacetime.
In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics due to his work on the photoelectric effect — that’s right, not relativity. The reason? At the time, general relativity was a really controversial theory. To ever-so-briefly summarize the photoelectric effect, it deals with the idea that, instead of light simply being a wave, photons exist as particles of light. The photoelectric effect also addressed how these photon particles behave.
As World War II kicked into full gear, Einstein became increasingly more politically active, eventually immigrated to the US, and contributed to the Manhattan Project. For the remainder of his life, Einstein worked on the Theory of Everything – the grand unification of all four fundamental forces of nature. That theory would elude Einstein to the day he died, which was caused by internal bleeding due to an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
But here's what you really need to know: Relativity is one of the greatest contributions to science ever. The theory is the cornerstone of modern science. If you were to disprove relativity tomorrow, the entire infrastructure of our current understanding of the universe would collapse around itself. Science would be set back a century. Fortunately, it is extremely unlikely that this will happen.
Relativity is one of the most tested scientific theories of all time, and it has withstood all scrutiny.