Life and Times

March 14, 1879—Albert Einstein is born in Ulm, Germany.

Life & Times section of exhibition AMNH; Photo Studio

Life & Times section of exhibition

AMNH; Photo Studio


Albert Einstein's lifelong passion for physics was sparked at the age of four or five when his father showed him a small compass. Young Albert tried to imagine the mysterious force that caused the compass needle to move, and the experience awakened a sense of wonder that stayed with him for life. Understanding the universe became an "eternal riddle" for Einstein, a quest for scientific enlightenment. "The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise," he wrote, "but it has proved itself as trustworthy, and I have never regretted having chosen it."

Einstein deftly navigated scientific problems, but he charted the path through his turbulent personal life with less success. His passionate romance and subsequent marriage to physicist Mileva Mari ended bitterly, alienating him from their two sons. Einstein's life was punctuated by love affairs—one of which, with his cousin Elsa Löwenthal, led to a second marriage.

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The Early Years

According to popular lore, Albert Einstein was a poor student. It is true that he did not earn top grades in every subject, but he excelled at math and science, even though he skipped classes and had to cram for exams.

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Family Roots

Born into a middle-class Jewish family, Albert Einstein showed great mental discipline at a young age. The Einsteins taught their son self-reliance, and they let teenage Albert make his own decisions about his education, career, religion and even citizenship. Einstein embraced this intellectual independence as the foundation for his scientific achievements.

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Einstein's Escapes

" . . . When Albert is here I cannot accomplish anything: There is so much laughing, joking and music-making going on that there is not enough time for anything else." This excerpt from a letter by Pauline Einstein captures her son's enthusiasm for life, whether at work or at play.

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Career Scientist

Einstein recognized early in life that he had a talent for mathematics and abstract thought, and the intellectual freedom of theoretical physics appealed to him.
While still establishing himself as a physicist, Einstein had to move to wherever jobs were available.