Career Scientist

The Path to Princeton

Self-reliant from a young age, Einstein carved out a distinguished career through his unfaltering dedication to science. As a boy, he struggled against a structured education system that wouldn't allow his imagination to flourish. 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. Academic institutions in Berlin, Zurich, Bern, Prague, and other European cities were well known to him. Einstein soon developed a reputation as a brilliant professor and was a visiting scholar at research institutes around the world. During a repeat visit to the California Institute of Technology, a colleague offered Einstein a position at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1933 Einstein made one final move: to Princeton, where he lived out his last decades as a theoretical physicist at the Institute.


Einstein's Bern Residence

Photo courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Patent Clerk to Professor

Einstein's first job out of college was that of a patent clerk at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern. Einstein later fondly remembered the patent office as the place where he "hatched his most beautiful ideas."

After seven years at the patent office and one year as a guest lecturer at the University of Bern, Einstein moved his family from their Bern residence when he became a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Zurich.

The Institute for Advanced Study

Tucked away on a quiet campus off the bustling streets of downtown Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study was for Einstein a "free thinker's" paradise where he could focus solely on theoretical physics. His office in Fuld Hall was sparsely furnished, except for a chalkboard, chairs, a desk, and shelves stacked with papers. There, Einstein and his assistants tried unsuccessfully to formulate the "Grand Unified Theory," which is still pursued by physicists today.


Einstein and Niels Bohr at Fuld Hall, IAS

Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segrè Archives

Einstein's Miracles of 1905

One great accomplishment may be enough for some lifetimes but not for Albert Einstein's. Now known as his "annus mirabilis," or miraculous year, 1905 was a great turning point in the young physicist's career. Einstein received his Ph.D. from the University of Zurich, and he wrote four groundbreaking articles that were published in the prestigious journal Annalen der Physik:

On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light, Annalen der Physik, 1905

On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat, Annalen der Physik, 1905

On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, Annalen der Physik, 1905

Does the Inertia of a Body Depend upon its Energy Content?, Annalen der Physik, 1905

The 26-year-old scientist knew his work was important, but even he could not predict how the physics world would react. In 1901 he had written to Mileva Mari, "I am now working very eagerly on electrodynamics of moving bodies, which promises to become a capital paper." Better known as the Special Theory of Relativity, that "capital paper" and three others spurred intense discussion in the scientific community; the newly graduated Ph.D. was now seen as a noteworthy physicist. Some historians have noted that if Einstein had never published anything after 1905, he still would have been known as one of the greatest thinkers of our time.

Einstein's Nobel Prize

The path to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize is often long and difficult. In fact, Einstein never actually made it to Stockholm to accept his medal. Famous thanks to a 1919 eclipse that confirmed his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein was in the midst of a world lecture tour when the Nobel committee awarded him the 1921 prize. He won for his distinguished career in physics, most notably for his 1905 theory of light and electrons called the Photoelectric Effect, not his more controversial theory of relativity.

Einstein and his wife Elsa were headed to Japan when the Nobel telegram arrived at their Berlin residence in 1922. The German ambassador to Sweden attended the December award ceremony on Einstein's behalf, overlooking that the scientist had renounced his German citizenship in 1896. After much confusion over whether Einstein was a German or Swiss citizen, the Swedish ambassador hand-delivered the medal to Einstein in Berlin in 1923. Later that year Einstein visited Sweden to give his "Nobel lecture"—on relativity.

Einstein's Nobel Prize Medal

Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), a Swedish inventor of dynamite and other explosive technology, requested that upon his death his estate be used to establish a foundation of good will. Decreed in 1900, the Nobel Foundation provides prize money to Nobel recipients, named by separate committees. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences chooses the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The central image on Einstein's Nobel medal depicts the Genius of Science unveiling Nature, in the form of the goddess Isis. She is emerging from the clouds holding a vessel of abundance. Surrounding the image are the words, "Inventions enhance life which is beautified through art." The reverse side bears an image of Alfred Nobel.

Nobel Prize in Physics Certificate

In 1922, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences retroactively awarded Albert Einstein the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking theory of the Photoelectric Effect. Members of the prize committee had nominated Einstein nearly every year between 1910 and 1922, but there was much debate as to which groundbreaking theory they should cite. Some said General Relativity, but a mere eclipse was not enough proof for all committee members to stake their reputations on Einstein's new theory. With the medal came a sum of 121,592 kronor (roughly $32,000), which Einstein gave to his ex-wife Mileva as part of their divorce agreement.