Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist of the 20th century. His scientific breakthroughs were so breathtaking that his gentle, bemused expression and riot of white hair have come to symbolize genius in the popular imagination. Einstein did not seek fame, but when thrust into the spotlight he chose to use his renown to further the causes of freedom and human rights around the world. A heartfelt humanist, he mistrusted authority. His independent, nonconformist thinking enabled him to shrug off centuries of scientific tradition to come up with astoundingly original theories about the nature of the universe.
Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany, into a nonreligious Jewish family. His father ran an electrical equipment business, while his mother imbued him with a love of music that would stay with him his whole life. Einstein was a quiet child, very observant and self–reliant. When he was five years old, he received a compass. Young Albert was fascinated by the fact that no matter which way he turned the compass, the needle always pointed the same direction. This was his introduction to scientific inquiry. "That experience made a deep and lasting impression on me," he wrote years later. "Something deeper had to be hidden behind things."
Einstein was fortunate to have people around him who encouraged his interest in math and science. His uncle Jakob Einstein, an electrical engineer, and Max Talmey, a medical student who was a regular guest at family dinners, often loaned him science books. When Einstein was 12, he taught himself geometry from one of these books.
Legend has it that Einstein was a poor student who flunked out of school, but this was not the case. He excelled at math and science, though he often got only mediocre grades in other classes. When Albert was 15, his family moved to Milan, Italy. Albert had only one year left in high school, so he stayed behind. But by this time, he had already developed a profound distrust of authority and a hatred of conformity. He loathed Germany's rigid education system, which was based upon rote learning. "It's a true miracle," he commented years later, "that modern education hasn't yet completely smothered the curiosity necessary for scientific study." If Albert had remained in Germany until he was 16, he would have been obliged to perform military service. The sight of soldiers marching through the streets had always frightened and appalled him, and he was not willing to join them. So Einstein left high school and Germany, and joined his family in Milan.
Einstein's family thought he should pursue a career as an electrical engineer, so after finishing high school in Switzerland, Albert enrolled in the highly regarded Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. But Einstein already knew that his future was not as an engineer. His true passion was theoretical physics, a field in which he could delve into the most fundamental questions and in which imagination reigned supreme. "Imagination is more important than knowledge," he once said. "Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
Einstein had little patience for the classroom setting, and when he graduated from the institute in 1900, he was the only member of his class not offered an assistant professorship at the school. After two years of taking whatever teaching and tutoring jobs he could find, Einstein accepted a position in the Swiss patent office in Bern. The job was neither prestigious nor demanding of his skills, but Einstein was delighted to have a steady income, and it gave him plenty of time to think. Working as a patent clerk, Einstein embarked on his extraordinary scientific career using nothing but pen, paper, and his mind.
While at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Einstein had fallen in love with Mileva Maric, the only female student in his class. In 1902, before they were married, the two had a daughter. Their daughter's fate, however, remains a mystery. It is thought that she might have died of scarlet fever while living with her maternal grandparents. Albert and Mileva married the following year and eventually had two sons. Marriage was never a priority for Einstein, however, and he had frequent affairs during both this and his subsequent marriage.