Einstein's Revolution

Part of the Einstein exhibition.

He was daring, wildly ingenious, passionately curious. He saw a beam of light and imagined riding it; he looked up at the sky and envisioned that space-time was curved. Albert Einstein reinterpreted the inner workings of nature, the very essence of light, time, energy and gravity. His insights fundamentally changed the way we look at the universe--and made him the most famous scientist of the 20th century.

We know Einstein as a visionary physicist, but he was also a passionate humanitarian and anti-war activist. Born a German Jew, Einstein truly considered himself a citizen of the world. His celebrity status enabled him to speak out—on global issues from pacifism to racism, anti-Semitism to nuclear disarmament. "My life is a simple thing that would interest no one," he once claimed. But in fact, his letters, notebooks and manuscripts tell a dramatically different story.

Einstein saw the universe as a puzzle, and he delighted in trying to solve its mysteries. All he needed to contemplate the cosmos was his most valuable scientific tool—his imagination.

May 29, 1919

A solar eclipse turns Einstein into an international hero.

Isaac Newton's 17th-century description of gravity became obsolete as the clouds parted on May 29, 1919, and the Sun and Moon aligned in an eclipse. Images of known stars confirmed what Einstein's "General Theory of Relativity" predicted: The Sun's gravity acts like a lens and deflects light from distant stars, making them appear in new locations.

Distant distortions: This Hubble Telescope image of galaxy cluster Abell 2218 shows how the cluster's warping of space-time distorts light from galaxies located farther out in the universe.
Photo: NASA, A. Fruchter and the ERO Team (STScI, ST-ECF)

On November 7, 1919 The Times of London reported, "Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe, Newtonian Ideas Overthrown," sparking a media frenzy that launched Einstein into the limelight virtually overnight.