A crowd barged past dioramas, glass displays and wide-eyed security guards in the American Museum of Natural History. Screams rang out as some runners fell and were trampled. Upon arriving at a lecture hall, the mob broke down the door.
The date was Jan. 8, 1930, and the New York museum was showing a film about Albert Einstein and his general theory of relativity. Einstein was not present, but 4,500 mostly ticketless people still showed up for the viewing. Museum officials told them “no ticket, no show,” setting the stage for, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “the first science riot in history.”
Such was Einstein’s popularity. As a publicist might say, he was the whole package: distinctive look (untamed hair, rumpled sweater), witty personality (his quips, such as God not playing dice, would live on) and major scientific cred (his papers upended physics). Time magazine named him Person of the Century
“Einstein remains the last, and perhaps only, physicist ever to become a household name,” says James Overduin, a theoretical physicist at Towson University in Maryland.
Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, Einstein was a precocious child. As a teenager, he wrote a paper on magnetic fields. (Einstein never actually failed math, contrary to popular lore.) He married twice, the second time to his first cousin, Elsa Löwenthal. The marriage lasted until her death in 1936.
As a scientist, Einstein’s watershed year was 1905, when he was working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, having failed to attain an academic position after earning his doctorate. That year he published his four most important papers. One of them described the relationship between matter and energy, neatly summarized E = mc2.
Other papers that year were on Brownian motion, suggesting the existence of molecules and atoms, and the photoelectric effect, showing that light is made of particles later called photons. His fourth paper, about special relativity, explained that space and time are interwoven, a shocking idea now considered a foundational principle of astronomy.
Einstein expanded on relativity in 1916 with his theory of gravitation: general relativity. It holds that anything with mass distorts the fabric of space and time, just as a bowling ball placed on a bed causes the mattress to sag. During a solar eclipse in 1919, astronomers showed that the sun’s mass did indeed bend the path of starlight. (The temporary darkness around the sun enabled astronomers to chronicle the bending.) The validation made Einstein a superstar.
Two years later, Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics, not for general relativity, but for his discovery of the photoelectric effect. By this time, the 42-year-old physicist had made most of his major contrbutions to science.
In 1933, Einstein accepted a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where for years he tried (unsuccessfully) to unify the laws of physics. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940, and his fame gew as a public intellectual, civil rights supporter and pacifist.
Many consider Einstein’s theory of general relativity to be his crowning achievement. The theory predicted both black holes and gravitational waves — and just last year, physicists measured the waves created by the collision of two black holes over a billion light-years away. During their epic journey across the cosmos, the ripples played with space and time like a fun-house mirror contorting faces.
General relativity also is the bedrock of gravitational lensing, which uses the gravity of stars and galaxies as a giant magnifying glass to zoom in on farther cosmic objects. Astronomers may soon take advantage of such physics to see geographic details of worlds light-years away.
Einstein, who died of heart failure in 1955, would have applauded such bold, imaginative thinking. His greatest insights came not from careful experimental analysis, but simply considering what would happen under certain circumstances, and letting his mind play with the possibilities. “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” he said in a Saturday Evening Post interview. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Mark Barna
Marie Curie (Credit: Mark Marturello)
Despite her French name, Marie Curie’s story didn’t start in France. Her road to Paris and success was a hard one, as equally worthy of admiration as her scientific accomplishments.
Born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, she faced some daunting hurdles, both because of her gender and her family’s poverty, which stemmed from the political turmoil at the time. Her parents, deeply patriotic Poles, lost most of their money supporting their homeland in its struggle for independence from Russian, Austrian and Prussian regimes. Her father, a math and physics professor, and her mother, headmistress of a respected boarding school in Russian-occupied Warsaw, instilled in their five kids a love of learning. They also imbued them with an appreciation of Polish culture, which the Russian government discouraged.
When Curie and her three sisters finished regular schooling, they couldn’t carry on with higher education like their brother. The local university didn’t let women enroll, and their family didn’t have the money to send them abroad. Their only options were to marry or become governesses. Curie and her sister Bronislawa found another way.
The pair took up with a secret organization called Flying University, or sometimes Floating University. Fittingly, given the English abbreviation, the point of FU was to stick it to the Russian government and provide a pro-Polish education, in Polish — expressly forbidden in Russian-controlled Poland.
Eventually, the sisters hatched a plan that would help them both get the higher education they so desperately wanted. Curie would work as a governess and support Bronislawa’s medical school studies. Then, Bronislawa would return the favor once she was established. Curie endured years of misery as a governess, but the plan worked. In 1891, she packed her bags and headed to Paris and her bright future.
At the University of Paris, Curie was inspired by French physicist Henri Becquerel. In 1896, he discovered that uranium emitted something that looked an awful lot like — but not quite the same as — X-rays, which had been discovered only the year before. Intrigued, Curie decided to explore uranium and its mysterious rays as a Ph.D. thesis topic.
Eventually, she realized whatever was producing these rays was happening at an atomic level, an important first step to discovering that atoms weren’t the smallest form of matter. It was a defining moment for what Curie would eventually call radioactivity.
Around the same time, Curie met and married her French husband, Pierre, an accomplished physicist who abandoned his own work and joined his wife’s research. The two started examining minerals containing uranium and pitchblende, a uranium-rich ore, and realized the latter was four times more radioactive than pure uranium. They reasoned some other element must be in the mix, sending those radioactive levels through the roof. And they were right: After processing literally tons of pitchblende, they discovered a new element and named it polonium, after Marie’s native Poland.
They published a paper in July 1898, revealing the find. And just five months later, they announced their discovery of yet another element, radium, found in trace amounts in uranium ore.
In 1903, Curie, her husband and Becquerel won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity, making Curie the first woman to win a Nobel
Tragedy struck just three years later. Pierre, who had recently accepted a professorship at the University of Paris, died suddenly after a carriage accident. Curie was devastated by his death.
Yet she continued her research, filling Pierre’s position and becoming the first woman professor at the university. In 1911 Curie won her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her work with polonium and radium. She remains the only person to win Nobel prizes in two different sciences.
Curie racked up several other accomplishments, from founding the Radium Institute in Paris where she directed her own lab (whose researchers won their own Nobels), to heading up France’s first military radiology center during World War I and thus becoming the first medical physicist.
She died in 1934 from a type of anemia that very likely stemmed from her exposure to such extreme radiation during her career. In fact, her original notes and papers are still so radioactive that they’re kept in lead-lined boxes, and you need protective gear to view them. — Lacy Schley