The doors open and the crowd streams through the entrance. Screams ring out, as some people are shoved by the growing swell of bodies, while others fall and get trampled. Once they arrive at the lecture hall, the mob breaks down the door.
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The crowd of people – over 4,500 of them without tickets – weren’t at a political rally or even a concert. On January 8, 1930, thousands of people showed up at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, US, to watch a film about German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. He wasn’t present, but his draw was irresistible. According to the US-based newspaper Chicago Tribune, it was “the first science riot in history”.
Einstein still remains an immensely popular figure. He had the quintessential distracted scientist look about him, often sporting untamed hair and a rumpled sweater. His sharp wit was behind many quotable quotes (like, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”). And his scientific credibility was unmatched. US-based Time magazine even named him Person of the Century in 1999.
Has any other physicist ever become a household name, in the way Einstein has? Probably not.
For the scientist, learning and curiosity were part of his modus operandi from the very beginning. He was born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, and was a mature, thoughtful child. Contrary to popular belief, Einstein did not fail his maths class – in fact, he wrote an entire paper on magnetic fields as a teenager.
But he truly came into his own in 1905, when he was working as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office. He published four papers that year – papers thought to be his most important work. One of them changed science forever, with the description of the relationship between matter and energy, in the simple equation E=mc2. Another paper shocked scientists for its completely novel approach, called special relativity – the concept that space and time are interwoven. Today, this concept is the foundational principle of astronomy.
In 1916, Einstein expanded on relativity with his theory of gravitation: general relativity. He theorised that anything that has mass distorts the fabric of space and time, quite like how a bowling ball placed on a bed causes the mattress to sag. In 1919, astronomers took advantage of a solar eclipse to verify that the sun’s mass did, undeniably, bend the path of starlight, as Einstein had suggested. The revelation made Einstein a legend.
Two years later, Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics – not for general relativity, but another of his incredible discoveries: the photoelectric effect. He became a US citizen in 1940, and in following years, his fame continued to grow as an intellectual, civil rights supporter and pacifist.
While he was a scientist, at the heart of it, Einstein used bold, imaginative thinking to theorise about the universe and all its possibilities. According to an April 2017 report in US-based Discover Magazine, he reportedly said in an interview: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”