As Albert Einstein lay on his deathbed, he asked only for his glasses, his writing implements and his latest equations. He knew he was dying, yet he continued his work. In those final hours of his life, while fading in and out of consciousness, he was working on what he hoped would be his greatest work of all. It was a project of monumental complexity. It was a project that he hoped would unlock the mind of God.
“I am not interested in this phenomenon or that phenomenon,” Einstein had said earlier in his life. “I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.” But as he lay there dying in Princeton Hospital he must have understood that these were secrets that God was clearly keen to hang on to. The greatest scientist of his age died knowing that he had become isolated from the scientific community; revered on the one hand, ridiculed for this quest on the other.
It was a journey that started 50 years earlier in Berne, Switzerland. Then – in his early 20s – he was a young man struggling to make his mark. His applications to universities throughout Europe had all been rejected. In the end his father had pulled strings to get him a job as a third class clerk evaluating the latest electrical gizmos. But in his spare time he was formulating the most extraordinary scientific ideas. In a single year – 1905, a year that would become known as his miracle year – he published papers that would redefine how we see our world and universe.
He confirmed that all matter was composed of molecules – an idea that at the time was controversial. And most famously of all, he published the paper ‘On the electrodynamics of moving bodies’. It contained his Theory of Special Relativity and suggested that time – something that had always thought to be unchanging and absolute – was relative. It could speed up or slow down depending on the speed you were travelling. From this paper would come an additional three pages, finished in September of the same year, that would contain the derivation of e=mc², the most famous mathematical equation ever written.
Einstein was on a roll. Ten years after his Theory of Special Relativity, he published his Theory of General Relativity – a piece of work widely acknowledged as his masterpiece. The great 17th century scientist Sir Isaac Newton had described the force of gravity very successfully, but what caused gravity remained a mystery. In this Theory of General Relativity, Einstein suggested that gravity was due to the bending of time and space by massive objects. In 1919 astronomers confirmed this by measuring the bending of starlight around the sun during a solar eclipse.