Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) are scientists best known for their contributions to the field of physics in relation to space, time, and other forces within nature. To Newton, space and time were constants, and his philosophy formed the basis of classical physics. Einstein, however, in his famous theory of relativity, proved that space and time were not so easily defined.
Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642. Newton grew up on his family’s agricultural estate, Woolsthorpe, and spent his time working the farm land when he was not in school. Under the supervision of a local apothecary near his boarding school in Grantham, Newton studied Latin, and he constructed wooden models, clocks, and sundials in his spare time. Though he sometimes neglected his schoolwork, his analytical intellect landed him a place at Cambridge’s Trinity College in 1661, relieving him of the daily tedium of rural life.
At Cambridge, Newton devoted much of his time to independent study. He read books by Rene Descartes and Galileo Galilei, reflecting on them in handwritten notebooks. His study of Descartes also led him to read about “analytic geometry,” and before long he received a scholarship to continue his studies at Cambridge until he received his B.A. in 1665.
Later that summer, Cambridge shut down because of an outbreak of the bubonic plague, and Newton was forced to return to Woolsthorpe. It was here that he made the discoveries for which he is most famous. The observation of fruit falling from trees let him to deduce that a force attracted them to the earth. From this he pieced together the laws of universal gravitation and developed corresponding formulas for these laws based on the assumption that space and time were unchanging absolutes. Newton used these formulas to estimate the relation between objects in the universe, including the gravitational forces that keep the planets in orbit.
Newton had difficulty proving his calculations to the scientific community, and it was nearly 20 years before he published his findings. He first achieved renown through his experiments with prisms, light, and color. Once accepted as a notable scientist, he published his famous Principia Mathematica, and his laws of universal gravitation finally received the acclaim they deserved. Newton also used his knowledge to assist the astronomer Edmund Halley, who utilized Newton’s formulas to predict the arrival of the comet that is now named after him. Newton retained a noble status in the scientific community until his death in 1727. Before he died, he was working to find a unified theory to explain matter in relation to the universe.
Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, to a middle-class Jewish family. One of his earliest memories was of his father, showing him a compass with its precise dials and needles, and Einstein wondered about the invisible forces that imparted motion to the magnetized needle. However, he was temperamentally unsuited to submit to the harsh discipline and rote memorization required in the German education system of the day and ended up dropping out of school and leaving Germany at the age of 15.
He joined his parents in Milan, Italy. Einstein thrived in Milan, which was much more open to his free thinking, and it was here that he first formulated visualizations of what would later become his theory of relativity. Although he failed his first attempt at the entrance exam for the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he passed the examination a year later and was accepted. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich Einstein excelled at physics, but he was still a poor student in French and history and only graduated with the help of his classmates.
Einstein was unable to find steady work until 2 years after he graduated. He finally found a stable job in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland, which allowed him spare time to test his physics theories. Einstein worked on his ideas constantly and would even record his thoughts in a notebook when taking his son out for walks.
His efforts soon paid off. He published six papers by early 1905, particularly impressive considering his unsuccessful postgraduate stint. The year 1905 is known as his “miracle year,” when his publications changed scientists’ ideas of both the Brownian movement (how particles move within water) and the photoelectric effect. In the latter, Einstein proved that light travels as both waves and particles, giving the first evidence of the existence of atoms and earning him the Nobel Prize in 1922.
Einstein’s final two papers of 1905 are his most famous; these papers enabled him to expand on what Newton had already discovered. For instance, Newton’s laws were able to predict the precise movements of all the planets except Mercury. Einstein’s theory of relativity revealed that because Mercury is the planet closest to the sun, it is more affected by the sun’s gravitational pull, which causes distortions of space and time within its orbit. These calculations proved that space and time are relative, and they helped astronomers better predict the movements of various objects in the universe. Einstein verified that gravity is also relative, demonstrated in his famous E = mc2 formula, which proves that larger objects have more energy and gravitational pull than smaller objects.
Due to persecution by the Nazis in pre-World War II Germany because of his Jewish heritage, Einstein was forced to relocate to the United States, where he was offered a professorship at Princeton University. Afraid that the Nazis were constructing a powerful bomb, he wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and encouraged him to launch efforts in building a similar bomb. After U.S. military forces dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in 1945, however, Einstein was emotionally devastated by the terrible loss of human life, and until his death he spoke out passionately against the use of nuclear weapons. He died in 1955, absorbed until the end in his efforts to construct a unified field theory to explain the behavior of all matter within the universe.
Though Newton’s findings were based on absolute motion and Einstein’s were based on relativity, the two scientists led similar lives. Both had “miracle” years during which they formulated theories that explained the complexities of the universe in a way that enabled scientists to better predict its various phenomena. Both also tried but failed to find a unified theory to explain the behavior of matter within space and time. Most importantly, their theories are still used by scientists to examine the universe’s history and nature.
See also Cosmogony; Einstein, Albert; Newton, Isaac; Space, Absolute; Space and Time; Spacetime Continuum; Time, Absolute; Time, Relativity of
Clark, R. W. (1971). Einstein: The life and times. New York: World.
Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein: His life and universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Mandelbrote, S. (2001). Footprints of the lion: Isaac Newton at work. Exhibition at Cambridge University Library, 9 October 2001-23 March 2002. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Library.
Pasachoff, N. E. (2007). Albert Einstein: With profiles of Isaac Newton and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Chicago: World Book.
Westfall, R. S. (1983). Never at rest: A biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.