Great story: Albert Einstein, patent office clerk, upended the scientific world in his “miracle year” of 1905 with four separate revolutionary papers. The myths about him being a bad student are pretty much untrue; he did end up at the patent office after he had trouble finding an academic job, but that was more due to his contempt for authority and lack of social conformance than any scientific deficiencies.
Einstein was born in the new German Empire, but was disillusioned in his youth with the nationalism that eventually led to WWI. His concept of political freedom jived more with the Swiss, which is why he went to school in Zurich and worked at the patent office in Bern. Later, he jumped around a few universities before ending up in Berlin for many years; but left for Princeton in the early 1930’s (although not to Princeton University – he was with the Institute for Advanced Study) as Einstein’s Jewish background and political ideas clashed with the rising Nazis.
As successful as Einstein was professionally, he was mediocre at best or even a failure in the home. His self-described “happiest point in his life” was when he finalized his general relativity equations … precisely the time as his first marriage had just failed and WWI was in full swing. They guy was really motivated by his work!! Before his divorce from Mileva Maric (and later remarriage to his cousin Elsa), they tried separating for a time and even wrote up a spectacular “contract” that included her not speaking to him and serving meals in his room…. sheesh.
Stemming from the 1905 papers, Einstein is considered a founder of both relativity theory (primarily an explanation of gravity) and quantum theory. He always objected to the key tenant of quantum theory that there is an inherent randomness in the universe, particularly that certain states are unknown and actually indeterminate until they are measured. He preferred to think of an absolute underlying reality that we just don’t understand enough to characterize.
Einstein’s work past age 40 concerned the quest for a unified field theory, which would unify both gravity and electromagnetism. Unfortunately, experimental results over the same period pushed physics into the other direction – more fragmentation rather than unity. Still, Einstein kept at it, but never had much to show.
Favorite Einstein quotes:
To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.
I have no special talents; I am only passionately curious.