national academy of sciences
A Biographical Memoir by
john archibald wheeler
Any opinions expressed in this memoir are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
National Academy of Sciences.
national academy of sciences
March 14, 1879—April 18, 1955
BY JOHN ARCHIBALD WHEELER*
ALBERT EINSTEIN was born in Ulm, Germany on March
-**- 14, 1879. After education in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, and professorships in Bern, Zurich, and Prague, he was appointed Director of Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin in 1914. He became a professor in the School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton beginning the fall of 1933, became an American citizen in the summer of 1936, and died in Princeton, New Jersey on April
18, 1955. In the Berlin where in 1900 Max Planck discovered
the quantum, Einstein fifteen years later explained to us that gravitation is not something foreign and mysterious acting
through space, but a manifestation of space geometry itself. He came to understand that the universe does not go on from
everlasting to everlasting, but begins with a big bang. Of all the questions with which the great thinkers have occupied
themselves in all lands and all centuries, none has ever
claimed greater primacy than the origin of the universe, and no contributions to this issue ever made by any man anytime
have proved themselves richer in illuminating power than
those that Einstein made.
Einstein's 1915 geometrical and still standard theory of
•©February 15, 1979.
gravity provides a prototype unsurpassed even today for
what a physical theory should be and do, but for him it was
only an outlying ridge in the arduous climb to a greater goal that he never achieved. Scale the greatest Everest that there is or ever can be, uncover the secret of existence—that was what Einstein struggled for with all the force of his life.
How the mountain peak magnetized his attention he told
us over and over. "Out yonder," he wrote, "lies this huge
world, which exists independently of us human beings and
which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle. . . ."* And again, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is
that it is comprehensible."t And yet again, "All of these endeavors are based on the belief that existence should have a completely harmonious structure. Today we have less
ground than ever before for allowing ourselves to be forced
away from this wonderful belief." t
When the climber laboring toward the Everest peak
comes to the summit of an intermediate ridge, he stops at the new panorama of beauty for a new fix on the goal of his life and a new charting of the road ahead; but he knows that he
is at the beginning, not at the end of his travail. What Einstein did in spacetime physics, in statistical mechanics, and in
quantum physics, he viewed as such intermediate ridges, such way stations, such panoramic points for planning further
advance, not as achievements in themselves. Those way stations were not his goals. They were not even preplanned means to his goal. They were catch-as-catch-can means to his goal.
Those who know physicists and mountaineers know the
traits they have in common: a "dream-and-drive" spirit, a
*A. Einstein, "Autobiographical Notes," in Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed. P. A. Schilpp (Evanston, 111.: Library of Living Philosophers, 1949), p. 4. t B . Hoffmann, Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 18. t A. Einstein, Essays in Science (New York: Philosophical Library, 1934), p. 114.
bulldog tenacity of purpose, and an openness to try any route to the summit. Who does not know Einstein's definition of a
scientist as "an unscrupulous opportunist;"* or his words on another occasion, "But the years of anxious...
Bibliography: Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, 08540. The 34-page
length of diis bibliography and its availability in leading libraries makes it
writings about him. Princeton University Press, on February 22, 1971,
signed an agreement with the Estate of Albert Einstein, Otto Nathan and
Einstein, The Life and Times, by Ronald W. Clarke. New York: The
World Publishing Co., 1971
Princeton Univ. Press, 1979. 167 pp.
Shuichi Kusaka. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1947. xxiii + 298,
Evanston, 111.: Library of Living Philosophers, 1949. xvi + 781,
with index, subsequently made available in a paperback edition
mechanics. More on the dialogue will be found in The Philosophy of Quantum
Mechanics by Max Jammer (John Wiley, New York, 1974, xii + 536), especially chapter 5, "The Bohr-Einstein Debate."
Einstein, by Jeremy Bernstein, edited by Frank Kermode. New
York: Viking, 1973
Albert Einstein, by Carl Seelig. Miinchen, Germany: Europa Verlag,
Klein. New York: Philosophical Library, 1967. xv + 75.
Correspondence (1912 to 1949) between two outstanding, but very
different physicists, beginning with relativity, but then turning to quantum
Albert Einstein—Hedwig und Max Born, Briefwechsel, 1916-1955,
kommentiert von Max Born, Geleitwort von Bertrand Russell,
Vorwort von Werner Heisenberg. Munchen: Nymphenburger
Verlagshandlung, 1969, 330 pages; translated by Irene Born as
The Born-Einstein Letters: the Correspondence Between Albert Einstein
and Max and Hedwig Born, 1916-1955, (New York: Walker,
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