Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian

Course No. 8122
Professor Don Howard, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
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Course No. 8122
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Course Overview

In May 1905, an unknown 26-year-old Swiss patent clerk wrote to a friend about four scientific papers he had been working on in his spare time. He casually alluded to one as "revolutionary," and he confidently asserted that another would modify the "theory of space and time." He had not yet started on a fifth paper that would also come out in 1905 and that would propose a surprising and earth-shaking equation, E=mc2.

This industrious young office worker was Albert Einstein, and with these papers he irrevocably changed the face of physics. Eventually, he would achieve fame and influence not only as a scientist but also as a philosopher and a humanitarian, involved with some of the most profound issues of the day. So identified has Einstein become with the changes wrought in science and culture in our era that Time magazine named him the "person of the century" in its December 31, 1999, issue.

Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian, 24 half-hour lectures by award-winning Professor Don Howard of the University of Notre Dame, presents a wide-ranging intellectual biography of this iconic scientist, genius, and champion of social justice.

Think Like Einstein

More than just a biography of Einstein's life, Albert Einstein provides you with an inside look at how this brilliant thinker arrived at his various revolutionary breakthroughs.

One of the secrets of Einstein's success was that he was well read in philosophy, and that guided his approach not only to framing and solving problems in physics but also to interpreting his discoveries in a more universal context. In addition, his philosophical background gave him the independence of judgment necessary to invent a new physics.

Einstein was the clearest of thinkers, able to cut through conventional views to get to the heart of a matter and achieve astonishing discoveries in the process. According to Professor Howard, retracing the thought processes that led to Einstein's ideas is the key to understanding them.

This is the intellectually exciting strategy you follow in Albert Einstein. Guided by Professor Howard, you reason your way to historic insights such as these:

  • Light has both wave- and particle-like properties.
  • Absolute space and absolute time are meaningless concepts.
  • Gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time.

Each of these ideas sparked a scientific revolution. The first led to quantum physics, which is the comprehensive picture of the world below the atomic scale. The second and third are conclusions from the special and general theories of relativity, which this course explains in nontechnical detail.

In the Laboratory of the Mind

A creative thinker from an early age, Einstein had a knack for finding the perfect picture or thought experiment to express even the most arcane scientific ideas—a quality that makes him unusually accessible to the nonscientist. Einstein later said he always thought about a physics problem first in terms of images. He only later translated those pictures into a mathematical formalism.

Here are some of his well-known thought experiments that you investigate in Albert Einstein:

  • Chasing a light beam: As a teenager, Einstein asked himself what would happen if he moved at the speed of light alongside a beam of light. This conceptual exercise held the germ for the special theory of relativity.
  • Einstein's elevator: Einstein recognized that an observer ascending with constant acceleration, as in an ascending elevator, would not be able to distinguish his situation from one in which he was experiencing the effects of gravity, leading to the "equivalence principle" that underlies his general theory of relativity.
  • EPR paradox: Einstein and two collaborators, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, devised a thought experiment that sought to prove quantum mechanics as an incomplete theory and not the final word in fundamental physics.

Albert Einstein features more than 50 animations—many in 3-D—designed specifically for these lectures. The result is a visually rich learning experience that makes Einstein's detailed scientific ideas easy to understand.

The Many Sides of Einstein

Einstein's dynamic life reflects a range of interests and passions that extend beyond the realm of modern physics and into fields like religion, international relations, and social justice. Indeed, Einstein frequently engaged with many of the leading social and political issues of his day. "As Einstein's growing physics reputation drew him onto a larger public stage," notes Professor Howard, "his social and political involvements expanded as well."

The many sides of the man covered in Albert Einstein give you a wealth of insights into his life:

  • Far from being a head-in-the-clouds theoretician, Einstein was an enthusiastic inventor who pioneered a novel airplane wing, a refrigerator without moving parts, and a self-adjusting camera, among other devices.
  • Einstein, a German Jew who fled an increasingly anti-Semitic Germany in 1932, supported the development of a safe haven for displaced Jews in Palestine and of Jewish institutions like Hebrew University. Fearing a large-scale conflict with Palestinian Arabs, however, he did not support a Jewish national state.
  • Theoretical physics in the early 20th century was an emerging field. Einstein's work at the boundaries of science forced him to grapple with the various philosophical issues his work raised. Einstein's philosophies on scientific issues—such as the difference between direct and indirect evidence, the relationship between theory and experience, and the power of mathematical simplicity—were among the most influential of 20th-century science.

Professor Howard closes the course by examining the nature of Einstein's quintessential genius. In a century populated with brilliant scientists, profound philosophers, and selfless humanitarians, how did he come to embody all these qualities and also mean so much more? The rise of the dreamy-looking young man in the patent office in 1905 to the person of the century is worth studying in full.

Einstein: The Whole Man

Professor Howard is uniquely qualified to explore Einstein the whole man, putting Einstein's scientific discoveries into the context of his personal life, his philosophical views, and his outlook on the world. Educated in Physics as an undergraduate, Professor Howard went on to earn a Doctorate in the Philosophy of Science, and he has since devoted his research career to Einstein and his period. Professor Howard has been an assistant editor and a contributing editor for the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, an ongoing series of volumes prepared by the Einstein Papers Project that is shedding new light on all aspects of Einstein's life.

Albert Einstein is a riveting, all-encompassing look at the iconic man who forever altered the way we think about the world. By the conclusion of the course, you'll have become better acquainted with the whole Einstein—his scientific ideas, his personal philosophies, his thought processes, and his impact on both his own time and ours.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Precocious Young Einstein
    The aim of these lectures is to explore Einstein the whole person and the whole thinker. You begin with an overview of the course. Then you look at important events in Einstein's life up to the beginning of his university studies in 1896. x
  • 2
    The Development of the Young Physicist
    This lecture follows Einstein's early life up to his "miracle year" of 1905, covering his university training, his love for fellow student Mileva Maric, their marriage following the birth of their daughter, his fruitless search for an academic job, and his employment by the Swiss patent office. x
  • 3
    The Birth of the Quantum Hypothesis
    By his own account, Einstein's most revolutionary idea of 1905 was that light is made of discrete chunks of electromagnetic energy called light quanta, or photons. You examine the background to this radical idea, most importantly, Max Planck's proposal in 1900 of the quantum hypothesis. x
  • 4
    Background to Special Relativity
    The most celebrated of Einstein's 1905 achievements is his special theory of relativity. You survey the classical physics that relativity overturned, particularly Newton's concept of absolute space, which even before Einstein had critics such as the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. x
  • 5
    Essentials of Special Relativity
    You take a guided tour of the special theory of relativity, which holds that a system's location and speed is well defined only with respect to a specific frame of reference or state of motion of an observer. This simple change of perspective led to Einstein's signature equation, E=mc2 x
  • 6
    From Bern to Berlin
    Between 1905 and 1914, Einstein went from being an obscure clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern to being one of the most prominent scientists in the world. You follow this remarkable transformation and the toll it took on Einstein's marriage to Mileva. x
  • 7
    Background to General Relativity
    Special relativity is "special" in the sense that it is restricted to observers moving with constant relative velocity. Einstein wanted to extend the theory to include accelerated motion. His great insight was that such a "general" theory would incorporate the phenomenon of gravity. x
  • 8
    Essentials of General Relativity
    According to general relativity, gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time, with surprising implications such as the slowing of clocks in strong gravitational fields and the bending of light passing near a massive object like the sun. The latter prediction led to a famous confirmation of general relativity and made Einstein a world figure. x
  • 9
    From Berlin to Princeton
    Einstein worked in Berlin from 1914 to 1933, arriving in triumph but leaving as a refugee from Nazism. The Berlin years saw the publication and confirmation of general relativity, the receipt of a Nobel Prize, and world travel, including visits to the United States, to which Einstein immigrated in 1933. x
  • 10
    Philosophical Challenge of the New Physics
    Relativity and quantum mechanics presented deep challenges to traditional philosophy. You explore responses by philosophers and the logical positivists, along with Einstein's philosophical objection to the randomness of quantum theory. x
  • 11
    Einstein's Philosophy of Science
    Einstein stressed the crucial role of philosophy in physics, arguing that philosophy gives physicists the independence of judgment needed to make revolutionary innovations. In his own work, Einstein combined a deep respect for experimental evidence with a search for simplicity and beauty. x
  • 12
    Zionism, Pacifism, and Internationalism
    As Einstein's growing physics reputation drew him onto a larger public stage, his social and political involvements expanded, encompassing a lonely protest against German war aims during World War I, an embrace of the Zionist cause, and strident advocacy of pacifism throughout the 1920s. x
  • 13
    Einstein the Inventor and Musician
    Einstein was an avid inventor of devices from airfoils to refrigerators. He consulted with industry about gyrocompasses and with the U.S. Navy about undersea mines. Playing the violin was another passion. Both activities shed light on his work as a theoretical physicist. x
  • 14
    On the Road to the New Quantum Mechanics
    Einstein made many contributions to the development of quantum theory. You focus on his efforts to understand the curious way in which two identical quantum systems, such as two photons, lose their separate identities in a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. x
  • 15
    Quantum Mechanics and Controversy
    Einstein was one of the discoverers of quantum theory, but after the mid-1920s he became its most forceful critic. You examine Einstein's objections and his confrontations with fellow physicist Niels Bohr over what Einstein considered to be fundamental flaws in quantum mechanics. x
  • 16
    Einstein in Princeton—The Lonely Quest
    From 1933 until his death in 1955, Einstein lived in Princeton as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study. His research focused on the lonely and ultimately fruitless quest for a unified field theory that would unite electromagnetism and gravitation. x
  • 17
    Is Quantum Mechanics Complete?
    In 1935, Einstein and two collaborators, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published what has since become the most frequently cited paper in the history of physics. You explore this celebrated thought experiment, known as the EPR paradox, in nontechnical terms. x
  • 18
    The Expanding Universe
    Einstein's general theory of relativity is the theoretical framework for all contemporary work in cosmology. Black holes, the big bang, an expanding universe—all are implicit in the equations of general relativity. Ironically, Einstein at first mistrusted some of the most dramatic predictions of his own theory. x
  • 19
    Einstein and the Bomb—Science Politicized
    In 1939, Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt that launched the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Scientists had long advised governments, but this effort represented a fundamental shift in the relationship between science and the state. x
  • 20
    From the Manhattan Project to the Cold War
    Einstein came to regret his role in the development of atomic weapons and spent the last decade of his life trying to rein in the ensuing arms race. One of his last public acts, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, was arguably the first step toward international cooperation in arms limitation. x
  • 21
    A Lifelong Commitment to Social Justice
    Settling into his new American home in the mid-1930s, Einstein found a new challenge in the fight for racial justice. He took up this and other social causes to such an extent that in the early 1950s FBI director J. Edgar Hoover considered having him deported. x
  • 22
    Cosmic Religion and Jewish Identity
    Einstein wrote often about what he termed "cosmic religion," by which he meant the view that the rational order of nature itself inspires awe and humility akin to the religious spirit. He was strongly influenced in these views by the philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Arthur Schopenhauer. x
  • 23
    Einstein and Modernity
    This lecture explores the larger cultural world that responded so strongly to Einstein and his physics. The spirit of Einstein's reformulation of physical reality is reflected in the artistic experiments of painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and novelists such as Lawrence Durrell. x
  • 24
    The Sage of Princeton—Einstein the Icon
    The sheer intellectual brilliance called genius is central to Einstein's iconic status, but the 20th century was populated with many brilliant scientists. Why did Einstein come to mean so much more? The course concludes by trying to capture the essence that made him unique. x

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Your professor

Don Howard

About Your Professor

Don Howard, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Dr. Don Howard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame's Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science. A graduate of Michigan State University's Honors College and its Lyman Briggs College with a B.Sc. in Physical Science, he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Philosophy with a specialization in the philosophy of science from Boston University. Professor Howard has served as...
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Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 58.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from SOME GOOD SOME BAD The GOOD were the lectures about his life, philosophy, and thought experiences. The BAD were the excruciating lectures of his mathematical formulas within the Special Theory; General Theory, and Quantum Mechanics. I have an MS in engineering which is clearly not enough to understand the lecturer. Altho up front he admits that very few people could understand Einsteins formulas...sometime.
Date published: 2020-06-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good introduction to Einstein's life and times My advanced degrees are in theoretical Physics. I've read just about all the Einstein biographies. This course is a good introduction to Einstein for those with little or no knowledge of Einstein and his work or of Physics. The best parts of the lectures deal with Einstein's life, times, and outside interests as well as his personal life. I especially found the information about Einstein's inventions and patents interesting - like the Einstein idea for a non-mechanical refrigerator. I think the weakest points of the lectures concerned Einstein's views on Philosophy and on Physics. Some comments I found to be misleading, if not wrong. For example, at at least one point, when discussing Einstein's objections to interpretations of Quantum Mechanics determinism is conflated with causality. Einstein's specific objections were with determinism, which is a stronger and more general requirement than causality. Also, in discussing Einstein's work with Bose on Quantum Statistics a reference is made to indistinguishable particles in connection with entanglement. But spin-1/2 Fermi particles like electrons also experience entanglement in quantum states and they are NOT indistinguishable. They are described by Fermi-Dirac statistics and ARE distinguishable. But aside from these issues of Physics and Philosophy the course gives a good general introduction to Einstein's life and times.
Date published: 2020-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from There is so much more... In hearing about some famous people and what they are famous for - you might miss out on some very important things. For instance, to say all this Science is so far over my head that to have to consider it for any length of time inspires my head to start hurting is putting it mildly - yet, the rewards of sitting through these parts in this course are worth every minute. There are things about Einstein I never knew... he became a real human being to me, in a very personal way... faults and all... and I admired him deeply and it has not diminished since. Thank you for such a well done course on someone I might never have learned to appreciate otherwise for the humanitarian and yet flawed human being he was - outside of all the Science that will forever remain over my head.
Date published: 2020-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Attractive Comprehensive presentation of history philosophy and complex science.
Date published: 2019-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent encompassing course I bought this course because, when I actually thought about it I realized that I knew shockingly little about Einstein. I was hoping for a good, encompassing look at the man and his work as well as his impact on the world and his times. This course totally delivered. I am far from a scientist but Einsteins theories and ideas were explained in such a way that even I "got them." I was amazed at the professor's ability to put the deepest concepts into everyday language. I enjoyed the history lessons. The morality of Einsteins work was thought provoking. The information was well organized and presented in a clear manor. I'm am totally pleased with this course.
Date published: 2019-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from a man with a challenging life. I recently bought this book about Albert Einstein, he was a genius in his own time, and like most geniuses they have a difficult past, because most people don't understand them, I was pleased and also happy to a read his book, The story of his history and struggles he had we're very much like any genius would have to go through, it's nice to be able to share his experience and relate to his struggles and challenges, and most of all his successes. I think anyway could benefit from reading the story of Albert Einstein.
Date published: 2019-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitar I was very impressed with this course. The instructor was excellent and kept me wanting to hear more.
Date published: 2019-08-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Man and the Scientist This course reveals much about Einstein the person to those of us, who like myself are both interested in and conversant with physics. For those who do not have a technical background, Dr. Howard does an admirable job of presenting the physics and math in largely comprehensible lay terms. But (as Professor Howard acknowledges, the going can get tough) this does not mean that anyone will come away with an understanding of quantum mechanics. (Then again who really does understand this discipline?) For me, the mix is about right. Quite a bit of history, the introduction of several key players in Einstein’s life and work, lay explanations of the science that Einstein introduced or furthered, the failings that he had as a husband, father and colleague, his contrasting humanitarianism and respect for decency and equality.. And perhaps most interestingly, why many of these things were groundbreaking and required a different way of looking at the world. And here Dr. Howard helps us along with many references to Einstein's abiding interest in philosophy, beginning with reading Kant while still in high school and forming discussion groups to consider these issues. Many reviewers have not loved Dr. Howard’s presentation style. It is a bit dry, delivered for the most part in a monotone. On the other hand, the delivery is given without stumbles or pauses and is easy to understand. No entertainment, but rather a solid performance. I took the audio, but I think I would have liked some visuals when he was discussing some of the technical aspects and mathematics. Also I would have liked to see photos of some of the persons discussed, such as his wives, children, and other family members, as well as some of the less well-known scientists of the day. In the final lectures, Professor Howard poses the question as to why Einstein is so revered and respected, to the point of being a cultural icon. Was he really that much smarter Heisenberg or Bohr? Likely not, This course does a fine job in helping us understand the other reasons why we hold Einstein in such high regard.
Date published: 2018-10-11
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