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Einstein's Universal Changes

Albert Einstein is the most influential person of the 20th century, as chosen by Time and CBS News. Written by's Gary Paul Gates.

Of all the great thinkers who left their mark on the 20th Century, there was one genius that towered above all others as the intellectual giant of his age. And that man - Albert Einstein - is who Time magazine and CBS News have chosen to honor as the person of the century.

The century was in its infancy and Einstein himself was just a young man of 26 when, in 1905, he suddenly captured the attention of the world's most eminent physicists.

In his day job that year, Einstein was working as an obscure clerk in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. But in his spare time, he wrote and published three revolutionary research papers, including the one in which he unveiled his famous theory of relativity.

Until then, the laws of physics hadn't changed since Sir Isaac Newton set down his principles of time and motion - gravity - in the 17th Century. But in his theory, Einstein utterly demolished Newton's central assumption that time is absolute, and in doing so, he forged a link between time and space that, in effect, transformed the basic law of the universe.

In writing about that astonishing achievement many years later, one awestruck admirer noted that Einstein "discovered, just by thinking about it, the essential structure of the cosmos."

Or as the great man himself observed in one of his rare public comments: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible."

Another landmark discovery came from Einstein's study of the connection between energy and matter, which led to his celebrated formula - E equals MC squared - and which, in turn, led to the atomic bomb. In fact, he played a discreet but critical role in the development of the bomb.

When the Nazis came to power in his native Germany in 1933, they confiscated all of Einstein's work because he was Jewish, and soon thereafter he fled to the United States, which became his home for the rest of his life.

Six years later, on the eve of World War II, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt expressing his urgent concern that Hitler's scientists were using his formula to build an atom bomb.

That letter prompted Roosevelt to establish the top-secret Manhattan Project, the first step toward producing the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But setting in motion the process that enabled the United States to become the world's first atomic power was just part of Einstein's legacy. His revolutionary theories also served as the guiding lights to space travel, to television and to other electronic breakthroughs that have brought us to the computer age and the wonders of cyberspace.

In a century that was blessed with great advances in science, Einstein stands out as the greatest scientific genius of his time - and perhaps th most profound scientific mind of all time.

And even those of us who have trouble grasping the complexities of his theory of relativity can appreciate the droll wit of the limerick it inspired:

"There was a young lady named Bright/ who could travel much faster than light/ She went out one day/ in a relative way/ and came back the previous night."

Einstein was one of three finalists drawn from the list of outstanding men and women Time and CBS News have selected as the 100 most influential people of the century. The other two were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi.

Roosevelt was picked in the Top Three because more than any other leader, he was the driving force behind the century's greatest political achievement - the triumph of democracy.

When Roosevelt was elected president in the bleak autumn of 1932, the country was mired in the most severe economic catastrophe in its history. Because of the Great Depression, millions of Americans not only felt betrayed by the capitalist system but were losing faith in the democratic institutions that governed the nation and held it together.

The hardship of economic crisis had spawned a political crisis. But Roosevelt met that daunting challenge with vigor and confidence.

"This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper," FDR promised in his first inaugural address. Then came the words that will forever be enshrined in America's political lexicon: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Backing up the strong rhetoric with action, Roosevelt launched the "New Deal," a flurry of new federal programs designed to provide relief and lead to recovery. Some of the new laws - such as Social Security and unemployment compensation - would go on to become cornerstones of American life.

The bold steps FDR took to combat the economic misery revived hope for millions and restored their faith in both democracy and capitalism.

Then a few years later, as Commander in Chief of the world's largest democracy, Roosevelt had to confront an even greater threat to freedom: the military aggressions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

In leading the allies to victory over those two despotic forces, FDR both preserved and strengthened democracy at home and abroad. Moreover, that supremely critical triumph in World War II pointed the way to the democratic revolutions that swept communist governments out of power in Eastern Europe later in the century.

In his own way, Gandhi was no less influential. The struggle he led against British colonial rule in India changed the face and future of political revolution.

Until he came along, political rebels had mainly been firebrands who believed that violence and bloodshed were necessary to achieve their goals.
Gandhi rejected that approach, and by adopting the unorthodox tactics of nonviolence and passive reistance, he turned a political revolution into a moral crusade.

In fact, he was essentially a spiritual leader who once defined the movement he launched as an attempt "to introduce religion into politics." And throughout the world Gandhi was revered as a saintly man.

Even so, he did make enemies along the way. For the sad irony is that in 1948, just one year after India finally achieved its independence, Gandhi - the great apostle of nonviolence - was assassinated by one of his own countrymen. To many, his murder brought to mind the Biblical assertion that "a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country."

But Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolence proved to be a powerful legacy, one that has had enormous influence on other revolutionary leaders.

Martin Luther King was an ardent disciple of Gandhi. So was Nelson Mandela. And the nonviolent crusades for freedom and justice that they led in their countries were, in large part, inspired by Gandhi.

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