Albert Einstein’s birthday just passed (March 14) and although I have read many books and articles about him, I still discover stories that I hadn’t heard. A birthday post on the writersalmanac.org brought me a few new stories and led me down the Internet rabbit hole to find out more about them.
It is pretty common knowledge that Albert was slow to begin speaking, and was an unremarkable student. (This always gives hope to other unremarkable students and their parents.)
He did get a teaching degree from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic, but with average grades and a lot of missed classes. If something didn’t interest him, he didn’t work on it. Imagine him in a school today… lazy, unmotivated, possibly ADHD or with a learning disability, a bored but gifted child. He was the only member of his college class not offered a teaching job at the institute.
After two years trying unsuccessfully to find a permanent teaching position, he took a job as a technical assistant at the Swiss patent office in Bern.
At the patent office, he worked six days a week, eight hours a day at a lectern, reviewing applications of inventions to see if they were worthy of receiving patents.
That sounds worse than school, but he said of the job that “Working on the final formulation of technological patents was a veritable blessing for me. It enforced many-sided thinking and also provided important stimuli to physical thought.” Einstein called the patent office “that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas.”
Skepticism was encouraged. Don’t be taken in by the assumptions of the would-be inventors, he was told. He was a tough grader and surprisingly efficient. He was able to get a day’s work done in just a few hours, which left him the rest of the day to pursue his own ideas.
He had a drawer in his desk which he called his “theoretical physics department” where he kept his notes. Those notes were about physics and also about philosophy.
Always to be a scientist without a laboratory, he conducted his gedankenexperimenten, or thought experiments, about electric light, power, clocks, and electromagnetism standing at his lectern and gazing out the window.
Around 1902, he had advertised himself as a physics tutor to make extra money. A Romanian philosophy student named Maurice Solovine went to Einstein to hire him and they talked for hours. Einstein soon decided this tutor-student relationship would not be as useful as just getting together to talk as peers, and the two expanded to include others. They called themselves the Olympia Academy and met at Einstein’s apartment, where they ate sausages, cheese, and fruit, and debated big ideas.
In his amazing year of 1905, this patent clerk, published four papers that changed the field of physics. The papers were about 1) his particle theory of light 2) determining the size of molecules suspended in liquid 3) and how to determine their motion and 4) special relativity, which included the one equation all students remember relating energy and matter: E=mc².
Then came fame.
In 1913, he finally got that university teaching job. Max Planck and Walther Hermann Nernst came to Berlin and offered him the chance to be, at age 34, the youngest member of the Prussian Academy.
He received many honors, including a rather-belated 1921 Nobel Prize for his early work on the photoelectrical effect. But he really did not make another significant contribution to the ongoing life of the physical sciences. Not that what he had already done wasn’t enough!
He devoted himself, some say that he became obsessed with, a quest to find “a mathematically unified field theory in which the gravitational field and the electromagnetic field are interpreted only as different components or manifestations of the same uniform field.”
He was never comfortable with quantum theory, which was the big news after his own theories were accepted and for the remainder of his lifetime. Quantum theory had too much uncertainty, too many paradoxes or him.
He said in 1912 that “The more successes the quantum theory enjoys, the sillier it looks.” He certainly could not adapt his own theoretical foundation of physics to quantum science.
He wrote that his belief that there was a unified theory of all the fields went all the way back to his childhood fascination with magnets and a sense that “something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”
John Updike tells in a review of Walter Isaacson’s “thorough, comprehensive, affectionate new biography,” Einstein: His Life and Universe, that in 1931, while visiting America for the second time, he and his second wife, Elsa, attended a California séance at the home of Upton Sinclair. My, that would have been an interesting event to attend!
Einstein probably was skeptical of this other form of “spooky action at a distance” and Mrs. Sinclair challenged his views on science and spirituality. We don’t know what Albert might have replied, but Elsa told their hostess, “You know, my husband has the greatest mind in the world.” Mrs. Sinclair replied, “Yes, I know, but surely he doesn’t know everything.”
Einstein stayed in Berlin until 1932, when the combination of rising Nazism and offers from America impelled him to leave Germany. He never returned to Germany or Europe.
Robert A. Millikan, a physicist whose experiments had verified Einstein’s photoelectrical equation, was now the president of Caltech, and he very much wanted Einstein to come to Caltech. Another educator, Abraham Flexner, had worked for the Rockefeller Foundation and now had money donated by the Bamberger department-store family fortune (a store I frequented in Newark, NJ as a child) to create a new place for scholars, and he also courted Einstein.
The new Institute for Advanced Study was to be built next to but not affiliated with Princeton University. Flexner’s offer was accepted by Einstein. He originally intended to split his time between Europe and America and Princeton would be his American home, but WWII would change those plans.
He and Elsa moved there and eventually bought a the modest house at 112 Mercer Street, where Einstein lived until his death, in 1955. Elsa Einstein died in 1936 while living in this house.
I have written before about the famous anti-quantum quote of Einstein that he apparently used a number of times and that people often point to as evidence of him having religious beliefs. “God does not play dice with the universe.” Less well known is his colleague Niels Bohr’s response: “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”
Einstein and this “God” is enough of a topic that there are books written about this part of Einstein’s life and philosophy. In his own writing and speaking, Einstein would use terms like “the Almighty” or “the Old One” (der Alte) and yet he maintained that after a brief period of “deep religiousness,” at age 12, he had permanently distanced himself from any organized religion.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he distanced himself from a God. Perhaps, that God was the what he saw the unified theory as being, or it was his way of labeling that “something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”
“You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naïve man. For the latter God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.
But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.”
Of course, growing up in New Jersey, I had to make a few pilgrimages to his home in Princeton. I spoke to the occupants once when I was freshman at Rutgers and visiting nearby (and yet so far away) Princeton University. It is not a museum and there isn’t anything to really see other than the house, and to imagine him sitting on the porch or wandering inside doing thought experiments and walking and riding his bike around the neighborhood.
People that actually went there and talked to Einstein have written about that house. One book focuses on a meeting there with Albert, Bertrand Russell (logician, philosopher, humanist), Wolfgang Pauli (physicist) and Kurt Godel (another groundbreaking logician). Too bad we don’t have recordings or transcripts of these talks – and of those very early talks with his Olympia Academy group.
People view Einstein as this kind, grandfatherly, pacifist, eccentric genius, but I also see a sadness to his life.By the time I had made that college visit to his Princeton home, I had read enough to know that he was a terrible father and husband. That really bothers me.
I always find it hard to separate the person from their work. The writer or artist or scientist who was cruel, who cheated on spouses, mistreated family, destroyed him or herself with drugs or booze and perhaps ended as a suicide – I have trouble unifying those things with any great work they accomplished.
Max Born said about Einstein, “For all his kindness, sociability and love of humanity, he was nevertheless totally detached from his environment and the human beings in it.”
When an old friend he knew from his youthful Zurich days, Michele Besso, died, he wrote a letter of condolence to the Besso family. He said that Michele’s most admirable trait had been being able to live harmoniously with a woman – “an undertaking in which I twice failed rather miserably.”
He also wrote that “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein died one month and 3 days after his friend, on April 18, 1955.