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Albert Einstein: Pocket Giants
By Andrew May
The History PressCopyright © 2016 Andrew May
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The Making of a Genius
'A lazy dog who never bothered about mathematics ...'
Hermann Minkowski on Einstein
Albert Einstein was a big-headed child, physically as well as figuratively. When he was born, on 14 March 1879 in the German town of Ulm, his mother initially feared that her baby was deformed because his skull was so large. Einstein's head remained large in proportion to his body even into adulthood. For this reason, photographs often give the impression that he was a short, stocky individual; in fact, at 175cm (or 5ft 9in), he was of average height. It was just his head that was out of the ordinary – both on the outside and the inside.
Einstein was a deep thinker from the start. One of the many myths about him is that he was a slow learner, or perhaps even a backward child. The opposite is true. Certainly, he was late to start talking – but only because he realised there was no point in babbling words at random; he could see that they had to be structured into sentences before they conveyed any useful meaning. As he said later, 'I formed the ambition to speak in whole sentences. I would try each sentence out on myself by saying it softly. Then when it seemed right, I would say it out loud.'
The young Einstein had a short temper. When his sister Maja was born in 1881, she quickly became both his closest companion and the chief target for his tantrums: 'A sound skull is needed to be the sister of a thinker', she remarked later. By the time Maja was born the family had moved to Munich, where Einstein's father and uncle had set up an electrical engineering company. To start with the company did very well. After a few years the Einsteins were able to move into a big new house in an affluent suburb where the two children had a large, sprawling garden in which to play. In 1885, now with 200 employees, the Einstein company provided the first ever electrical lighting system for Munich's famous Oktoberfest beer festival.
With the exception of Maja, Einstein tended to remain aloof from other children, looking down on their frivolous antics with disdain. He was particularly contemptuous of boys who played at being soldiers – an attitude that would gradually evolve into a profound dislike of anything military.
At the age of 5 Einstein started at the local Catholic elementary school. This may seem surprising, because his parents were Jewish. They were not, however, strong followers of the Jewish faith, and they were keen to integrate into mainstream German society. The original intention had been to name their son Abraham, after his paternal grandfather, but they decided this sounded 'too Jewish' and settled on Albert instead.
Following the common practice of the day, the school taught children by rote – expecting them to memorise and repeat carefully selected facts. This infuriated Einstein, who was desperate to learn about the things that interested him but wanted to do so in his own way. There were frequent clashes with teachers. On at least one occasion a schoolmaster was forced to duck when a chair was hurled at him by an indignant young Einstein.
The teachers, for their part, were as unimpressed with him as he was with them. He was regarded as inattentive, argumentative and unlikely ever to amount to much. Again, this has contributed to the myth that Einstein was in some sense a weak learner at school. The truth is that Einstein hated being taught; he preferred to work things out for himself.
This attitude continued – possibly even intensified – after Einstein started high school at the age of 10. The curriculum was centred on classical humanities, and the laborious study of ancient Greek and Latin – subjects that did little to stir young Einstein's enthusiasm. He was rescued from utter boredom a couple of years later by a family friend named Max Talmud, who was a decade older than him. Max was an aspiring medical student who, alone among everyone in Einstein's circle at the time, could see potential in this moody, large-headed 12 year old. Week after week he brought Einstein reading material, which the youngster devoured voraciously. There were books on geometry, a subject Einstein loved because of its simple perfection. There were popular accounts of the latest developments in physics, which went far beyond anything Einstein was being taught by his schoolteachers. There was even philosophy. By the time he was 13, Einstein had read and assimilated one of the most challenging philosophical texts of all time: Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
Einstein had finally been set on the right path. Just over a decade later those three subjects – geometry, physics and philosophy – would become the triple pillars underpinning his theory of relativity. Max Talmud had shown him his true destiny. If the matter had been left to his conventionally materialistic parents, he might have ended up as a middle-class businessman like his father.
Germany already had a well-established electrical industry, and the Einstein brothers found themselves in constant competition with giant corporations like AEG and Siemens, so in 1894 they decided to move their entire operation to Milan in Italy, where they felt the market would offer better opportunities. The family duly moved, along with the business – all except for 15-year-old Einstein, who was left behind to complete his schooling in Munich.
Separated from his family by hundreds of miles, Einstein plunged into a bitter depression. He hated school, he hated German politics and he hated the fact that, once he reached the age of 17, he would be forced to enter military service.
So Einstein ran away – but only after he had thought things through and established a clear plan of action. He started by getting a doctor – who just happened to be the older brother of his friend Max – to write a note excusing him from school on the grounds that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The school staff were overjoyed to hear this; they had been looking for a way to get rid of this disruptive student for some time.
On 29 December 1894 the 15-year-old Einstein boarded a train at Munich's Hauptbahnhof and travelled to Italy to rejoin his parents. He told them he planned to renounce his German citizenship and take refuge in Switzerland, where he would train to become a physics teacher. His father was horrified, not because Einstein wanted to move to Switzerland, but because his son was clearly obsessed with physics – 'philosophical nonsense', as he called it. Einstein Senior was a practical man, and he wanted his son to be practical too. Go to Switzerland by all means, but for heaven's sake study a worthwhile subject like engineering!
Einstein ignored his father's advice. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. The place on which he had set his heart was the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich. This was not, strictly speaking, a university, because it could not award doctoral degrees. Its primary aim was to train students to become teachers. As a federal establishment, however, it was at least as prestigious as Zurich University, and it had a particularly strong reputation in the sciences. When he took the entrance examination in September 1896, Einstein passed it with flying colours; his average grade was higher than that of any other candidate that year. The following month he was ready to start his studies. At 17, he was at least a year younger than most of the other undergraduates.
One might imagine, given that Einstein was finally at an institution of his own choosing, that he would be happy with the quality of the teaching he received. But this was not the case. He was just as critical of the staff of the polytechnic as he had been of his schoolteachers in Munich.
The problem for Einstein was that he had already read more than his teachers about physics. He knew all about the latest ideas and developments, and he wanted a chance to discuss them in class. He was well aware, for example, that thirty years earlier the work of James Clerk Maxwell had put the subject of electromagnetism on the same rigorous mathematical footing that Newton had applied to classical physics in the seventeenth century. Yet Maxwell's equations were never mentioned in Einstein's physics lectures.
The head of physics at the polytechnic was 50-year-old Heinrich Weber, who taught the same curriculum he had learned as a young man. For Einstein and his fellow students, Weber's lectures were more like lessons in history than science. 'We waited in vain for a presentation of Maxwell's theory; Einstein above all was disappointed,' one of them said later.
Weber's correct title, as far as his students were concerned, was 'Herr Professor', but Einstein habitually addressed him as plain 'Herr Weber'. This calculated insult did nothing to endear him to the man who would one day need to be called on for employment references.
The situation with mathematics was not dissimilar. Einstein liked his mathematics professor, a man named Hermann Minkowski, but felt the topics he taught were almost completely irrelevant. He had loved the mathematics he learnt at school – simple algebra and Euclidean geometry – because the concepts seemed so pure and logical to him; as a budding physicist, he could see how those concepts could be applied to the real world. But the more advanced mathematics that were taught by Minkowski, things like tensor calculus and higher dimensional spaces, seemed completely pointless. Minkowski later described Einstein as 'a lazy dog who never bothered about mathematics at all'.
They were both wrong. Hermann Minkowski is remembered today for a discovery that could have been Einstein's, if only he had paid attention in lectures. When Einstein first developed the theory of special relativity in 1905, he did so using rather convoluted algebra. Minkowski noticed that Einstein's equations could take a much simpler form if they were expressed in terms of four-dimensional non-Euclidean geometry: 'Minkowski spacetime' as it is now called. Without that insight – and without other mathematical techniques he had dismissed as irrelevant, such as tensor calculus – Einstein would never have gone on to crack the problem of general relativity.
From earliest childhood and throughout his education, Einstein held strong opinions about what was worth learning and what was not. In most cases his judgement seems to have been accurate, at least as far as his chosen career was concerned. But his neglect of higher mathematics was a regrettable exception, as he admitted later in life: 'It was not clear to me as a student that a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics was tied up with the most intricate mathematical methods.'
There were ten other physics students in Einstein's year, and one of them was female. Her name was Mileva Maric. She was from Serbia, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mileva was three years older than Einstein, but they were quickly attracted to each other. She was as passionate about physics as he was and had fought just as hard to get into the polytechnic – one of the few places of higher education that accepted students of both sexes. She was intelligent, rebellious and moody, just like him. Physically, though, she was less impressive. A pen- picture written by another student described her in the following terms: 'very smart and serious, small, delicate, brunette, ugly.'
Einstein and Mileva became close. They skipped classes – both feeling they could learn more effectively on their own – and spent as much time as they could together. Before long they were talking about marriage. The correspondence between the two became increasingly urgent. In one letter Einstein wrote, 'We understand each other's dark souls as well, and also drinking coffee and eating sausages etcetera.' That Einstein had something specific in mind when he used the word 'etcetera' is suggested by his sign-off to another letter: 'Best wishes etcetera, especially the latter.'
Einstein's parents were horrified, his mother in particular. She had developed a deep dislike of Mileva before she had even met her. The reasons for this are unclear, although there is no shortage of speculation. It may have been the prejudice of a German against a non-German, or of a Jew against a non-Jew (Mileva's family belonged to the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity). On the other hand, it may simply have been a case of 'a mother knows best' when it comes to her son's love life. Einstein later described how she 'threw herself on the bed, buried her head in the pillow, and wept like a child' when he first told her of his desire to marry Mileva.
After four years at the polytechnic, Einstein and Mileva took their final examinations in July 1900. Mileva fell short of a pass, due mainly to a poor performance in mathematics. Strictly speaking Einstein fell short too, but he came close enough to scrape through. As a graduate of the polytechnic, he was now qualified to teach and to study for a doctor's degree at Zurich University. Mileva, on the other hand, had to wait another year before she could retake her examinations.
There was still one obstacle for Einstein to overcome before he could apply for a proper job. Although he had lived in Switzerland since 1895, he was not yet a Swiss citizen. The situation was eventually rectified in February 1901 when, just short of his 22nd birthday, Einstein finally passed the gruelling Swiss citizenship test.
By this time all the other students who had graduated in physics along with him had secured good jobs – some as teaching assistants at the polytechnic itself. But for some reason Einstein was unable to follow in their footsteps. He sent off application after application, and they were all rejected. It turned out that 'Herr Weber' was happily telling anyone who asked him that Albert Einstein was unfit for employment.
Einstein was forced to take short-term tutoring assignments in order to earn a living. At the same time, he started work on a PhD dissertation at the University of Zurich. Unfortunately the senior staff there were as wedded to nineteenth-century physics as their counterparts at the polytechnic. For a young man whose head was bubbling over with novel and revolutionary ideas, Einstein faced a long, hard struggle.
In May 1901, Einstein and Mileva went on holiday to Lake Como in northern Italy, not far from the Swiss border. Soon after they returned home, Mileva discovered she was pregnant. The obvious solution would have been for Einstein and Mileva to get married then and there – but for various reasons that was not possible. Einstein's family were still opposed to the marriage; he lacked a permanent job and had little prospect of obtaining one in the foreseeable future; and, in July 1901, when Mileva retook her examination at the polytechnic, she failed for the second year running.
With an immediate marriage out of the question, Mileva decided to go back to her parents' home in Serbia and have the baby there, with as little fuss as possible. Einstein remained in Switzerland to continue his doctoral research and his dogged quest to find proper employment. His letters to Mileva (or 'Dollie', as he liked to call her) were filled with excited talk about their future together: 'Soon you'll be my happy little wife, just watch ... Soon I'll be able to take my Dollie into my arms and call her my own in front of the whole world.'CHAPTER 2
A Patent Clerk with Big Ideas
'The discovery of a universal formal principle ...'
Einstein moved to Bern in Switzerland in January 1902, drawn by the prospect of a job in the Swiss Patent Office. A few days after his arrival he received a letter from Mileva's family in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, telling him she had given birth to a daughter named Lieserl. He wrote back excitedly: 'Is she healthy and does she cry properly? What are her eyes like? Which one of us does she more resemble?' But the idea of taking the train to Novi Sad, and seeing Lieserl with his own eyes, never seems to have crossed his mind.
Around the same time Einstein heard that Zurich University had rejected the doctoral thesis he had submitted a few months earlier. The text of that thesis has now been lost, and it is tempting to imagine that it represented some momentous scientific breakthrough which the Zurich professors were too hidebound to appreciate, but the truth is probably more mundane. Einstein's earliest published papers, dating from 1901 and 1902, are strong on speculation and weak on content. It seems likely that the rejected thesis would have been similar.
Disappointed but not defeated, Einstein finally started his patent office work as 'Technical Expert Third Class' on 23 June 1902, at a salary of 3,500 Swiss francs per annum (equivalent in spending power to just over £10,000 today). He was expected to sit at his desk for eight hours a day, six days a week, although he was only actually occupied when there were patent applications for him to look over. The rest of the time he was at liberty to get on with his scientific work – an arrangement which suited him perfectly.
A further step forward came in October 1902, when Einstein received an urgent call to visit his gravely ill father in Milan. The latter, on his deathbed, finally gave his blessing for Einstein to marry Mileva. Einstein's mother was unhappy about this, but as it was her husband's dying wish there was little she could do about it.
Excerpted from Albert Einstein: Pocket Giants by Andrew May. Copyright © 2016 Andrew May. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A Giant of Science 7
1 The Making of a Genius 21
2 A Patent Clerk with Big Ideas 33
3 The Relativity Revolution 45
4 Taking on Newton 57
5 An Unlikely Celebrity 73
6 The Grand Old Man of Science 89
7 Einstein's Legacy 107
Further Reading 127
Web Links 128