THE LIGHT-BEAM RIDER
"I promise you four papers," the young patent examiner wrote his friend.The letter would turn out to bear some of the most significant tidingsin the history of science, but its momentous nature was masked by animpish tone that was typical of its author. He had, after all, justaddressed his friend as "you frozen whale" and apologized for writing aletter that was "inconsequential babble." Only when he got around todescribing the papers, which he had produced during his spare time, didhe give some indication that he sensed their significance.
"The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light andis very revolutionary," he explained. Yes, it was indeed revolutionary.It argued that light could be regarded not just as a wave but also as astream of tiny particles called quanta. The implications that wouldeventually arise from this theory — a cosmos without strict causalityor certainty — would spook him for the rest of his life.
"The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms." Eventhough the very existence of atoms was still in dispute, this was themost straightforward of the papers, which is why he chose it as thesafest bet for his latest attempt at a doctoral thesis. He was in theprocess of revolutionizing physics, but he had been repeatedly thwartedin his efforts to win an academic job or even get a doctoral degree,which he hoped might get him promoted from a third- to a second-classexaminer at the patent office.
The third paper explained the jittery motion of microscopic particles inliquid by using a statistical analysis of random collisions. In theprocess, it established that atoms and molecules actually exist.
"The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is anelectrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of thetheory of space and time." Well, that was certainly more thaninconsequential babble. Based purely on thought experiments — performedin his head rather than in a lab — he had decided to discard Newton'sconcepts of absolute space and time. It would become known as theSpecial Theory of Relativity.
What he did not tell his friend, because it had not yet occurred to him,was that he would produce a fifth paper that year, a short addendum tothe fourth, which posited a relationship between energy and mass. Out ofit would arise the best-known equation in all of physics: E=mc2.
Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness tobreak classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to nurturethe creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person stands outas a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from oppression whosewild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity, and extraordinarybrilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius.Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with imagination and guided by afaith in the harmony of nature's handiwork. His fascinating story, atestament to the connection between creativity and freedom, reflects thetriumphs and tumults of the modern era.
Now that his archives have been completely opened, it is possible toexplore how the private side of Einstein — his nonconformistpersonality, his instincts as a rebel, his curiosity, his passions anddetachments — intertwined with his political side and his scientificside. Knowing about the man helps us understand the wellsprings of hisscience, and vice versa. Character and imagination and creative geniuswere all related, as if part of some unified field.
Despite his reputation for being aloof, he was in fact passionate inboth his personal and scientific pursuits. At college he fell madly inlove with the only woman in his physics class, a dark and intenseSerbian named Mileva Maric´. They had an illegitimate daughter, thenmarried and had two sons. She served as a sounding board for hisscientific ideas and helped to check the math in his papers, buteventually their relationship disintegrated. Einstein offered her adeal. He would win the Nobel Prize someday, he said; if she gave him adivorce, he would give her the prize money. She thought for a week andaccepted. Because his theories were so radical, it was seventeen yearsafter his miraculous outpouring from the patent office before he wasawarded the prize and she collected.
Einstein's life and work reflected the disruption of societalcertainties and moral absolutes in the modernist atmosphere of the earlytwentieth century. Imaginative nonconformity was in the air: Picasso,Joyce, Freud, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others were breakingconventional bonds. Charging this atmosphere was a conception of theuniverse in which space and time and the properties of particles seemedbased on the vagaries of observations.
Einstein, however, was not truly a relativist, even though that is howhe was interpreted by many, including some whose disdain was tinged byanti-Semitism. Beneath all of his theories, including relativity, was aquest for invariants, certainties, and absolutes. There was a harmoniousreality underlying the laws of the universe, Einstein felt, and the goalof science was to discover it.
His quest began in 1895, when as a 16-year-old he imagined what it wouldbe like to ride alongside a light beam. A decade later came his miracleyear, described in the letter above, which laid the foundations for thetwo great advances of twentieth-century physics: relativity and quantumtheory.
A decade after that, in 1915, he wrested from nature his crowning glory,one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general theoryof relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had evolvedthrough thought experiments. Imagine being in an enclosed elevatoraccelerating up through space, he conjectured in one of them. Theeffects you'd feel would be indistinguishable from the experience ofgravity.
Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came upwith the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvatureresult from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can bedescribed by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would belike to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of atrampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bowlingball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of theway it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in thefour-dimensional fabric of space and time. Okay, it's not easy, butthat's why we're no Einstein and he was.
The exact midpoint of his career came a decade after that, in 1925, andit was a turning point. The quantum revolution he had helped to launchwas being transformed into a new mechanics that was based onuncertainties and probabilities. He made his last great contributions toquantum mechanics that year but, simultaneously, began to resist it. Hewould spend the next three decades, ending with some equations scribbledwhile on his deathbed in 1955, stubbornly criticizing what he regardedas the incompleteness of quantum mechanics while attempting to subsumeit into a unified field theory.
Both during his thirty years as a revolutionary and his subsequentthirty years as a resister, Einstein remained consistent in hiswillingness to be a serenely amused loner who was comfortable notconforming. Independent in his thinking, he was driven by an imaginationthat broke from the confines of conventional wisdom. He was that oddbreed, a reverential rebel, and he was guided by a faith, which he worelightly and with a twinkle in his eye, in a God who would not play diceby allowing things to happen by chance.
Einstein's nonconformist streak was evident in his personality andpolitics as well. Although he subscribed to socialist ideals, he was toomuch of an individualist to be comfortable with excessive state controlor centralized authority. His impudent instincts, which served him sowell as a young scientist, made him allergic to nationalism, militarism,and anything that smacked of a herd mentality. And until Hitler causedhim to revise his geopolitical equations, he was an instinctive pacifistwho celebrated resistance to war.
His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from theinfinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to theexpansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we arestill living in Einstein's universe, one defined on the macro scale byhis theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanicsthat has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.
His fingerprints are all over today's technologies. Photoelectric cellsand lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and evensemiconductors all trace back to his theories. He signed the letter toFranklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an atombomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to masshover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.
Einstein's launch into fame, which occurred when measurements madeduring a 1919 eclipse confirmed his prediction of how much gravity bendslight, coincided with, and contributed to, the birth of a new celebrityage. He became a scientific supernova and humanist icon, one of the mostfamous faces on the planet. The public earnestly puzzled over histheories, elevated him into a cult of genius, and canonized him as asecular saint.
If he did not have that electrified halo of hair and those piercingeyes, would he still have become science's preeminent poster boy?Suppose, as a thought experiment, that he had looked like a Max Planckor a Niels Bohr. Would he have remained in their reputational orbit,that of a mere scientific genius? Or would he still have made the leapinto the pantheon inhabited by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton?
The latter, I believe, is the case. His work had a very personalcharacter, a stamp that made it recognizably his, the way a Picasso isrecognizably a Picasso. He made imaginative leaps and discerned greatprinciples through thought experiments rather than by methodicalinductions based on experimental data. The theories that resulted wereat times astonishing, mysterious, and counterintuitive, yet theycontained notions that could capture the popular imagination: therelativity of space and time, E=mc2, the bending of light beams, and thewarping of space.
Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His inner security wastempered by the humility that comes from being awed by nature. He couldbe detached and aloof from those close to him, but toward mankind ingeneral he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.
Yet for all of his popular appeal and surface accessibility, Einsteinalso came to symbolize the perception that modern physics was somethingthat ordinary laymen could not comprehend, "the province of priest-likeexperts," in the words of Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach. It wasnot always thus. Galileo and Newton were both great geniuses, but theirmechanical cause-and-effect explanation of the world was something thatmost thoughtful folks could grasp. In the eighteenth century of BenjaminFranklin and the nineteenth century of Thomas Edison, an educated personcould feel some familiarity with science and even dabble in it as anamateur.
A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restoredgiven the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean thatevery literature major should take a watered-down physics course or thata corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, itmeans that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful assetfor a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, verysignificantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and generaltheories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.
In addition, an appreciation for the glories of science is a joyfultrait for a good society. It helps us remain in touch with thatchildlike ca-pacity for wonder, about such ordinary things as fallingapples and elevators, that characterizes Einstein and other greattheoretical physicists.
That is why studying Einstein can be worthwhile. Science is inspiringand noble, and its pursuit an enchanting mission, as the sagas of itsheroes remind us. Near the end of his life, Einstein was asked by theNew York State Education Department what schools should emphasize. "Inteaching history," he replied, "there should be extensive discussion ofpersonalities who benefited mankind through independence of characterand judgment." Einstein fits into that category.
At a time when there is a new emphasis, in the face of globalcompetition, on science and math education, we should also note theother part of Einstein's answer. "Critical comments by students shouldbe taken in a friendly spirit," he said. "Accumulation of materialshould not stifle the student's independence." A society's competitiveadvantage will come not from how well its schools teach themultiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulateimagination and creativity.
Therein lies the key, I think, to Einstein's brilliance and the lessonsof his life. As a young student he never did well with rote learning.And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strengthof his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity.He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew thatmath is the language nature uses to describe her wonders. So he couldvisualize how equations were reflected in realities — how theelectromagnetic field equations discovered by James Clerk Maxwell, forexample, would manifest themselves to a boy riding alongside a lightbeam. As he once declared, "Imagination is more important thanknowledge."
That approach required him to embrace nonconformity. "Long liveimpudence!" he exulted to the lover who would later become his wife. "Itis my guardian angel in this world." Many years later, when othersthought that his reluctance to embrace quantum mechanics showed that hehad lost his edge, he lamented, "To punish me for my contempt forauthority, fate made me an authority myself."
His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challengingauthority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane.This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect forfree minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him,and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessarycondition for a creative society. "It is important to fosterindividuality," he said, "for only the individual can produce the newideas."
This outlook made Einstein a rebel with a reverence for the harmony ofnature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom totransform our understanding of the universe. These traits are just asvital for this new century of globalization, in which our success willdepend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of thetwentieth century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.
Copyright © 2007 by Walter Isaacson
He was slow in learning how to talk. "My parents were so worried," helater recalled, "that they consulted a doctor." Even after he had begunusing words, sometime after the age of 2, he developed a quirk thatprompted the family maid to dub him "der Depperte," the dopey one, andothers in his family to label him as "almost backwards." Whenever he hadsomething to say, he would try it out on himself, whispering it softlyuntil it sounded good enough to pronounce aloud. "Every sentence heuttered," his worshipful younger sister recalled, "no matter howroutine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips." It was allvery worrying, she said. "He had such difficulty with language thatthose around him feared he would never learn."
His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness towardauthority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another toamuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. Thesetraits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kidseverywhere. But they also helped to make him, or so he later surmised,the most creative scientific genius of modern times.
His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom inways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contemplated. Andas for his slow verbal development, he came to believe that it allowedhim to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took forgranted. "When I ask myself how it happened that I in particulardiscovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the followingcircumstance," Einstein once explained. "The ordinary adult neverbothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are thingshe has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began towonder about space and time only when I was already grown up.Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinarychild would have."
Einstein's developmental problems have probably been exaggerated,perhaps even by himself, for we have some letters from his adoringgrandparents saying that he was just as clever and endearing as everygrandchild is. But throughout his life, Einstein had a mild form ofecholalia, causing him to repeat phrases to himself, two or three times,especially if they amused him. And he generally preferred to think inpictures, most notably in famous thought experiments, such as imaginingwatching lightning strikes from a moving train or experiencing gravitywhile inside a falling elevator. "I very rarely think in words at all,"he later told a psychologist. "A thought comes, and I may try to expressit in words afterwards."
Einstein was descended, on both parents' sides, from Jewish tradesmenand peddlers who had, for at least two centuries, made modest livings inthe rural villages of Swabia in southwestern Germany. With eachgeneration they had become, or at least so they thought, increasinglyassimilated into the German culture that they loved. Although Jewish bycultural designation and kindred instinct, they displayed scant interestin the religion or its rituals.
Einstein regularly dismissed the role that his heritage played inshaping who he became. "Exploration of my ancestors," he told a friendlate in life, "leads nowhere." That's not fully true. He was blessed bybeing born into an independent-minded and intelligent family line thatvalued education, and his life was certainly affected, in ways bothbeautiful and tragic, by membership in a religious heritage that had adistinctive intellectual tradition and a history of being both outsidersand wanderers. Of course, the fact that he happened to be Jewish inGermany in the early twentieth century made him more of an outsider, andmore of a wanderer, than he would have preferred — but that, too,became integral to who he was and the role he would play in worldhistory.
Einstein's father, Hermann, was born in 1847 in the Swabian village ofBuchau, whose thriving Jewish community was just beginning to enjoy theright to practice any vocation. Hermann showed "a marked inclination formathematics," and his family was able to send him seventy-five milesnorth to Stuttgart for high school. But they could not afford to sendhim to a university, most of which were closed to Jews in any event, sohe returned home to Buchau to go into trade.
A few years later, as part of the general migration of rural German Jewsinto industrial centers during the late nineteenth century, Hermann andhis parents moved thirty-five miles away to the more prosperous town ofUlm, which prophetically boasted as its motto "Ulmenses suntmathematici," the people of Ulm are mathematicians.
There he became a partner in a cousin's featherbed company. He was"exceedingly friendly, mild and wise," his son would recall. With agentleness that blurred into docility, Hermann was to prove inept as abusinessman and forever impractical in financial matters. But hisdocility did make him well suited to be a genial family man and goodhusband to a strong-willed woman. At age 29, he married Pauline Koch,eleven years his junior.
Pauline's father, Julius Koch, had built a considerable fortune as agrain dealer and purveyor to the royal Württemberg court. Paulineinherited his practicality, but she leavened his dour disposition with ateasing wit edged with sarcasm and a laugh that could be both infectiousand wounding (traits she would pass on to her son). From all accounts,the match between Hermann and Pauline was a happy one, with her strongpersonality meshing "in complete harmony" with her husband's passivity.
Their first child was born at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 14, 1879, inUlm, which had recently joined, along with the rest of Swabia, the newGerman Reich. Initially, Pauline and Hermann had planned to name the boyAbraham, after his paternal grandfather. But they came to feel, he latersaid, that the name sounded "too Jewish." So they kept the initial A andnamed him Albert Einstein.
In 1880, just a year after Albert's birth, Hermann's featherbed businessfoundered and he was persuaded to move to Munich by his brother Jakob,who had opened a gas and electrical supply company there. Jakob, theyoungest of five siblings, had been able to get a higher education,unlike Hermann, and he had qualified as an engineer. As they competedfor contracts to provide generators and electrical lighting tomunicipalities in southern Germany, Jakob was in charge of the technicalside while Hermann provided a modicum of salesmanship skills plus,perhaps more important, loans from his wife's side of the family.
Pauline and Hermann had a second and final child, a daughter, inNovember 1881, who was named Maria but throughout her life used insteadthe diminutive Maja. When Albert was shown his new sister for the firsttime, he was led to believe that she was like a wonderful toy that hewould enjoy. His response was to look at her and exclaim, "Yes, butwhere are the wheels?" It may not have been the most perceptive ofquestions, but it did show that during his third year his languagechallenges did not prevent him from making some memorable comments.Despite a few childhood squabbles, Maja was to become her brother's mostintimate soul mate.
The Einsteins settled into a comfortable home with mature trees and anelegant garden in a Munich suburb for what was to be, at least throughmost of Albert's childhood, a respectable bourgeois existence. Munichhad been architecturally burnished by mad King Ludwig II (1845-1886) andboasted a profusion of churches, art galleries, and concert halls thatfavored the works of resident Richard Wagner. In 1882, just after theEinsteins arrived, the city had about 300,000 residents, 85 percent ofthem Catholics and 2 percent of them Jewish, and it was the host of thefirst German electricity exhibition, at which electric lights wereintroduced to the city streets.
Einstein's back garden was often bustling with cousins and children. Buthe shied from their boisterous games and instead "occupied himself withquieter things." One governess nicknamed him "Father Bore." He wasgenerally a loner, a tendency he claimed to cherish throughout his life,although his was a special sort of detachment that was interwoven with arelish for camaraderie and intellectual companionship. "From the verybeginning he was inclined to separate himself from children his own ageand to engage in daydreaming and meditative musing," according toPhilipp Frank, a longtime scientific colleague.
He liked to work on puzzles, erect complex structures with his toybuilding set, play with a steam engine that his uncle gave him, andbuild houses of cards. According to Maja, Einstein was able to constructcard structures as high as fourteen stories. Even discounting therecollections of a star-struck younger sister, there was probably a lotof truth to her claim that "persistence and tenacity were obviouslyalready part of his character."
He was also, at least as a young child, prone to temper tantrums. "Atsuch moments his face would turn completely yellow, the tip of his nosesnow-white, and he was no longer in control of himself," Maja remembers.Once, at age 5, he grabbed a chair and threw it at a tutor, who fled andnever returned. Maja's head became the target of various hard objects."It takes a sound skull," she later joked, "to be the sister of anintellectual." Unlike his persistence and tenacity, he eventuallyoutgrew his temper.
To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein's ability tosystemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater thanhis ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans arefeeling), which have led some to ask if he might have exhibited mildsymptoms of some developmental disorder. However, it is important tonote that, despite his aloof and occasionally rebellious manner, he didhave the ability to make close friends and to empathize both withcolleagues and humanity in general.
The great awakenings that happen in childhood are usually lost tomemory. But for Einstein, an experience occurred when he was 4 or 5 thatwould alter his life and be etched forever in his mind — and in thehistory of science. He was sick in bed one day, and his father broughthim a compass. He later recalled being so excited as he examined itsmysterious powers that he trembled and grew cold. The fact that themagnetic needle behaved as if influenced by some hidden force field,rather than through the more familiar mechanical method involving touchor contact, produced a sense of wonder that motivated him throughout hislife. "I can still remember — or at least I believe I can remember —that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me," he wroteon one of the many occasions he recounted the incident. "Somethingdeeply hidden had to be behind things."
"It's an iconic story," Dennis Overbye noted in Einstein in Love,"the young boy trembling to the invisible order behind chaotic reality."It has been told in the movie IQ, in which Einstein, played byWalter Matthau, wears the compass around his neck, and it is the focusof a children's book, Rescuing Albert's Compass, by ShulamithOppenheim, whose father-in-law heard the tale from Einstein in 1911.
After being mesmerized by the compass needle's fealty to an unseenfield, Einstein would develop a lifelong devotion to field theories as away to describe nature. Field theories use mathematical quantities, suchas numbers or vectors or tensors, to describe how the conditions at anypoint in space will affect matter or another field. For example, in agravitational or an electromagnetic field there are forces that couldact on a particle at any point, and the equations of a field theorydescribe how these change as one moves through the region. The firstparagraph of his great 1905 paper on special relativity begins with aconsideration of the effects of electrical and magnetic fields; histheory of general relativity is based on equations that describe agravitational field; and at the very end of his life he was doggedlyscribbling further field equations in the hope that they would form thebasis for a theory of everything. As the science historian Gerald Holtonhas noted, Einstein regarded "the classical concept of the field thegreatest contribution to the scientific spirit."
His mother, an accomplished pianist, also gave him a gift at around thesame time, one that likewise would last throughout his life. Shearranged for him to take violin lessons. At first he chafed at themechanical discipline of the instruction. But after being exposed toMozart's sonatas, music became both magical and emotional to him. "Ibelieve that love is a better teacher than a sense of duty," he said,"at least for me."
Soon he was playing Mozart duets, with his mother accompanying him onthe piano. "Mozart's music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as areflection of the inner beauty of the universe itself," he later told afriend. "Of course," he added in a remark that reflected his view ofmath and physics as well as of Mozart, "like all great beauty, his musicwas pure simplicity."
Music was no mere diversion. On the contrary, it helped him think."Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or faced adifficult challenge in his work," said his son Hans Albert, "he wouldtake refuge in music and that would solve all his difficulties." Theviolin thus proved useful during the years he lived alone in Berlin,wrestling with general relativity. "He would often play his violin inhis kitchen late at night, improvising melodies while he ponderedcomplicated problems," a friend recalled. "Then, suddenly, in the middleof playing, he would announce excitedly, 'I've got it!' As if byinspiration, the answer to the problem would have come to him in themidst of music."
His appreciation for music, and especially for Mozart, may havereflected his feel for the harmony of the universe. As AlexanderMoszkowski, who wrote a biography of Einstein in 1920 based onconversations with him, noted, "Music, Nature, and God becameintermingled in him in a complex of feeling, a moral unity, the trace ofwhich never vanished."
Throughout his life, Albert Einstein would retain the intuition and theawe of a child. He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic ofnature's phenomena — magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, acceleration,light beams — which grown-ups find so commonplace. He retained theability to hold two thoughts in his mind simultaneously, to be puzzledwhen they conflicted, and to marvel when he could smell an underlyingunity. "People like you and me never grow old," he wrote a friend laterin life. "We never cease to stand like curious children before the greatmystery into which we were born."
In his later years, Einstein would tell an old joke about an agnosticuncle, who was the only member of his family who went to synagogue. Whenasked why he did so, the uncle would respond, "Ah, but you never know."Einstein's parents, on the other hand, were "entirely irreligious" andfelt no compulsion to hedge their bets. They did not keep kosher orattend synagogue, and his father referred to Jewish rituals as "ancientsuperstitions."
Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parentsdid not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead hewent to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood, thePetersschule. As the only Jew among the seventy students in his class,Einstein took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended upenjoying it immensely. Indeed, he did so well in his Catholic studiesthat he helped his classmates with theirs.
One day his teacher brought a large nail to the class. "The nails withwhich Jesus was nailed to the cross looked like this," he said.Nevertheless, Einstein later said that he felt no discrimination fromthe teachers. "The teachers were liberal and made no distinction basedon denominations," he wrote. His fellow students, however, were adifferent matter. "Among the children at the elementary school,anti-Semitism was prevalent," he recalled.
Being taunted on his walks to and from school based on "racialcharacteristics about which the children were strangely aware" helpedreinforce the sense of being an outsider, which would stay with him hisentire life. "Physical attacks and insults on the way home from schoolwere frequent, but for the most part not too vicious. Nevertheless, theywere sufficient to consolidate, even in a child, a lively sense of beingan outsider."
When he turned 9, Einstein moved up to a high school near the center ofMunich, the Luitpold Gymnasium, which was known as an enlightenedinstitution that emphasized math and science as well as Latin and Greek.In addition, the school supplied a teacher to provide religiousinstruction for him and other Jews.
Despite his parents' secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einsteinrather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. "He was sofervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religiousstrictures in every detail," his sister recalled. He ate no pork, keptkosher dietary laws, and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath, allrather difficult to do when the rest of his family had a lack ofinterest bordering on disdain for such displays. He even composed hisown hymns for the glorification of God, which he sang to himself as hewalked home from school.
One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as astudent, an assertion that is made, often accompanied by the phrase "aseveryone knows," by scores of books and thousands of websites designedto reassure underachieving students. It even made it into the famous"Ripley's Believe It or Not!" newspaper column.
Alas, Einstein's childhood offers history many savory ironies, but thisis not one of them. In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clippingof the Ripley's column with the headline "Greatest Living MathematicianFailed in Mathematics." Einstein laughed. "I never failed inmathematics," he replied, correctly. "Before I was fifteen I hadmastered differential and integral calculus."
In fact, he was a wonderful student, at least intellectually. In primaryschool, he was at the top of his class. "Yesterday Albert got hisgrades," his mother reported to an aunt when he was 7. "Once again hewas ranked first." At the gymnasium, he disliked the mechanical learningof languages such as Latin and Greek, a problem exacerbated by what helater said was his "bad memory for words and texts." But even in thesecourses, Einstein consistently got top grades. Years later, whenEinstein celebrated his fiftieth birthday and there were stories abouthow poorly the great genius had fared at the gymnasium, the school'scurrent principal made a point of publishing a letter revealing how goodhis grades actually were.
As for math, far from being a failure, he was "far above the schoolrequirements." By age 12, his sister recalled, "he already had apredilection for solving complicated problems in applied arithmetic,"and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning geometry andalgebra on his own. His parents bought him the textbooks in advance sothat he could master them over summer vacation. Not only did he learnthe proofs in the books, he tackled the new theories by trying to provethem on his own. "Play and playmates were forgotten," she noted. "Fordays on end he sat alone, immersed in the search for a solution, notgiving up before he had found it."
His uncle Jakob Einstein, the engineer, introduced him to the joys ofalgebra. "It's a merry science," he explained. "When the animal that weare hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily andcontinue to hunt until it is bagged." He went on to give the boy evenmore difficult challenges, Maja recalled, "with good-natured doubtsabout his ability to solve them." When Einstein triumphed, as heinvariably did, he "was overcome with great happiness and was alreadythen aware of the direction in which his talents were leading him."
Among the concepts that Uncle Jakob threw at him was the Pythagoreantheorem (the square of the lengths of the legs of a right triangle addup to the square of the length of the hypotenuse). "After much effort Isucceeded in 'proving' this theorem on the basis of the similarity oftriangles," Einstein recalled. Once again he was thinking in pictures."It seemed to me 'evident' that the relations of the sides of theright-angled triangles would have to be completely determined by one ofthe acute angles."
Maja, with the pride of a younger sister, called Einstein's Pythagoreanproof "an entirely original new one." Although perhaps new to him, it ishard to imagine that Einstein's approach, which was surely similar tothe standard ones based on the proportionality of the sides of similartriangles, was completely original. Nevertheless, it did show Einstein'syouthful appreciation that elegant theorems can be derived from simpleaxioms — and the fact that he was in little danger of failing math. "Asa boy of 12, I was thrilled to see that it was possible to find outtruth by reasoning alone, without the help of any outside experience,"he told a reporter from a high school newspaper in Princeton yearslater. "I became more and more convinced that nature could be understoodas a relatively simple mathematical structure."
Einstein's greatest intellectual stimulation came from a poor medicalstudent who used to dine with his family once a week. It was an oldJewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the Sabbathmeal; the Einsteins modified the tradition by hosting instead a medicalstudent on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud (later changed to Talmey,when he immigrated to the United States), and he began his weekly visitswhen he was 21 and Einstein was 10. "He was a pretty, dark-haired boy,"remembered Talmud. "In all those years, I never saw him reading anylight literature. Nor did I ever see him in the company of schoolmatesor other boys his age."
Talmud brought him science books, including a popular illustrated seriescalled People's Books on Natural Science, "a work which I readwith breathless attention," said Einstein. The twenty-one little volumeswere written by Aaron Bernstein, who stressed the interrelations betweenbiology and physics, and he reported in great detail the scientificexperiments being done at the time, especially in Germany.
In the opening section of the first volume, Bernstein dealt with thespeed of light, a topic that obviously fascinated him. Indeed, hereturned to it repeatedly in his subsequent volumes, including elevenessays on the topic in volume 8. Judging from the thought experimentsthat Einstein later used in creating his theory of relativity,Bernstein's books appear to have been influential.
For example, Bernstein asked readers to imagine being on a speedingtrain. If a bullet is shot through the window, it would seem that it wasshot at an angle, because the train would have moved between the timethe bullet entered one window and exited the window on the other side.Likewise, because of the speed of the earth through space, the same mustbe true of light going through a telescope. What was amazing, saidBernstein, was that experiments showed the same effect no matter howfast the source of the light was moving. In a sentence that, because ofits relation to what Einstein would later famously conclude, seems tohave made an impression, Bernstein declared, "Since each kind of lightproves to be of exactly the same speed, the law of the speed of lightcan well be called the most general of all of nature's laws."
In another volume, Bernstein took his young readers on an imaginary tripthrough space. The mode of transport was the wave of an electric signal.His books celebrated the joyful wonders of scientific investigation andincluded such exuberant passages as this one written about thesuccessful prediction of the location of the new planet Uranus: "Praisedbe this science! Praised be the men who do it! And praised be the humanmind, which sees more sharply than does the human eye."
Bernstein was, as Einstein would later be, eager to tie together all ofnature's forces. For example, after discussing how all electromagneticphenomena, such as light, could be considered waves, he speculated thatthe same may be true for gravity. A unity and simplicity, Bernsteinwrote, lay beneath all the concepts applied by our perceptions. Truth inscience consisted in discovering theories that described this underlyingreality. Einstein later recalled the revelation, and the realistattitude, that this instilled in him as a young boy: "Out yonder therewas this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings andwhich stands before us like a great, eternal riddle."
Years later, when they met in New York during Einstein's first visitthere, Talmud asked what he thought, in retrospect, of Bernstein's work."A very good book," he said. "It has exerted a great influence on mywhole development."
Talmud also helped Einstein continue to explore the wonders ofmathematics by giving him a textbook on geometry two years before he wasscheduled to learn that subject in school. Later, Einstein would referto it as "the sacred little geometry book" and speak of it with awe:"Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the threealtitudes of a triangle in one point, which — though by no meansevident — could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that anydoubt appeared to be out of the question. This lucidity and certaintymade an indescribable impression upon me." Years later, in a lecture atOxford, Einstein noted, "If Euclid failed to kindle your youthfulenthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker."
When Talmud arrived each Thursday, Einstein delighted in showing him theproblems he had solved that week. Initially, Talmud was able to helphim, but he was soon surpassed by his pupil. "After a short time, a fewmonths, he had worked through the whole book," Talmud recalled. "Hethereupon devoted himself to higher mathematics...Soon the flight of hismathematical genius was so high that I could no longer follow."
So the awed medical student moved on to introducing Einstein tophilosophy. "I recommended Kant to him," he recalled. "At that time hewas still a child, only thirteen years old, yet Kant's works,incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, seemed to be clear to him." Kantbecame, for a while, Einstein's favorite philosopher, and hisCritique of Pure Reason eventually led him to delve also intoDavid Hume, Ernst Mach, and the issue of what can be known aboutreality.
Einstein's exposure to science produced a sudden reaction againstreligion at age 12, just as he would have been readying for a barmitzvah. Bernstein, in his popular science volumes, had reconciledscience with religious inclination. As he put it, "The religiousinclination lies in the dim consciousness that dwells in humans that allnature, including the humans in it, is in no way an accidental game, buta work of lawfulness, that there is a fundamental cause of allexistence."
Einstein would later come close to these sentiments. But at the time,his leap away from faith was a radical one. "Through the reading ofpopular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in thestories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positivelyfanatic orgy of f reethinking coupled with the impression that youth isintentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was acrushing impression."
As a result, Einstein avoided religious rituals for the rest of hislife. "There arose in Einstein an aversion to the orthodox practice ofthe Jewish or any traditional religion, as well as to attendance atreligious services, and this he has never lost," his friend PhilippFrank later noted. He did, however, retain from his childhood religiousphase a profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he calledthe mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe andits laws.
Einstein's rebellion against religious dogma had a profound effect onhis general outlook toward received wisdom. It inculcated an allergicreaction against all forms of dogma and authority, which was to affectboth his politics and his science. "Suspicion against every kind ofauthority grew out of this experience, an attitude which has never againleft me," he later said. Indeed, it was this comfort with being anonconformist that would define both his science and his social thinkingfor the rest of his life.
He would later be able to pull off this contrariness with a grace thatwas generally endearing, once he was accepted as a genius. But it didnot play so well when he was merely a sassy student at a Munichgymnasium. "He was very uncomfortable in school," according to hissister. He found the style of teaching — rote drills, impatience withquestioning — to be repugnant. "The military tone of the school, thesystematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed toaccustom pupils at an early age to military discipline, was particularlyunpleasant."
Even in Munich, where the Bavarian spirit engendered a less regimentedapproach to life, this Prussian glorification of the military had takenhold, and many of the children loved to play at being soldiers. Whentroops would come by, accompanied by fifes and drums, kids would pourinto the streets to join the parade and march in lockstep. But notEinstein. Watching such a display once, he began to cry. "When I growup, I don't want to be one of those poor people," he told his parents.As Einstein later explained, "When a person can take pleasure inmarching in step to a piece of music it is enough to make me despisehim. He has been given his big brain only by mistake."
The opposition he felt to all types of regimentation made his educationat the Munich gymnasium increasingly irksome and contentious. Themechanical learning there, he complained, "seemed very much akin to themethods of the Prussian army, where a mechanical discipline was achievedby repeated execution of meaningless orders." In later years, he wouldliken his teachers to members of the military. "The teachers at theelementary school seemed to me like drill sergeants," he said, "and theteachers at the gymnasium like lieutenants."
He once asked C. P. Snow, the British writer and scientist, whether hewas familiar with the German word Zwang. Snow allowed that hewas; it meant constraint, compulsion, obligation, coercion. Why? In hisMunich school, Einstein answered, he had made his first strike againstZwang, and it had helped define him ever since.
Skepticism and a resistance to received wisdom became a hallmark of hislife. As he proclaimed in a letter to a fatherly friend in 1901, "Afoolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."
Throughout the six decades of his scientific career, whether leading thequantum revolution or later resisting it, this attitude helped shapeEinstein's work. "His early suspicion of authority, which never whollyleft him, was to prove of decisive importance," said Banesh Hoffmann,who was a collaborator of Einstein's in his later years. "Without it hewould not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mindthat gave him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefsand thereby revolutionize physics."
This contempt for authority did not endear him to the German"lieutenants" who taught him at his school. As a result, one of histeachers proclaimed that his insolence made him unwelcome in class. WhenEinstein insisted that he had committed no offense, the teacher replied,"Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, andyour mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me."
Einstein's discomfort spiraled toward depression, perhaps even close toa nervous breakdown, when his father's business suffered a suddenreversal of fortune. The collapse was a precipitous one. During most ofEinstein's school years, the Einstein brothers' company had been asuccess. In 1885, it had two hundred employees and provided the firstelectrical lights for Munich's Oktoberfest. Over the next few years, itwon the contract to wire the community of Schwabing, a Munich suburb often thousand people, using gas motors to drive twin dynanamos that theEinsteins had designed. Jakob Einstein received six patents forimprovements in arc lamps, automatic circuit breakers, and electricmeters. The company was poised to rival Siemens and other powercompanies then flourishing. To raise capital, the brothers mortgagedtheir homes, borrowed more than 60,000 marks at 10 percent interest, andwent deeply in debt.
But in 1894, when Einstein was 15, the company went bust after it lost competitions to light the central part of Munich and other locations. His parents and sister, along with Uncle Jakob, moved to northern Italy — first Milan and then the nearby town of Pavia — where the company's Italian partners thought there would be more fertile territory for a smaller firm. Their elegant home was torn down by a developer to build an apartment block. Einstein was left behind in Munich, at the house of a distant relative, to finish his final three years of school.
It is not quite clear whether Einstein, in that sad autumn of 1894, was actually forced to leave the Luitpold Gymnasium or was merely politely encouraged to leave. Years later, he recalled that the teacher who had declared that his "presence spoils the respect of the class for me" had gone on to "express the wish that I leave the school." An early book by a member of his family said that it was his own decision. "Albert increasingly resolved not to remain in Munich, and he worked out a plan."
That plan involved getting a letter from the family doctor, Max Talmud's older brother, who certified that he was suffering from nervous exhaustion. He used this to justify leaving the school at Christmas vacation in 1894 and not returning. Instead, he took a train across the Alps to Italy and informed his "alarmed" parents that he was never going back to Germany. Instead, he promised, he would study on his own and attempt to gain admission to a technical college in Zurich the following autumn.
There was perhaps one other factor in his decision to leave Germany. Had he remained there until he was 17, just over a year away, he would have been required to join the army, a prospect that his sister said "he contemplated with dread." So, in addition to announcing that he would not go back to Munich, he would soon ask for his father's help in renouncing his German citizenship.
Einstein spent the spring and summer of 1895 living with his parents in their Pavia apartment and helping at the family firm. In the process, he was able to get a good feel for the workings of magnets, coils, and generated electricity. Einstein's work impressed his family. On one occasion, Uncle Jakob was having problems with some calculations for a new machine, so Einstein went to work on it. "After my assistant engineer and I had been racking our brain for days, that young sprig had got the whole thing in just fifteen minutes," Jakob reported to a friend. "You will hear of him yet."
With his love of the sublime solitude found in the mountains, Einstein hiked for days in the Alps and Apennines, including an excursion from Pavia to Genoa to see his mother's brother Julius Koch. Wherever he traveled in northern Italy, he was delighted by the non-Germanic grace and "delicacy" of the people. Their "naturalness" was a contrast to the "spiritually broken and mechanically obedient automatons" of Germany, his sister recalled.
Einstein had promised his family that he would study on his own to getinto the local technical college, the Zurich Polytechnic. So he boughtall three volumes of Jules Violle's advanced physics text and copiouslynoted his ideas in the margins. His work habits showed his ability toconcentrate, his sister recalled. "Even in a large, quite noisy group,he could withdraw to the sofa, take pen and paper in hand, set the inkstand precariously on the armrest, and lose himself so completely ina problem that the conversation of many voices stimulated rather thandisturbed him."
That summer, at age 16, he wrote his first essay on theoretical physics, which he titled "On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field." The topic was important, for the notion of the ether would play a critical role in Einstein's career. At the time, scientists conceived of light simply as a wave, and so they assumed that the universe must contain an all-pervasive yet unseen substance that was doing the rippling and thus propagating the waves, just as water was the medium rippling up and down and thus propagating the waves in an ocean. They dubbed this the ether, and Einstein (at least for the time being) went along with the assumption. As he put it in his essay, "An electric current sets the surrounding ether in a kind of momentary motion."
The fourteen-paragraph handwritten paper echoed Violle's textbook as well as some of the reports in the popular science magazines about Heinrich Hertz's recent discoveries about electromagnetic waves. In it, Einstein made suggestions for experiments that could explain "the magnetic field formed around an electric current." This would be interesting, he argued, "because the exploration of the elastic state of the ether in this case would permit us a look into the enigmatic nature of electric current."
The high school dropout freely admitted that he was merely making a few suggestions without knowing where they might lead. "As I was completely lacking in materials that would have enabled me to delve into the subject more deeply than by merely meditating about it, I beg you not to interpret this circumstance as a mark of superficiality," he wrote.
He sent the paper to his uncle Caesar Koch, a merchant in Belgium, who was one of his favorite relatives and occasionally a financial patron. "It is rather naïve and imperfect, as might be expected from such a young fellow like myself," Einstein confessed with a pretense of humility. He added that his goal was to enroll the following fall at the Zurich Polytechnic, but he was concerned that he was younger than the age requirement. "I should be at least two years older."
To help him get around the age requirement, a family friend wrote to the director of the Polytechnic, asking for an exception. The tone of the letter can be gleaned from the director's response, which expressed skepticism about admitting this "so-called 'child prodigy.' " Nevertheless, Einstein was granted permission to take the entrance exam, and he boarded the train for Zurich in October 1895 "with a sense of well-founded diffidence."
Not surprisingly, he easily passed the section of the exam in math andscience. But he failed to pass the general section, which includedsections on literature, French, zoology, botany, and politics. ThePolytechnic's head physics professor, Heinrich Weber, suggested thatEinstein stay in Zurich and audit his classes. Instead, Einsteindecided, on the advice of the college's director, to spend a yearpreparing at the cantonal school in the village of Aarau, twenty-fivemiles to the west.
It was a perfect school for Einstein. The teachingwas based on the philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer of the earlynineteenth century, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed inencouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it importantto nurture the "inner dignity" and individuality of each child. Studentsshould be allowed to reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached,by using a series of steps that began with hands-on observations andthen proceeded to intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery.It was even possible to learn — and truly understand — the laws ofmath and physics that way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fedfacts were avoided.
Einstein loved Aarau. "Pupils were treated individually," his sister recalled, "more emphasis was placed on independent thought than on punditry, and young people saw the teacher not as a figure of authority, but, alongside the student, a man of distinct personality." It was the opposite of the German education that Einstein had hated. "When compared to six years' schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium," Einstein later said, "it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority."
The visual understanding of concepts, as stressed by Pestalozzi and his followers in Aarau, became a significant aspect of Einstein's genius. "Visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching how to judge things correctly," Pestalozzi wrote, and "the learning of numbers and language must be definitely subordinated."
Not surprisingly, it was at this school that Einstein first engaged in the visualized thought experiment that would help make him the greatest scientific genius of his time: he tried to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. "In Aarau I made my first rather childish experiments in thinking that had a direct bearing on the Special Theory," he later told a friend. "If a person could run after a light wave with the same speed as light, you would have a wave arrangement which could be completely independent of time. Of course, such a thing is impossible."
This type of visualized thought experiments — Gedankenexperiment — became a hallmark of Einstein's career. Over the years, he would picture in his mind such things as lightning strikes and moving trains, accelerating elevators and falling painters, two-dimensional blind beetles crawling on curved branches, as well as a variety of contraptions designed to pinpoint, at least in theory, the location and velocity of speedingelectrons.
While a student in Aarau, Einstein boarded with a wonderful family, the Wintelers, whose members would long remain entwined in his life. There was Jost Winteler, who taught history and Greek at the school; his wife, Rosa, soon known to Einstein as Mamerl, or Mama; and their seven children. Their daughter Marie would become Einstein's first girlfriend. Another daughter, Anna, would marry Einstein's best friend, Michele Besso. And their son Paul would marry Einstein's beloved sister, Maja.
"Papa" Jost Winteler was a liberal who shared Einstein's allergyto German militarism and to nationalism in general. His edgy honesty andpolitical idealism helped to shape Einstein's social philosophy. Likehis mentor, Einstein would become a supporter of world federalism,internationalism, pacifism, and democratic socialism, with a strongdevotion to individual liberty and freedom of expression.
More important, in the warm embrace of the Winteler family, Einstein becamemore secure and personable. Even though he still fancied himself aloner, the Wintelers helped him flower emotionally and open himself tointimacy. "He had a great sense of humor and at times could laughheartily," recalled daughter Anna. In the evenings he would sometimesstudy, "but more often he would sit with the family around the table."
Einstein had developed into a head-turning teenager who possessed, inthe words of one woman who knew him, "masculine good looks of the typethat played havoc at the turn of the century." He had wavy dark hair,expressive eyes, a high forehead, and jaunty demeanor. "The lower halfof his face might have belonged to a sensualist who found plenty ofreasons to love life."
One of his schoolmates, Hans Byland, later wrote a striking description of "the impudent Swabian" who made such a lasting impression. "Sure of himself, his gray felt hat pushed back on his thick, black hair, he strode energetically up and down in the rapid, I might say crazy, tempo of a restless spirit which carries a whole world in itself. Nothing escaped the sharp gaze of the large bright brown eyes. Whoever approached him was captivated by his superior personality. A mocking curl of his fleshy mouth with its protruding lower lip did not encourage Philistines to fraternize with him."
Most notably, Byland added, young Einstein had a sassy, sometimes intimidating wit. "He confronted the world spirit as a laughing philosopher, and his witty sarcasm mercilessly castigated all vanity and artificiality."
Einstein fell in love with Marie Winteler at the end of 1895, just a few months after he moved in with her parents. She had just completed teachertraining college and was living at home while waiting to take a job in anearby village. She was just turning 18, he was still 16. The romancethrilled both families. Albert and Marie sent New Year's greetings tohis mother; she replied warmly, "Your little letter, dear Miss Marie,brought me immense joy."
The following April, when he was back home in Pavia for spring break, Einstein wrote Marie his first known love letter:
Many, many thanks sweetheart for your charming little letter, which made me endlessly happy. It was so wonderful to be able to press to one's heart such a bit of paper which two so dear little eyes have lovingly beheld and on which the dainty little hands have charmingly glided back and forth. I was now made to realize, my little angel, the meaning of homesickness and pining. But love brings much happiness — much more so than pining brings pain...
My mother has also taken you to her heart, even though she does not know you; I only let her read two of your charming little letters. And she always laughs at me because I am no longer attracted to the girls who were supposed to have enchanted me so much in the past. You mean more to my soul than the whole world did before.
To which his mother penned a postscript: "Without having read this letter, I send you cordial greetings!"
Although he enjoyed the school in Aarau, Einstein turned out to be an uneven student. His admission report noted that he needed to do remedial work in chemistry and had "great gaps" in his knowledge of French. By midyear, he still was required to "continue with private lessons in French & chemistry," and "the protest in French remains in effect." His father was sanguine when Jost Winteler sent him the midyear report. "Not all its parts fulfill my wishes and expectations," he wrote, "but with Albert I got used to finding mediocre grades along with very good ones, and I am therefore not disconsolate about them."
Music continued to be a passion. There were nine violinists in his class, and their teacher noted that they suffered from "some stiffness in bowingtechnique here and there." But Einstein was singled out for praise: "Onestudent, by the name of Einstein, even sparkled by rendering an adagiofrom a Beethoven sonata with deep understanding." At a concert in thelocal church, Einstein was chosen to play first violin in a piece byBach. His "enchanting tone and incomparable rhythm" awed the secondviolinist, who asked, "Do you count the beats?" Einstein replied,"Heavens no, it's in my blood."
His classmate Byland recalled Einstein playing a Mozart sonata with such passion — "What fire there was in his playing!" — that it seemed like hearing the composer for the first time. Listening to him, Byland realized that Einstein's wisecracking, sarcastic exterior was a shell around a softer inner soul. "He was one of those split personalities who know how to protect, with a prickly exterior, the delicate realm of their intense personal life."
Einstein's contempt for Germany's authoritarian schools and militaristatmosphere made him want to renounce his citizenship in that country.This was reinforced by Jost Winteler, who disdained all forms ofnationalism and instilled in Einstein the belief that people shouldconsider themselves citizens of the world. So he asked his father tohelp him drop his German citizenship. The release came through inJanuary 1896, and for the time being he was stateless.
He also that year became a person without a religious affiliation. In the application to renounce his German citizenship, his father had written, presumably at Albert's request, "no religious denomination." It was a statement Albert would also make when applying for Zurich residency a few years later, and on various occasions over the ensuing two decades.
His rebellion from his childhood fling with ardent Judaism, coupled with his feelings of detachment from Munich's Jews, had alienated him from hisheritage. "The religion of the fathers, as I encountered it in Munichduring religious instruction and in the synagogue, repelled rather thanattracted me," he later explained to a Jewish historian. "The Jewishbourgeois circles that I came to know in my younger years, with theiraffluence and lack of a sense of community, offered me nothing thatseemed to be of value."
Later in life, beginning with his exposure to virulent anti-Semitism in the 1920s, Einstein would begin to reconnect with his Jewish identity. "There is nothing in me that can be described as a 'Jewish faith,' " he said, "however I am happy to be a member of the Jewish people." Later he would make the same point in more colorful ways. "The Jew who abandons his faith," he once said, "is in a similar position to a snail that abandons his shell. He is still a snail."
His renunciation of Judaism in 1896 should, therefore, be seen not as aclean break but as part of a lifelong evolution of his feelings abouthis cultural identity. "At that time I would not even have understoodwhat leaving Judaism could possibly mean," he wrote a friend the yearbefore he died. "But I was fully aware of my Jewish origin, even thoughthe full significance of belonging to Jewry was not realized by me untillater."
Einstein ended his year at the Aarau school in a manner that would have seemed impressive for anyone except one of history's great geniuses, scoring the second highest grades in his class. (Alas, the name of the boy who bested Einstein is lost to history.) On a 1 to 6 scale, with 6 being the highest, he scored a 5 or 6 in all of his science and math courses as well as in history and Italian. His lowest grade was a 3, in French.
That qualified him to take a series of exams, written and oral, that would permit him, if he passed, to enter the Zurich Polytechnic. On his German exam, he did a perfunctory outline of a Goethe play and scored a 5. In math, he made a careless mistake, calling a number "imaginary" when he meant "irrational," but still got a top grade. In physics, he arrived late and left early, completing the two-hour test in an hour and fifteen minutes; he got the top grade. Altogether, he ended up with a 5.5, the best grade among the nine students taking the exams.
The one section on which he did poorly was French. But his three-paragraph essay was, to those of us today, the most interesting part of all of his exams. The topic was "Mes Projets d'avenir," my plans for the future. Although the French was not memorable, the personal insights were:
If I am lucky and pass my exams, I will enroll in the Zurich Polytechnic. I will stay there four years to study mathematics and physics. I suppose I will become a teacher in these fields of science, opting for the theoretical part of these sciences.
Here are the reasons that have led me to this plan. They are, most of all, my personal talent for abstract and mathematical thinking...My desires have also led me to the same decision. That is quite natural; everybody desires to do that for which he has a talent. Besides, I am attracted by the independence offered by the profession of science.
In the summer of 1896, the Einstein brothers' electrical business again failed, this time because they bungled getting the necessary water rights to build a hydroelectric system in Pavia. The partnership was dissolved in a friendly fashion, and Jakob joined a large firm as an engineer. But Hermann, whose optimism and pride tended to overwhelm any prudence, insisted on opening yet another new dynamo business, this time in Milan. Albert was so dubious of his father's prospects that he went to his relatives and suggested that they not finance him again, but they did.
Hermann hoped that Albert would someday join him in the business, but engineering held little appeal for him. "I was originally supposed to become an engineer," he later wrote a friend, "but the thought of having to expend my creative energy on things that make practical everyday life even more refined, with a bleak capital gain as the goal, was unbearable to me. Thinking for its own sake, like music!" And thus he headed off to the Zurich Polytechnic.
Copyright © 2007 by Walter Isaacson