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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 tidings
in the history of science, but its momentous nature was masked by an
impish tone that was typical of its author. He had, after all, just
addressed his friend as "you frozen whale" and apologized for writing a
letter that was "inconsequential babble." Only when he got around to
describing the papers, which he had produced during his spare time, did
he give some indication that he sensed their significance.
"The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and
is very revolutionary," he explained. Yes, it was indeed revolutionary.
It argued that light could be regarded not just as a wave but also as a
stream of tiny particles called quanta. The implications that would
eventually arise from this theory -- a cosmos without strict causality
or certainty -- would spook him for the rest of his life.
"The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms." Even
though the very existence of atoms was still in dispute, this was the
most straightforward of the papers, which is why he chose it as the
safest bet for his latest attempt at a doctoral thesis. He was in the
process of revolutionizing physics, but he had been repeatedly thwarted
in 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-class
examiner at the patent office.
The third paper explained the jittery motion of microscopic particles in
liquid by using a statistical analysis of random collisions. In the
process, it established that atoms and molecules actually exist.
"The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is an
electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the
theory of space and time." Well, that was certainly more than
inconsequential babble. Based purely on thought experiments -- performed
in his head rather than in a lab -- he had decided to discard Newton's
concepts of absolute space and time. It would become known as the
Special 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 to
the fourth, which posited a relationship between energy and mass. Out of
it would arise the best-known equation in all of physics: E=mc2.
Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness to
break classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to nurture
the creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person stands out
as a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from oppression whose
wild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity, and extraordinary
brilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius.
Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with imagination and guided by a
faith in the harmony of nature's handiwork. His fascinating story, a
testament to the connection between creativity and freedom, reflects the
triumphs and tumults of the modern era.
Now that his archives have been completely opened, it is possible to
explore how the private side of Einstein -- his nonconformist
personality, his instincts as a rebel, his curiosity, his passions and
detachments -- intertwined with his political side and his scientific
side. Knowing about the man helps us understand the wellsprings of his
science, and vice versa. Character and imagination and creative genius
were all related, as if part of some unified field.
Despite his reputation for being aloof, he was in fact passionate in
both his personal and scientific pursuits. At college he fell madly in
love with the only woman in his physics class, a dark and intense
Serbian named Mileva Maric´. They had an illegitimate daughter, then
married and had two sons. She served as a sounding board for his
scientific ideas and helped to check the math in his papers, but
eventually their relationship disintegrated. Einstein offered her a
deal. He would win the Nobel Prize someday, he said; if she gave him a
divorce, he would give her the prize money. She thought for a week and
accepted. Because his theories were so radical, it was seventeen years
after his miraculous outpouring from the patent office before he was
awarded the prize and she collected.
Einstein's life and work reflected the disruption of societal
certainties and moral absolutes in the modernist atmosphere of the early
twentieth century. Imaginative nonconformity was in the air: Picasso,
Joyce, Freud, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others were breaking
conventional bonds. Charging this atmosphere was a conception of the
universe in which space and time and the properties of particles seemed
based on the vagaries of observations.
Einstein, however, was not truly a relativist, even though that is how
he was interpreted by many, including some whose disdain was tinged by
anti-Semitism. Beneath all of his theories, including relativity, was a
quest for invariants, certainties, and absolutes. There was a harmonious
reality underlying the laws of the universe, Einstein felt, and the goal
of science was to discover it.
His quest began in 1895, when as a 16-year-old he imagined what it would
be like to ride alongside a light beam. A decade later came his miracle
year, described in the letter above, which laid the foundations for the
two great advances of twentieth-century physics: relativity and quantum
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 theory
of relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had evolved
through thought experiments. Imagine being in an enclosed elevator
accelerating up through space, he conjectured in one of them. The
effects you'd feel would be indistinguishable from the experience of
Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came up
with the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvature
result from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can be
described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be
like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a
trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bowling
ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the
way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the
four-dimensional fabric of space and time. Okay, it's not easy, but
that's why we're no Einstein and he was.
The exact midpoint of his career came a decade after that, in 1925, and
it was a turning point. The quantum revolution he had helped to launch
was being transformed into a new mechanics that was based on
uncertainties and probabilities. He made his last great contributions to
quantum mechanics that year but, simultaneously, began to resist it. He
would spend the next three decades, ending with some equations scribbled
while on his deathbed in 1955, stubbornly criticizing what he regarded
as the incompleteness of quantum mechanics while attempting to subsume
it into a unified field theory.
Both during his thirty years as a revolutionary and his subsequent
thirty years as a resister, Einstein remained consistent in his
willingness to be a serenely amused loner who was comfortable not
conforming. Independent in his thinking, he was driven by an imagination
that broke from the confines of conventional wisdom. He was that odd
breed, a reverential rebel, and he was guided by a faith, which he wore
lightly and with a twinkle in his eye, in a God who would not play dice
by allowing things to happen by chance.
Einstein's nonconformist streak was evident in his personality and
politics as well. Although he subscribed to socialist ideals, he was too
much of an individualist to be comfortable with excessive state control
or centralized authority. His impudent instincts, which served him so
well as a young scientist, made him allergic to nationalism, militarism,
and anything that smacked of a herd mentality. And until Hitler caused
him to revise his geopolitical equations, he was an instinctive pacifist
who celebrated resistance to war.
His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the
infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the
expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are
still living in Einstein's universe, one defined on the macro scale by
his theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanics
that has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.
His fingerprints are all over today's technologies. Photoelectric cells
and lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and even
semiconductors all trace back to his theories. He signed the letter to
Franklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an atom
bomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to mass
hover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.
Einstein's launch into fame, which occurred when measurements made
during a 1919 eclipse confirmed his prediction of how much gravity bends
light, coincided with, and contributed to, the birth of a new celebrity
age. He became a scientific supernova and humanist icon, one of the most
famous faces on the planet. The public earnestly puzzled over his
theories, elevated him into a cult of genius, and canonized him as a
If he did not have that electrified halo of hair and those piercing
eyes, would he still have become science's preeminent poster boy?
Suppose, as a thought experiment, that he had looked like a Max Planck
or a Niels Bohr. Would he have remained in their reputational orbit,
that of a mere scientific genius? Or would he still have made the leap
into the pantheon inhabited by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton?
The latter, I believe, is the case. His work had a very personal
character, a stamp that made it recognizably his, the way a Picasso is
recognizably a Picasso. He made imaginative leaps and discerned great
principles through thought experiments rather than by methodical
inductions based on experimental data. The theories that resulted were
at times astonishing, mysterious, and counterintuitive, yet they
contained notions that could capture the popular imagination: the
relativity of space and time, E=mc2, the bending of light beams, and the
warping of space.
Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His inner security was
tempered by the humility that comes from being awed by nature. He could
be detached and aloof from those close to him, but toward mankind in
general he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.
Yet for all of his popular appeal and surface accessibility, Einstein
also came to symbolize the perception that modern physics was something
that ordinary laymen could not comprehend, "the province of priest-like
experts," in the words of Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach. It was
not always thus. Galileo and Newton were both great geniuses, but their
mechanical cause-and-effect explanation of the world was something that
most thoughtful folks could grasp. In the eighteenth century of Benjamin
Franklin and the nineteenth century of Thomas Edison, an educated person
could feel some familiarity with science and even dabble in it as an
A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restored
given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that
every literature major should take a watered-down physics course or that
a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it
means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset
for a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, very
significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general
theories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.
In addition, an appreciation for the glories of science is a joyful
trait for a good society. It helps us remain in touch with that
childlike ca-pacity for wonder, about such ordinary things as falling
apples and elevators, that characterizes Einstein and other great
That is why studying Einstein can be worthwhile. Science is inspiring
and noble, and its pursuit an enchanting mission, as the sagas of its
heroes remind us. Near the end of his life, Einstein was asked by the
New York State Education Department what schools should emphasize. "In
teaching history," he replied, "there should be extensive discussion of
personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character
and judgment." Einstein fits into that category.
At a time when there is a new emphasis, in the face of global
competition, on science and math education, we should also note the
other part of Einstein's answer. "Critical comments by students should
be taken in a friendly spirit," he said. "Accumulation of material
should not stifle the student's independence." A society's competitive
advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the
multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate
imagination and creativity.
Therein lies the key, I think, to Einstein's brilliance and the lessons
of 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 strength
of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity.
He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that
math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders. So he could
visualize how equations were reflected in realities -- how the
electromagnetic field equations discovered by James Clerk Maxwell, for
example, would manifest themselves to a boy riding alongside a light
beam. As he once declared, "Imagination is more important than
That approach required him to embrace nonconformity. "Long live
impudence!" he exulted to the lover who would later become his wife. "It
is my guardian angel in this world." Many years later, when others
thought that his reluctance to embrace quantum mechanics showed that he
had lost his edge, he lamented, "To punish me for my contempt for
authority, fate made me an authority myself."
His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging
authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane.
This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for
free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him,
and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary
condition for a creative society. "It is important to foster
individuality," he said, "for only the individual can produce the new
This outlook made Einstein a rebel with a reverence for the harmony of
nature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom to
transform our understanding of the universe. These traits are just as
vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will
depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the
twentieth 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," he
later recalled, "that they consulted a doctor." Even after he had begun
using words, sometime after the age of 2, he developed a quirk that
prompted the family maid to dub him "der Depperte," the dopey one, and
others in his family to label him as "almost backwards." Whenever he had
something to say, he would try it out on himself, whispering it softly
until it sounded good enough to pronounce aloud. "Every sentence he
uttered," his worshipful younger sister recalled, "no matter how
routine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips." It was all
very worrying, she said. "He had such difficulty with language that
those around him feared he would never learn."
His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward
authority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to
amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. These
traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids
everywhere. 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 in
ways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contemplated. And
as for his slow verbal development, he came to believe that it allowed
him to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took for
granted. "When I ask myself how it happened that I in particular
discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following
circumstance," Einstein once explained. "The ordinary adult never
bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things
he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to
wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up.
Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary
child would have."
Einstein's developmental problems have probably been exaggerated,
perhaps even by himself, for we have some letters from his adoring
grandparents saying that he was just as clever and endearing as every
grandchild is. But throughout his life, Einstein had a mild form of
echolalia, causing him to repeat phrases to himself, two or three times,
especially if they amused him. And he generally preferred to think in
pictures, most notably in famous thought experiments, such as imagining
watching lightning strikes from a moving train or experiencing gravity
while 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 express
it in words afterwards."
Einstein was descended, on both parents' sides, from Jewish tradesmen
and peddlers who had, for at least two centuries, made modest livings in
the rural villages of Swabia in southwestern Germany. With each
generation they had become, or at least so they thought, increasingly
assimilated into the German culture that they loved. Although Jewish by
cultural designation and kindred instinct, they displayed scant interest
in the religion or its rituals.
Einstein regularly dismissed the role that his heritage played in
shaping who he became. "Exploration of my ancestors," he told a friend
late in life, "leads nowhere." That's not fully true. He was blessed by
being born into an independent-minded and intelligent family line that
valued education, and his life was certainly affected, in ways both
beautiful and tragic, by membership in a religious heritage that had a
distinctive intellectual tradition and a history of being both outsiders
and wanderers. Of course, the fact that he happened to be Jewish in
Germany in the early twentieth century made him more of an outsider, and
more of a wanderer, than he would have preferred -- but that, too,
became integral to who he was and the role he would play in world
Einstein's father, Hermann, was born in 1847 in the Swabian village of
Buchau, whose thriving Jewish community was just beginning to enjoy the
right to practice any vocation. Hermann showed "a marked inclination for
mathematics," and his family was able to send him seventy-five miles
north to Stuttgart for high school. But they could not afford to send
him to a university, most of which were closed to Jews in any event, so
he returned home to Buchau to go into trade.
A few years later, as part of the general migration of rural German Jews
into industrial centers during the late nineteenth century, Hermann and
his parents moved thirty-five miles away to the more prosperous town of
Ulm, which prophetically boasted as its motto "Ulmenses sunt
mathematici," 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 a
gentleness that blurred into docility, Hermann was to prove inept as a
businessman and forever impractical in financial matters. But his
docility did make him well suited to be a genial family man and good
husband 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 a
grain dealer and purveyor to the royal Württemberg court. Pauline
inherited his practicality, but she leavened his dour disposition with a
teasing wit edged with sarcasm and a laugh that could be both infectious
and wounding (traits she would pass on to her son). From all accounts,
the match between Hermann and Pauline was a happy one, with her strong
personality meshing "in complete harmony" with her husband's passivity.
Their first child was born at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 14, 1879, in
Ulm, which had recently joined, along with the rest of Swabia, the new
German Reich. Initially, Pauline and Hermann had planned to name the boy
Abraham, after his paternal grandfather. But they came to feel, he later
said, that the name sounded "too Jewish." So they kept the initial A and
named him Albert Einstein.
In 1880, just a year after Albert's birth, Hermann's featherbed business
foundered and he was persuaded to move to Munich by his brother Jakob,
who had opened a gas and electrical supply company there. Jakob, the
youngest of five siblings, had been able to get a higher education,
unlike Hermann, and he had qualified as an engineer. As they competed
for contracts to provide generators and electrical lighting to
municipalities in southern Germany, Jakob was in charge of the technical
side 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, in
November 1881, who was named Maria but throughout her life used instead
the diminutive Maja. When Albert was shown his new sister for the first
time, he was led to believe that she was like a wonderful toy that he
would enjoy. His response was to look at her and exclaim, "Yes, but
where are the wheels?" It may not have been the most perceptive of
questions, but it did show that during his third year his language
challenges did not prevent him from making some memorable comments.
Despite a few childhood squabbles, Maja was to become her brother's most
intimate soul mate.
The Einsteins settled into a comfortable home with mature trees and an
elegant garden in a Munich suburb for what was to be, at least through
most of Albert's childhood, a respectable bourgeois existence. Munich
had been architecturally burnished by mad King Ludwig II (1845-1886) and
boasted a profusion of churches, art galleries, and concert halls that
favored the works of resident Richard Wagner. In 1882, just after the
Einsteins arrived, the city had about 300,000 residents, 85 percent of
them Catholics and 2 percent of them Jewish, and it was the host of the
first German electricity exhibition, at which electric lights were
introduced to the city streets.
Einstein's back garden was often bustling with cousins and children. But
he shied from their boisterous games and instead "occupied himself with
quieter things." One governess nicknamed him "Father Bore." He was
generally a loner, a tendency he claimed to cherish throughout his life,
although his was a special sort of detachment that was interwoven with a
relish for camaraderie and intellectual companionship. "From the very
beginning he was inclined to separate himself from children his own age
and to engage in daydreaming and meditative musing," according to
Philipp Frank, a longtime scientific colleague.
He liked to work on puzzles, erect complex structures with his toy
building set, play with a steam engine that his uncle gave him, and
build houses of cards. According to Maja, Einstein was able to construct
card structures as high as fourteen stories. Even discounting the
recollections of a star-struck younger sister, there was probably a lot
of truth to her claim that "persistence and tenacity were obviously
already part of his character."
He was also, at least as a young child, prone to temper tantrums. "At
such moments his face would turn completely yellow, the tip of his nose
snow-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 and
never returned. Maja's head became the target of various hard objects.
"It takes a sound skull," she later joked, "to be the sister of an
intellectual." Unlike his persistence and tenacity, he eventually
outgrew his temper.
To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein's ability to
systemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater than
his ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans are
feeling), which have led some to ask if he might have exhibited mild
symptoms of some developmental disorder. However, it is important to
note that, despite his aloof and occasionally rebellious manner, he did
have the ability to make close friends and to empathize both with
colleagues and humanity in general.
The great awakenings that happen in childhood are usually lost to
memory. But for Einstein, an experience occurred when he was 4 or 5 that
would alter his life and be etched forever in his mind -- and in the
history of science. He was sick in bed one day, and his father brought
him a compass. He later recalled being so excited as he examined its
mysterious powers that he trembled and grew cold. The fact that the
magnetic needle behaved as if influenced by some hidden force field,
rather than through the more familiar mechanical method involving touch
or contact, produced a sense of wonder that motivated him throughout his
life. "I can still remember -- or at least I believe I can remember --
that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me," he wrote
on one of the many occasions he recounted the incident. "Something
deeply 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 by
Walter Matthau, wears the compass around his neck, and it is the focus
of a children's book, Rescuing Albert's Compass, by Shulamith
Oppenheim, whose father-in-law heard the tale from Einstein in 1911.
After being mesmerized by the compass needle's fealty to an unseen
field, Einstein would develop a lifelong devotion to field theories as a
way to describe nature. Field theories use mathematical quantities, such
as numbers or vectors or tensors, to describe how the conditions at any
point in space will affect matter or another field. For example, in a
gravitational or an electromagnetic field there are forces that could
act on a particle at any point, and the equations of a field theory
describe how these change as one moves through the region. The first
paragraph of his great 1905 paper on special relativity begins with a
consideration of the effects of electrical and magnetic fields; his
theory of general relativity is based on equations that describe a
gravitational field; and at the very end of his life he was doggedly
scribbling further field equations in the hope that they would form the
basis for a theory of everything. As the science historian Gerald Holton
has noted, Einstein regarded "the classical concept of the field the
greatest contribution to the scientific spirit."
His mother, an accomplished pianist, also gave him a gift at around the
same time, one that likewise would last throughout his life. She
arranged for him to take violin lessons. At first he chafed at the
mechanical discipline of the instruction. But after being exposed to
Mozart's sonatas, music became both magical and emotional to him. "I
believe 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 on
the piano. "Mozart's music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a
reflection of the inner beauty of the universe itself," he later told a
friend. "Of course," he added in a remark that reflected his view of
math and physics as well as of Mozart, "like all great beauty, his music
was 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 a
difficult challenge in his work," said his son Hans Albert, "he would
take refuge in music and that would solve all his difficulties." The
violin thus proved useful during the years he lived alone in Berlin,
wrestling with general relativity. "He would often play his violin in
his kitchen late at night, improvising melodies while he pondered
complicated problems," a friend recalled. "Then, suddenly, in the middle
of playing, he would announce excitedly, 'I've got it!' As if by
inspiration, the answer to the problem would have come to him in the
midst of music."
His appreciation for music, and especially for Mozart, may have
reflected his feel for the harmony of the universe. As Alexander
Moszkowski, who wrote a biography of Einstein in 1920 based on
conversations with him, noted, "Music, Nature, and God became
intermingled in him in a complex of feeling, a moral unity, the trace of
which never vanished."
Throughout his life, Albert Einstein would retain the intuition and the
awe of a child. He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic of
nature's phenomena -- magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, acceleration,
light beams -- which grown-ups find so commonplace. He retained the
ability to hold two thoughts in his mind simultaneously, to be puzzled
when they conflicted, and to marvel when he could smell an underlying
unity. "People like you and me never grow old," he wrote a friend later
in life. "We never cease to stand like curious children before the great
mystery into which we were born."
In his later years, Einstein would tell an old joke about an agnostic
uncle, who was the only member of his family who went to synagogue. When
asked why he did so, the uncle would respond, "Ah, but you never know."
Einstein's parents, on the other hand, were "entirely irreligious" and
felt no compulsion to hedge their bets. They did not keep kosher or
attend synagogue, and his father referred to Jewish rituals as "ancient
Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents
did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he
went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood, the
Petersschule. As the only Jew among the seventy students in his class,
Einstein took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up
enjoying it immensely. Indeed, he did so well in his Catholic studies
that he helped his classmates with theirs.
One day his teacher brought a large nail to the class. "The nails with
which Jesus was nailed to the cross looked like this," he said.
Nevertheless, Einstein later said that he felt no discrimination from
the teachers. "The teachers were liberal and made no distinction based
on denominations," he wrote. His fellow students, however, were a
different 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 "racial
characteristics about which the children were strangely aware" helped
reinforce the sense of being an outsider, which would stay with him his
entire life. "Physical attacks and insults on the way home from school
were frequent, but for the most part not too vicious. Nevertheless, they
were sufficient to consolidate, even in a child, a lively sense of being
When he turned 9, Einstein moved up to a high school near the center of
Munich, the Luitpold Gymnasium, which was known as an enlightened
institution that emphasized math and science as well as Latin and Greek.
In addition, the school supplied a teacher to provide religious
instruction for him and other Jews.
Despite his parents' secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein
rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. "He was so
fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious
strictures in every detail," his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept
kosher dietary laws, and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath, all
rather difficult to do when the rest of his family had a lack of
interest bordering on disdain for such displays. He even composed his
own hymns for the glorification of God, which he sang to himself as he
walked home from school.
One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as a
student, an assertion that is made, often accompanied by the phrase "as
everyone knows," by scores of books and thousands of websites designed
to 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 this
is not one of them. In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clipping
of the Ripley's column with the headline "Greatest Living Mathematician
Failed in Mathematics." Einstein laughed. "I never failed in
mathematics," he replied, correctly. "Before I was fifteen I had
mastered differential and integral calculus."
In fact, he was a wonderful student, at least intellectually. In primary
school, he was at the top of his class. "Yesterday Albert got his
grades," his mother reported to an aunt when he was 7. "Once again he
was ranked first." At the gymnasium, he disliked the mechanical learning
of languages such as Latin and Greek, a problem exacerbated by what he
later said was his "bad memory for words and texts." But even in these
courses, Einstein consistently got top grades. Years later, when
Einstein celebrated his fiftieth birthday and there were stories about
how poorly the great genius had fared at the gymnasium, the school's
current principal made a point of publishing a letter revealing how good
his grades actually were.
As for math, far from being a failure, he was "far above the school
requirements." By age 12, his sister recalled, "he already had a
predilection for solving complicated problems in applied arithmetic,"
and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning geometry and
algebra on his own. His parents bought him the textbooks in advance so
that he could master them over summer vacation. Not only did he learn
the proofs in the books, he tackled the new theories by trying to prove
them on his own. "Play and playmates were forgotten," she noted. "For
days on end he sat alone, immersed in the search for a solution, not
giving up before he had found it."
His uncle Jakob Einstein, the engineer, introduced him to the joys of
algebra. "It's a merry science," he explained. "When the animal that we
are hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily and
continue to hunt until it is bagged." He went on to give the boy even
more difficult challenges, Maja recalled, "with good-natured doubts
about his ability to solve them." When Einstein triumphed, as he
invariably did, he "was overcome with great happiness and was already
then aware of the direction in which his talents were leading him."
Among the concepts that Uncle Jakob threw at him was the Pythagorean
theorem (the square of the lengths of the legs of a right triangle add
up to the square of the length of the hypotenuse). "After much effort I
succeeded in 'proving' this theorem on the basis of the similarity of
triangles," Einstein recalled. Once again he was thinking in pictures.
"It seemed to me 'evident' that the relations of the sides of the
right-angled triangles would have to be completely determined by one of
the acute angles."
Maja, with the pride of a younger sister, called Einstein's Pythagorean
proof "an entirely original new one." Although perhaps new to him, it is
hard to imagine that Einstein's approach, which was surely similar to
the standard ones based on the proportionality of the sides of similar
triangles, was completely original. Nevertheless, it did show Einstein's
youthful appreciation that elegant theorems can be derived from simple
axioms -- and the fact that he was in little danger of failing math. "As
a boy of 12, I was thrilled to see that it was possible to find out
truth by reasoning alone, without the help of any outside experience,"
he told a reporter from a high school newspaper in Princeton years
later. "I became more and more convinced that nature could be understood
as a relatively simple mathematical structure."
Einstein's greatest intellectual stimulation came from a poor medical
student who used to dine with his family once a week. It was an old
Jewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the Sabbath
meal; the Einsteins modified the tradition by hosting instead a medical
student on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud (later changed to Talmey,
when he immigrated to the United States), and he began his weekly visits
when 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 any
light literature. Nor did I ever see him in the company of schoolmates
or other boys his age."
Talmud brought him science books, including a popular illustrated series
called People's Books on Natural Science, "a work which I read
with breathless attention," said Einstein. The twenty-one little volumes
were written by Aaron Bernstein, who stressed the interrelations between
biology and physics, and he reported in great detail the scientific
experiments being done at the time, especially in Germany.
In the opening section of the first volume, Bernstein dealt with the
speed of light, a topic that obviously fascinated him. Indeed, he
returned to it repeatedly in his subsequent volumes, including eleven
essays on the topic in volume 8. Judging from the thought experiments
that 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 speeding
train. If a bullet is shot through the window, it would seem that it was
shot at an angle, because the train would have moved between the time
the bullet entered one window and exited the window on the other side.
Likewise, because of the speed of the earth through space, the same must
be true of light going through a telescope. What was amazing, said
Bernstein, was that experiments showed the same effect no matter how
fast the source of the light was moving. In a sentence that, because of
its relation to what Einstein would later famously conclude, seems to
have made an impression, Bernstein declared, "Since each kind of light
proves to be of exactly the same speed, the law of the speed of light
can well be called the most general of all of nature's laws."
In another volume, Bernstein took his young readers on an imaginary trip
through space. The mode of transport was the wave of an electric signal.
His books celebrated the joyful wonders of scientific investigation and
included such exuberant passages as this one written about the
successful prediction of the location of the new planet Uranus: "Praised
be this science! Praised be the men who do it! And praised be the human
mind, which sees more sharply than does the human eye."
Bernstein was, as Einstein would later be, eager to tie together all of
nature's forces. For example, after discussing how all electromagnetic
phenomena, such as light, could be considered waves, he speculated that
the same may be true for gravity. A unity and simplicity, Bernstein
wrote, lay beneath all the concepts applied by our perceptions. Truth in
science consisted in discovering theories that described this underlying
reality. Einstein later recalled the revelation, and the realist
attitude, that this instilled in him as a young boy: "Out yonder there
was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and
which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle."
Years later, when they met in New York during Einstein's first visit
there, Talmud asked what he thought, in retrospect, of Bernstein's work.
"A very good book," he said. "It has exerted a great influence on my
Talmud also helped Einstein continue to explore the wonders of
mathematics by giving him a textbook on geometry two years before he was
scheduled to learn that subject in school. Later, Einstein would refer
to it as "the sacred little geometry book" and speak of it with awe:
"Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the three
altitudes of a triangle in one point, which -- though by no means
evident -- could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any
doubt appeared to be out of the question. This lucidity and certainty
made an indescribable impression upon me." Years later, in a lecture at
Oxford, Einstein noted, "If Euclid failed to kindle your youthful
enthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker."
When Talmud arrived each Thursday, Einstein delighted in showing him the
problems he had solved that week. Initially, Talmud was able to help
him, but he was soon surpassed by his pupil. "After a short time, a few
months, he had worked through the whole book," Talmud recalled. "He
thereupon devoted himself to higher mathematics...Soon the flight of his
mathematical genius was so high that I could no longer follow."
So the awed medical student moved on to introducing Einstein to
philosophy. "I recommended Kant to him," he recalled. "At that time he
was still a child, only thirteen years old, yet Kant's works,
incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, seemed to be clear to him." Kant
became, for a while, Einstein's favorite philosopher, and his
Critique of Pure Reason eventually led him to delve also into
David Hume, Ernst Mach, and the issue of what can be known about
Einstein's exposure to science produced a sudden reaction against
religion at age 12, just as he would have been readying for a bar
mitzvah. Bernstein, in his popular science volumes, had reconciled
science with religious inclination. As he put it, "The religious
inclination lies in the dim consciousness that dwells in humans that all
nature, including the humans in it, is in no way an accidental game, but
a work of lawfulness, that there is a fundamental cause of all
Einstein would later come close to these sentiments. But at the time,
his leap away from faith was a radical one. "Through the reading of
popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the
stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively
fanatic orgy of f reethinking coupled with the impression that youth is
intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a
As a result, Einstein avoided religious rituals for the rest of his
life. "There arose in Einstein an aversion to the orthodox practice of
the Jewish or any traditional religion, as well as to attendance at
religious services, and this he has never lost," his friend Philipp
Frank later noted. He did, however, retain from his childhood religious
phase a profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he called
the mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and
Einstein's rebellion against religious dogma had a profound effect on
his general outlook toward received wisdom. It inculcated an allergic
reaction against all forms of dogma and authority, which was to affect
both his politics and his science. "Suspicion against every kind of
authority grew out of this experience, an attitude which has never again
left me," he later said. Indeed, it was this comfort with being a
nonconformist that would define both his science and his social thinking
for the rest of his life.
He would later be able to pull off this contrariness with a grace that
was generally endearing, once he was accepted as a genius. But it did
not play so well when he was merely a sassy student at a Munich
gymnasium. "He was very uncomfortable in school," according to his
sister. He found the style of teaching -- rote drills, impatience with
questioning -- to be repugnant. "The military tone of the school, the
systematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed to
accustom pupils at an early age to military discipline, was particularly
Even in Munich, where the Bavarian spirit engendered a less regimented
approach to life, this Prussian glorification of the military had taken
hold, and many of the children loved to play at being soldiers. When
troops would come by, accompanied by fifes and drums, kids would pour
into the streets to join the parade and march in lockstep. But not
Einstein. Watching such a display once, he began to cry. "When I grow
up, 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 in
marching in step to a piece of music it is enough to make me despise
him. He has been given his big brain only by mistake."
The opposition he felt to all types of regimentation made his education
at the Munich gymnasium increasingly irksome and contentious. The
mechanical learning there, he complained, "seemed very much akin to the
methods of the Prussian army, where a mechanical discipline was achieved
by repeated execution of meaningless orders." In later years, he would
liken his teachers to members of the military. "The teachers at the
elementary school seemed to me like drill sergeants," he said, "and the
teachers at the gymnasium like lieutenants."
He once asked C. P. Snow, the British writer and scientist, whether he
was familiar with the German word Zwang. Snow allowed that he
was; it meant constraint, compulsion, obligation, coercion. Why? In his
Munich school, Einstein answered, he had made his first strike against
Zwang, and it had helped define him ever since.
Skepticism and a resistance to received wisdom became a hallmark of his
life. As he proclaimed in a letter to a fatherly friend in 1901, "A
foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."
Throughout the six decades of his scientific career, whether leading the
quantum revolution or later resisting it, this attitude helped shape
Einstein's work. "His early suspicion of authority, which never wholly
left him, was to prove of decisive importance," said Banesh Hoffmann,
who was a collaborator of Einstein's in his later years. "Without it he
would not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mind
that gave him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefs
and 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 his
teachers proclaimed that his insolence made him unwelcome in class. When
Einstein insisted that he had committed no offense, the teacher replied,
"Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and
your mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me."
Einstein's discomfort spiraled toward depression, perhaps even close to
a nervous breakdown, when his father's business suffered a sudden
reversal of fortune. The collapse was a precipitous one. During most of
Einstein's school years, the Einstein brothers' company had been a
success. In 1885, it had two hundred employees and provided the first
electrical lights for Munich's Oktoberfest. Over the next few years, it
won the contract to wire the community of Schwabing, a Munich suburb of
ten thousand people, using gas motors to drive twin dynanamos that the
Einsteins had designed. Jakob Einstein received six patents for
improvements in arc lamps, automatic circuit breakers, and electric
meters. The company was poised to rival Siemens and other power
companies then flourishing. To raise capital, the brothers mortgaged
their homes, borrowed more than 60,000 marks at 10 percent interest, and
went 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
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
Einstein had promised his family that he would study on his own to get
into the local technical college, the Zurich Polytechnic. So he bought
all three volumes of Jules Violle's advanced physics text and copiously
noted his ideas in the margins. His work habits showed his ability to
concentrate, 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 in
a problem that the conversation of many voices stimulated rather than
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 nai;ve 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 and
science. But he failed to pass the general section, which included
sections on literature, French, zoology, botany, and politics. The
Polytechnic's head physics professor, Heinrich Weber, suggested that
Einstein stay in Zurich and audit his classes. Instead, Einstein
decided, on the advice of the college's director, to spend a year
preparing at the cantonal school in the village of Aarau, twenty-five
miles to the west.
It was a perfect school for Einstein. The teaching
was based on the philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer of the early
nineteenth century, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in
encouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it important
to nurture the "inner dignity" and individuality of each child. Students
should be allowed to reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached,
by using a series of steps that began with hands-on observations and
then proceeded to intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery.
It was even possible to learn -- and truly understand -- the laws of
math and physics that way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fed
facts 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
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 speeding
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 allergy
to German militarism and to nationalism in general. His edgy honesty and
political idealism helped to shape Einstein's social philosophy. Like
his mentor, Einstein would become a supporter of world federalism,
internationalism, pacifism, and democratic socialism, with a strong
devotion to individual liberty and freedom of expression.
More important, in the warm embrace of the Winteler family, Einstein became
more secure and personable. Even though he still fancied himself a
loner, the Wintelers helped him flower emotionally and open himself to
intimacy. "He had a great sense of humor and at times could laugh
heartily," recalled daughter Anna. In the evenings he would sometimes
study, "but more often he would sit with the family around the table."
Einstein had developed into a head-turning teenager who possessed, in
the words of one woman who knew him, "masculine good looks of the type
that played havoc at the turn of the century." He had wavy dark hair,
expressive eyes, a high forehead, and jaunty demeanor. "The lower half
of his face might have belonged to a sensualist who found plenty of
reasons 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
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
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 teacher
training college and was living at home while waiting to take a job in a
nearby village. She was just turning 18, he was still 16. The romance
thrilled both families. Albert and Marie sent New Year's greetings to
his 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 bowing
technique here and there." But Einstein was singled out for praise: "One
student, by the name of Einstein, even sparkled by rendering an adagio
from a Beethoven sonata with deep understanding." At a concert in the
local church, Einstein was chosen to play first violin in a piece by
Bach. His "enchanting tone and incomparable rhythm" awed the second
violinist, 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
Einstein's contempt for Germany's authoritarian schools and militarist
atmosphere made him want to renounce his citizenship in that country.
This was reinforced by Jost Winteler, who disdained all forms of
nationalism and instilled in Einstein the belief that people should
consider themselves citizens of the world. So he asked his father to
help him drop his German citizenship. The release came through in
January 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 his
heritage. "The religion of the fathers, as I encountered it in Munich
during religious instruction and in the synagogue, repelled rather than
attracted me," he later explained to a Jewish historian. "The Jewish
bourgeois circles that I came to know in my younger years, with their
affluence and lack of a sense of community, offered me nothing that
seemed 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 a
clean break but as part of a lifelong evolution of his feelings about
his cultural identity. "At that time I would not even have understood
what leaving Judaism could possibly mean," he wrote a friend the year
before he died. "But I was fully aware of my Jewish origin, even though
the full significance of belonging to Jewry was not realized by me until
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
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