Albert Einstein looms over the 20th century. He was undoubtedly the greatest intellect of the past 100 years, a man whose very name is now synonymous with “genius.” His rise to fame began on June 30, 1905, when a German physics journal published a seemingly innocuous article titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” — the beginnings of the theory of relativity. This year marks not only the 100th anniversary of the theory but also the 50th anniversary of the scientist’s death.
Many retrospective pieces have focused on Einstein’s status as a great physicist. But he was also an extraordinary human being, a unique and complex figure remembered as much for his compassion for his fellow man and his exceptional “moral compass” as for his revolutionary scientific ideas. This year’s anniversaries give us a unique opportunity to explore the forces and events that shaped Einstein’s life and molded his unique personality.
The Genius in the Patent Office
Einstein was born in the city of Ulm in southern Germany on March 14, 1879. His father, Hermann, was a businessman who ran a mechanical workshop with Albert’s uncle, Jakob. His mother, Pauline, was a well-educated woman who had a passion for music, passing to her son a love of both the violin and the piano. Einstein’s interest in science may have been sparked when he was 4 or 5; that’s when his father showed him a magnetic compass. The invisible forces that seemed to govern the device intrigued young Albert. But he was never inspired by schoolwork, and he detested the endless memorization demanded by his teachers.
Even so, his grades in most subjects were excellent. The notion that he was a poor student — one of numerous legends that have grown up around Einstein over the decades — is “nothing but an urban myth,” said Michael Shara, an astrophysicist at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Shara was the curator of a major Einstein exhibit held at the museum in 2003. “He apparently didn’t enjoy his early school years, because the school system was quite rigid. The emphasis was on rote learning, which he hated. But as soon as he had the opportunity to start studying mathematics, sciences — and, later on, to do independent work — he shone.”
Einstein was eventually admitted to the prestigious Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He received his diploma in 1900. However, landing a job proved to be challenging. He muddled through a series of temporary teaching positions, boosting his meager income through private tutoring. His personal life, too, was under strain. He was in love with a young woman named Mileva Maric, a former classmate from his schooldays in Zurich, but both sets of parents disapproved of the relationship. Unable to support a wife and family, he delayed marriage. The two were still living apart when Mileva gave birth to their first child; the girl was given away.
In 1902, with the help of a former classmate, Einstein landed a job as a technical examiner in the Swiss patent office in Bern. Things began to improve: Within a year, he had enough confidence to ask Mileva to be his wife. The couple had two more children, both boys.
Einstein’s days at the patent office have become something of a legend — the ultimate example of an unrecognized genius toiling away at a position far beneath his abilities. But actually, the patent job may have bolstered Einstein’s intellectual development. Examining a large number of diverse technical proposals, scrutinizing them in minute detail to determine which would work and which would fail, might have honed Einstein’s mind in a most effective way. “The patent job agreed quite strikingly with his characteristic approach to his favorite problems in physics,” biographer Albrecht Fölsing wrote in his book, “Albert Einstein: A Biography.” Fölsing explained that Einstein’s daily duties as a patent examiner forced him to perform countless “thought experiments,” enhancing his ability to think visually about complex problems.
While Einstein was in Bern, his talents suddenly blossomed. Never in the history of physics has one person accomplished so much so quickly. Einstein’s annus mirabilis, or miracle year, came in 1905 when, at the age of 26, he published four groundbreaking papers in the “Annalen der Physik” (“Annals of Physics”) — including the famous paper on relativity. Einstein had shown how to reconcile the mechanics of Galileo and Newton with the electromagnetic theory of Maxwell. He discovered that the laws of physics — including the measured value for the speed of light — must be the same for everyone, while time and distance must be relative. In a short follow-up paper, he described the link between matter and energy, embodied in what is now the most famous equation in the world: E = mc2.
Recognition of his talents eventually led to better-paying jobs. Einstein left the patent office in 1909, taking teaching positions in Zurich and later in Prague. In 1913 he was offered a position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, located in Berlin. He moved there with his wife and their two sons, though the couple soon separated; Einstein’s philandering and his harsh treatment of Mileva, revealed when his personal letters became public long after his death, surely were factors. He would later marry his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal.
Ten years after developing the initial relativity theory, now known as special relativity, Einstein expanded its framework into the more far-reaching general relativity. The new theory encompassed accelerated motion and gravity. While Newton had envisioned gravity as a force, Einstein saw it as a curving or “warping” of space itself. The theory predicted, among other things, that a massive object would bend a ray of light that passed near it. That prediction was confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919, when the sun was seen to bend the light of more distant stars. The confirmation, which made newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, brought Einstein worldwide fame.
Einstein, Judaism and Germany
Einstein had been raised in a Jewish but thoroughly secular household. He flirted briefly with religion in his preteen years, only to abandon it a short time later when, after reading popular science books, he began to doubt the stories he’d read in the Bible. By the time he moved to Switzerland, he was in the habit of writing konfessionslos, or without religious affiliation, on official documents.
The move to Berlin, however, made Einstein keenly aware of his Jewish heritage. He immediately saw the enormous obstacles faced by Jews from Eastern Europe who were trying to enroll in German universities. “These eastern-born Jews,” he wrote in 1921, “are made the scapegoats for all the ills of present-day political life and all the aftereffects of the war.” For Einstein, equal access to education was one of the most crucial of all freedoms; it was the reason that he worked tirelessly to help establish The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was also the reason for his first visit to America, which took place in the spring of 1921. Einstein toured the United States with Chaim Weizmann — who would later become Israel’s first president — to raise money for the planned university. In 1923, Einstein visited Palestine and delivered the inaugural address at the school’s opening.
Meanwhile, German Jews were facing a rising tide of antisemitism. Occasionally, the tension spilled over into Einstein’s classroom; at least once, rioting interrupted a lecture. “The reason was probably that students who had registered weren’t getting seats, because by that time he was so famous that others were coming in,” explained Robert Schulman, a former director of the Albert Einstein Project, which is gradually publishing all of Einstein’s writings in a multivolume set. “But the right-wing newspapers picked up on it, and started to describe it as ‘Jewish students elbowing in where they didn’t belong.’”
In August of that year, a crowd gathered
in a Berlin concert hall to listen to two German scientists attack relativity as a “Jewish fraud.” Einstein watched from a balcony, by some accounts laughing heartily at the proceedings below. Eventually he came to recognize that the attacks were no laughing matter, especially after the assassination of his acquaintance, Walther Rathenau — Germany’s foreign minister and, like Einstein, a secular Jew. As the 1920s wore on, death threats against Einstein became commonplace.
Einstein’s politics also did little to endear him to many Germans. An ardent pacifist, he opposed nationalism and militarism and spoke out against Germany’s role in World War I. He was also a socialist, seeing socialism as the best system for ensuring social and economic equality and opportunity. At the very least, the myth that “everyone loved Einstein” is certainly not true, said John Stachel, director of the Boston University Center for Einstein Studies. “He was hated as a Jew, as a pacifist, as a socialist, as a relativist, at least.”
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Einstein was on a working holiday in the United States. He immediately renounced his German citizenship, and, although he would briefly return to Europe, he never again set foot on German soil. He wrote numerous letters to help secure visas for other Jewish scientists in Germany, saving many lives.
Meanwhile the Nazis seized Einstein’s property; later that year, his books were burned at a public bonfire. A list of Nazi enemies showed Einstein’s photo with the caption “Noch Ungehäängt” (“Not Yet Hanged”). In a little-known incident, Nazi soldiers also murdered the wife and child of his cousin, Robert Einstein, in northern Italy; Robert later committed suicide.
Einstein, Zionism and Israel
Einstein’s first exposure to Zionist thinking might have come during his brief time in the Czech capital, where he was influenced by members of the Prague Circle, a group of intellectuals that included writer Franz Kafka. With the rise in antisemitism in Germany in the 1920s — a time when Einstein was becoming more politically active in general — his interest in the movement increased.
But Einstein’s relationship with the Zionist movement is a complex one. He had, at least initially, mixed views about Israeli statehood: As a fervent opponent of nationalism, he was skeptical of anything that required borders or armies. Yet he understood that the world’s Jews needed a home where they could safely enjoy their cultural, spiritual and especially intellectual life, a feeling reflected in his unwavering commitment to the Hebrew University. As historians have often put it, Einstein’s Zionism was cultural rather than political.
Before World War II, Einstein favored a bi-national state in Palestine. But after the war — and after the magnitude of the Holocaust became known — he firmly backed the formation of the new State of Israel. “He felt that there must be a place of refuge for the surviving Jews of Europe, few in number as they were compared to the number that had perished,” Stachel said.
In 1952, Einstein was offered — but graciously declined — the presidency of Israel. In that same year, he wrote: “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.”
Einstein and America
In the autumn of 1933, Einstein accepted the offer of a professorship at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he settled. Soon Elsa and Margot, her daughter from a previous marriage, joined him.
Even in America, Einstein was all too aware of the growing German military threat. He remained a pacifist at heart, but he realized that pacifism would not succeed against militant fascism and that a military response was needed. Fearing that soon the Germans would have a working nuclear weapon, he signed a famous letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (drafted by physicist Leo Szilard) urging the United States to forge ahead with the development of such a bomb. However, Einstein was never involved in the Manhattan Project, partly because of his socialist leanings.
“Einstein had zero to do with the critical work between 1939 and 1945 in the experimentation towards the design of, and the construction of, nuclear weapons,” Shara said. “And his reaction was one of despair when he heard about Hiroshima.” Einstein would later work passionately for nuclear disarmament.
By this time, of course, Einstein was firmly established as a superstar — the most famous scientist in modern times and, arguably, the biggest celebrity the world would ever know. And it is this living icon — the old man with the deep-set eyes and the wild hair — that we now associate most often with Einstein’s name. In Princeton, he quietly pursued his dream of a unified field theory, a framework that would combine gravity with electromagnetism. He never succeeded. But his final years were peaceful, and he died quietly on April 18, 1955.
Perhaps more than any other modern thinker, Einstein had a gift for discerning nature’s hidden truths — even if cherished ideas had to be abandoned along the way. Our understanding of the cosmos, from the smallest quark to the most distant quasar, has been shaped by Einstein’s vision. He once wrote of a deep loneliness that he felt — never quite feeling at home with any person, in any city or in any nation. But this did not sadden him. Einstein’s home was the cosmos, and thanks to his efforts we understand our cosmic home a little better.