Einstein When He's at Home
ROGER HIGHFIELD is the science editor of the Daily Telegraph in London. He has carried out research at Oxford University and the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, where he became the first to bounce a neutron off a soap bubble. He is the author of Can Reindeer Fly?: The Science of Christmas; The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works; and coauthor (with Paul Carter) of The Private Lives of Albert Einstein and (with Peter Coveney) of Frontiers of Complexity and The Arrow of Time.
Here is the canonical Einstein: He begins life as a dullard and a dyslexic, yet he overcomes these obstacles to help lay the foundations of quantum theory, to change our view of space, and to transform time. Despite his towering achievements, he shows great humility. He pokes his tongue out for the cameras. He is disheveled. He hates socks. He is an eccentric genius with a warm heart. He is a pacifist (except when it comes to the Nazis). His face is wise and lined, his hair is white and wild; some call it a mane or even a halo. When describing the universe, Einstein resorts to religious terms. He has the aura of a saint. But he also has a dark secret: he invented the atomic bomb.
The popular image of Einstein as archetypal eccentric boffin dates to half a century after the first flowering of his astonishing creative genius. The tangle-haired sage whose image has graced thousands of posters, coffee mugs, and
T-shirts is an Einstein well past his scientific best, a faded version of the original. We should bury the sockless dustball who rolled around Princeton and restore the creative Einstein.
This is the young Einstein, whom Paul Carter and I attempted to portray in our 1993 book The Private Lives of Albert Einstein, after conversations with relatives and with scholars such as Jurgen Renn, John Stachel, and Robert Schulmann. This is the passionate Einstein. This Einstein had a muscular and powerful build despite his indifference to most forms of exercise. He had regular features, warm brown eyes, a mass of curly black hair, and a raffish mustache. He was good-looking and enjoyed the company of women. They enjoyed his company, too. And, of course, he was a genius. That much was obvious early.
Einstein was not stupid as a child. He did repeat himself, but he was not dyslexic, as is often asserted. Classmates at his primary school taunted him with the nickname "Biedermeier" ("Honest John"), most likely because of his blunt manner. But his mother, Pauline, wrote in August 1886 that the seven-year-old was at the top of his class "once again" and had received a "splendid" report card. He was brought up in a family that made its living from electrical engineering, an advanced technology of the day.
Despite his love of a religious turn of phrase, Einstein found it impossible to conceive of a personal deity and had no belief in an afterlife. He has said that his reading of popular science ended his "religiosity" abruptly, at the age of twelve. He decided that the stories of the Bible could not be true and became a fanatical freethinker, convinced he had been fed lies.
He did not invent the atom bomb. He did transform our view of space and time. His great scientific works began with a creative outpouring in 1905, when he was just twenty-six years old. Like almost every other scientist and mathematician, he was at his most productive in his early years.
No one knew the real Einstein better than his first wife, Mileva Maric. Their marriage, from 1903 to 1919, spanned the most important years of his life, yet Mileva is a shadowy figure in many Einstein biographies. Because of a lack of letters from that period and their uneasiness about his first marriage and its many failings, the traditional biographers tended to focus on Einstein's later years. In these hagiographies, in which the assumption is made that a great scientist must have an unwrinkled private life, the old Einstein prevails.
A chance to see Einstein afresh came when his son Hans Albert died in July 1973. In a shoebox in a drawer at his home in Berkeley, California, was family correspondence, including love letters from Einstein to Mileva. The collection was so sensitive that the executors of Einstein's estate had gone to court to stop Hans Albert from publishing it; they argued that not even Einstein's son, to whom many of the letters were addressed, should be allowed to reveal such intimate material. Only in recent years have the letters been published, and only now can we see Einstein in his prime, warts and all.
The young Einstein would moan to Mileva that his mother and sister were crass, petty, and philistine. He complained about the "mindless prattle" of his mother's friends and relatives. His Aunt Julie was a "veritable monster of arrogance." His relatives and their "hangers-on" were "people gone soft," turned "moldy," whose lives were empty and whose minds had atrophied.
The young Einstein was no respecter of scientific reputations, either--not least because he had been shunned by the establishment after he graduated from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School (now called the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, or ETH) in 1900. The work of Paul Drude, one of the leading theorists of the day, was "stimulating and informative" but lacked clarity and precision. Einstein sent Drude a series of objections to his electron theory of metals (in which various properties are explained in terms of an electron gas). Having come up with a similar theory, he felt it quite proper to approach Drude as an equal and point out his "mistakes." He threatened to "make it hot" for Drude by publishing an attack on Drude's theory. "Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth," he declared.
Einstein's comments on his instructors at the Polytechnic School were equally biting. One taught clearly but too superficially; another was brilliant and profound but an impenetrable pedant. When Einstein struggled to find a job, he accused his old physics lecturer of thwarting his career by spreading bad opinions of him. He went out of his way to annoy the head of a boarding school where he worked for a short time, and he told Mileva, "Long live impudence. It's my guardian angel in this world."
These vivid letters do much to undermine the image of the genial sage. He could be sweet, funny, and charming, but he could be acerbic, too. Einstein exuded charisma and a relaxed charm. He was a flirt. Far from the shaggy-haired figure of later years, he possessed what a friend of Elsa, his second wife, would describe as "masculine good looks of the type that played havoc at the turn of the century."
He met Mileva in 1896, when she switched to Section VI-A of the Polytechnic School, reading, like Einstein, for a diploma that would qualify her to teach mathematics and physics at secondary schools. Mileva, almost twenty-one, was three and a half years older than Einstein and the only woman to join Section VI-A that year (and only the fifth altogether). A romance developed (not Einstein's first). This is not a love story about Albert and Mileva but about "Johonesl" ("Johnnie") and "Little Doll" ("Dollie," as well as his tiny witch, his itty-bitty frog, his dear kitten, his little street urchin, his dear little angel, his little right hand, his dearest little child, his tiny black girl). On August 20, 1900, Johnnie wrote his Dollie a daft and endearing dialect poem, which includes the verse:
Oh my! That Johnnie boy!
So crazy with desire,
While thinking of his Dollie,
His pillow catches fire.
The popular image of an elderly Einstein does not even suggest the possibility of a fling, let alone this engaging bit of lovestruck silliness. Two years later, the relationship became serious. Johnnie and Dollie conceived a love child during a trip to the Splugen Pass, near Como. Mileva gave birth sometime around the end of January 1902, yet there is no evidence that Einstein and Lieserl, his daughter, ever set eyes on each other. Einstein was never to talk of Lieserl publicly. She might have been erased from history had it not been for the discovery of the cache of love letters. Her fate is not known for certain. Perhaps Lieserl's birth posed a threat to Einstein's new start as a patent examiner in Bern. He had gained Swiss citizenship only a year earlier, and the stigma of an illegitimate child would have harmed his prospects. She was probably surrendered for adoption. Though understandable, this is hardly behavior one might have ascribed to the latter-day saint.
In Bern, Einstein engaged in high jinks and schoolboy pranks. He offered private tutoring in mathematics and physics, and among his pupils was Maurice Solovine, an ebullient Romanian studying at Bern University. Later the two were joined by Conrad Habicht, the uptight scion of a bank director. They constituted themselves, with mock formality, as the Olympia Academy and discussed philosophical issues, Einstein taking the lead. The door of his and Mileva's apartment was adorned with a tin plaque reading "Albert Ritter von Steissbein, President of the Olympia Academy." "Ritter von Steissbein" might loosely be translated as "Knight of the Backside." On one occasion, Solovine skipped a meeting at his own lodgings, and Einstein and Habicht took revenge by smoking furiously (Solovine hated tobacco) and piling all his belongings, from furniture to crockery, on his bed.
Each paper that Einstein produced in his annus mirabilis is the final consequence of a long chain of work by masters of classical physics--Ludwig Boltzmann, Max Planck, Hendrik Lorentz. However, Einstein had sufficient distance from their way of thinking to interpret their research from a new perspective--with revolutionary results. Far from earning him instant acclaim, the papers were at first largely ignored. According to his sister, Maja, Einstein had expected immediate criticism of his relativity theory; instead there was silence, and he was disappointed. The exception was the highly influential Planck, who began lecturing on the theory, firing the imagination of his assistant Max von Laue, one of the first scientists to pay a call on the unknown author in Bern. Von Laue was confronted not with a sage but with a garrulous young man. He found Einstein's appearance so unprepossessing when he first arrived at the patent office that he let the young man walk past him ("I could not believe he could be the father of the relativity theory"). He was equally unimpressed by the cheap cigar Einstein gave him, and as they crossed a bridge over the Aare he surreptitiously threw it into the river.
Einstein's private life was not nearly as successful as his science, though one would not gather this from his early biographers. He could be harsh. When, in late 1932, his son Eduard was admitted for the first of many stays at the Burgholzli mental institution in Zurich to be treated for schizophrenia, Einstein is said to have remarked, "Who knows if it would not have been better if he had left the world before he had really known this life." Einstein also had a streak of misogyny. Of a woman who he felt was tormenting "a great artist" of his acquaintance he declared: "You know, that is a creature I could kill in cold blood. I'd like to put a rope around her neck and tighten it until her tongue lolled out." This dramatic statement was accompanied by the appropriate gestures.
Einstein had misgivings about matrimony. It must have been invented "by an unimaginative pig" and was "slavery in a cultural garment." He argued from firsthand experience that marriage was incompatible with human nature, claiming that 95 percent of all men, and probably as many women, were not monogamous by nature. He once joked that he preferred "silent vice to ostentatious virtue." Marriage reduced free human beings to mere articles of property and was "the unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an incident." Asked on one occasion whether it was permissible for Jews to marry non-Jews, he replied with a laugh, "It's dangerous--but then all marriages are dangerous."
He told his lover--his cousin Elsa--that Mileva was "an unfriendly, humorless creature who herself has nothing from life and who undermines others' joy of living through her mere presence." She was "the sourest sourpot there has ever been," a plagued individual who gave their home the atmosphere of a cemetery. Her jealousy was a pathological flaw typical in a woman of such "uncommon ugliness." Then again, Mileva had good reason to be unhappy. When in 1916 Einstein demanded a divorce, she suffered a physical and mental breakdown. The divorce was finally issued in February of 1919 and Einstein and Elsa were married the following June.
Within a few months, he had become celebrated across the planet: "revolution in science / new theory of the universe / newtonian ideas overthrown" thundered the Times of London on November 7, 1919. "lights all askew in the heavens / men of science more-or-less agog / einstein theory triumphs," announced the New York Times two days later. The accompanying reports revealed the findings of two British expeditions to observe a solar eclipse. Scientists in northern Brazil and on the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa had witnessed the bending of starlight predicted by his general theory of relativity. The results caused a sensation at the Royal Society, whose president hailed relativity as perhaps the most momentous product of human thought. Biographer Abraham Pais has called this "the birth of the Einstein legend."
The architect of Einstein's summer house in Caputh, near Berlin, where the now world-famous professor spent much time from 1929 through 1932, noted that women were drawn to him like iron filings to a magnet and that Einstein responded eagerly. Various liaisons developed, some of them casual, a few intimate, all wounding to Elsa, whom he provoked into the same jealous furies that he had complained of in Mileva.
Reporters scrambled to interview the man behind the theory and were enchanted to find a wild-haired eccentric of rumpled charm and displaying a mocking sense of humor. He became a media sage, courted the world over. During a trip to Geneva he was mobbed by young girls, one of whom tried to snip off a lock of his hair. Babies were named after him, as were a telescope and a brand of cigars, and a torrent of letters began to arrive. They continued for the rest of his life: letters from well-wishers, religious nuts, spongers begging for money, pressure groups seeking endorsements, children wanting help with their homework--even one from a little girl asking, "Do you exist?"
The young Einstein who had achieved so much and whose efforts climaxed with his general theory in 1915 no longer did exist, of course.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from My Einstein by John Brockman. Copyright © 2006 by John Brockman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.