THE LIGHT-BEAM RIDER
"I promise you four papers," the young patent examiner wrote his
friend.The letter would turn out to bear some of the most significant
tidingsin the history of science, but its momentous nature was masked by
animpish tone that was typical of its author. He had, after all,
justaddressed his friend as "you frozen whale" and apologized for
writing aletter that was "inconsequential babble." Only when he got
around todescribing the papers, which he had produced during his spare
time, didhe give some indication that he sensed their significance.
"The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light andis
very revolutionary," he explained. Yes, it was indeed revolutionary.It
argued that light could be regarded not just as a wave but also as
astream of tiny particles called quanta. The implications that
wouldeventually arise from this theory -- a cosmos without strict
causalityor certainty -- would spook him for the rest of his life.
"The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms."
Eventhough the very existence of atoms was still in dispute, this was
themost straightforward of the papers, which is why he chose it as
thesafest bet for his latest attempt at a doctoral thesis. He was in
theprocess of revolutionizing physics, but he had been repeatedly
thwartedin his efforts to win an academic job or even get a doctoral
degree,which he hoped might get him promoted from a third- to a
second-classexaminer at the patent office.
The third paper explained the jittery motion of microscopic particles
inliquid by using a statistical analysis of random collisions. In
theprocess, it established that atoms and molecules actually exist.
"The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is
anelectrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of
thetheory of space and time." Well, that was certainly more
thaninconsequential babble. Based purely on thought experiments --
performedin his head rather than in a lab -- he had decided to discard
Newton'sconcepts of absolute space and time. It would become known as
theSpecial Theory of Relativity.
What he did not tell his friend, because it had not yet occurred to
him,was that he would produce a fifth paper that year, a short addendum
tothe fourth, which posited a relationship between energy and mass. Out
ofit would arise the best-known equation in all of physics:
Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness
tobreak classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to
nurturethe creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person
stands outas a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from
oppression whosewild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity,
and extraordinarybrilliance made his face a symbol and his name a
synonym for genius.Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with
imagination and guided by afaith in the harmony of nature's handiwork.
His fascinating story, atestament to the connection between creativity
and freedom, reflects thetriumphs and tumults of the modern era.
Now that his archives have been completely opened, it is possible
toexplore how the private side of Einstein -- his
nonconformistpersonality, his instincts as a rebel, his curiosity, his
passions anddetachments -- intertwined with his political side and his
scientificside. Knowing about the man helps us understand the
wellsprings of hisscience, and vice versa. Character and imagination and
creative geniuswere all related, as if part of some unified field.
Despite his reputation for being aloof, he was in fact passionate inboth
his personal and scientific pursuits. At college he fell madly inlove
with the only woman in his physics class, a dark and intenseSerbian
named Mileva Maric´. They had an illegitimate daughter, thenmarried
and had two sons. She served as a sounding board for hisscientific ideas
and helped to check the math in his papers, buteventually their
relationship disintegrated. Einstein offered her adeal. He would win the
Nobel Prize someday, he said; if she gave him adivorce, he would give
her the prize money. She thought for a week andaccepted. Because his
theories were so radical, it was seventeen yearsafter his miraculous
outpouring from the patent office before he wasawarded the prize and she
Einstein's life and work reflected the disruption of societalcertainties
and moral absolutes in the modernist atmosphere of the earlytwentieth
century. Imaginative nonconformity was in the air: Picasso,Joyce, Freud,
Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others were breakingconventional bonds.
Charging this atmosphere was a conception of theuniverse in which space
and time and the properties of particles seemedbased on the vagaries of
Einstein, however, was not truly a relativist, even though that is howhe
was interpreted by many, including some whose disdain was tinged
byanti-Semitism. Beneath all of his theories, including relativity, was
aquest for invariants, certainties, and absolutes. There was a
harmoniousreality underlying the laws of the universe, Einstein felt,
and the goalof science was to discover it.
His quest began in 1895, when as a 16-year-old he imagined what it
wouldbe like to ride alongside a light beam. A decade later came his
miracleyear, described in the letter above, which laid the foundations
for thetwo great advances of twentieth-century physics: relativity and
A decade after that, in 1915, he wrested from nature his crowning
glory,one of the most beautiful theories in all of science, the general
theoryof relativity. As with the special theory, his thinking had
evolvedthrough thought experiments. Imagine being in an enclosed
elevatoraccelerating up through space, he conjectured in one of them.
Theeffects you'd feel would be indistinguishable from the experience
Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came upwith
the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvatureresult
from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can
bedescribed by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would
belike to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of
atrampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the
bowlingball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because
of theway it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in
thefour-dimensional fabric of space and time. Okay, it's not easy,
butthat's why we're no Einstein and he was.
The exact midpoint of his career came a decade after that, in 1925,
andit was a turning point. The quantum revolution he had helped to
launchwas being transformed into a new mechanics that was based
onuncertainties and probabilities. He made his last great contributions
toquantum mechanics that year but, simultaneously, began to resist it.
Hewould spend the next three decades, ending with some equations
scribbledwhile on his deathbed in 1955, stubbornly criticizing what he
regardedas the incompleteness of quantum mechanics while attempting to
subsumeit into a unified field theory.
Both during his thirty years as a revolutionary and his subsequentthirty
years as a resister, Einstein remained consistent in hiswillingness to
be a serenely amused loner who was comfortable notconforming.
Independent in his thinking, he was driven by an imaginationthat broke
from the confines of conventional wisdom. He was that oddbreed, a
reverential rebel, and he was guided by a faith, which he worelightly
and with a twinkle in his eye, in a God who would not play diceby
allowing things to happen by chance.
Einstein's nonconformist streak was evident in his personality
andpolitics as well. Although he subscribed to socialist ideals, he was
toomuch of an individualist to be comfortable with excessive state
controlor centralized authority. His impudent instincts, which served
him sowell as a young scientist, made him allergic to nationalism,
militarism,and anything that smacked of a herd mentality. And until
Hitler causedhim to revise his geopolitical equations, he was an
instinctive pacifistwho celebrated resistance to war.
His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from
theinfinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to
theexpansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we
arestill living in Einstein's universe, one defined on the macro scale
byhis theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum
mechanicsthat has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.
His fingerprints are all over today's technologies. Photoelectric
cellsand lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and
evensemiconductors all trace back to his theories. He signed the letter
toFranklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an
atombomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to
masshover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.
Einstein's launch into fame, which occurred when measurements madeduring
a 1919 eclipse confirmed his prediction of how much gravity bendslight,
coincided with, and contributed to, the birth of a new celebrityage. He
became a scientific supernova and humanist icon, one of the mostfamous
faces on the planet. The public earnestly puzzled over histheories,
elevated him into a cult of genius, and canonized him as asecular saint.
If he did not have that electrified halo of hair and those piercingeyes,
would he still have become science's preeminent poster boy?Suppose, as a
thought experiment, that he had looked like a Max Planckor a Niels Bohr.
Would he have remained in their reputational orbit,that of a mere
scientific genius? Or would he still have made the leapinto the pantheon
inhabited by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton?
The latter, I believe, is the case. His work had a very
personalcharacter, a stamp that made it recognizably his, the way a
Picasso isrecognizably a Picasso. He made imaginative leaps and
discerned greatprinciples through thought experiments rather than by
methodicalinductions based on experimental data. The theories that
resulted wereat times astonishing, mysterious, and counterintuitive, yet
theycontained notions that could capture the popular imagination:
therelativity of space and time, E=mc2, the bending of light
beams, and thewarping of space.
Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His inner security
wastempered by the humility that comes from being awed by nature. He
couldbe detached and aloof from those close to him, but toward mankind
ingeneral he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.
Yet for all of his popular appeal and surface accessibility,
Einsteinalso came to symbolize the perception that modern physics was
somethingthat ordinary laymen could not comprehend, "the province of
priest-likeexperts," in the words of Harvard professor Dudley
Herschbach. It wasnot always thus. Galileo and Newton were both great
geniuses, but theirmechanical cause-and-effect explanation of the world
was something thatmost thoughtful folks could grasp. In the eighteenth
century of BenjaminFranklin and the nineteenth century of Thomas Edison,
an educated personcould feel some familiarity with science and even
dabble in it as anamateur.
A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be
restoredgiven the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean
thatevery literature major should take a watered-down physics course or
thata corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather,
itmeans that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful
assetfor a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us,
verysignificantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and
generaltheories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.
In addition, an appreciation for the glories of science is a joyfultrait
for a good society. It helps us remain in touch with thatchildlike
ca-pacity for wonder, about such ordinary things as fallingapples and
elevators, that characterizes Einstein and other greattheoretical
That is why studying Einstein can be worthwhile. Science is inspiringand
noble, and its pursuit an enchanting mission, as the sagas of itsheroes
remind us. Near the end of his life, Einstein was asked by theNew York
State Education Department what schools should emphasize. "Inteaching
history," he replied, "there should be extensive discussion
ofpersonalities who benefited mankind through independence of
characterand judgment." Einstein fits into that category.
At a time when there is a new emphasis, in the face of
globalcompetition, on science and math education, we should also note
theother part of Einstein's answer. "Critical comments by students
shouldbe taken in a friendly spirit," he said. "Accumulation of
materialshould not stifle the student's independence." A society's
competitiveadvantage will come not from how well its schools teach
themultiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they
stimulateimagination and creativity.
Therein lies the key, I think, to Einstein's brilliance and the
lessonsof his life. As a young student he never did well with rote
learning.And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute
strengthof his mental processing power but from his imagination and
creativity.He could construct complex equations, but more important, he
knew thatmath is the language nature uses to describe her wonders. So he
couldvisualize how equations were reflected in realities -- how
theelectromagnetic field equations discovered by James Clerk Maxwell,
forexample, would manifest themselves to a boy riding alongside a
lightbeam. As he once declared, "Imagination is more important
That approach required him to embrace nonconformity. "Long
liveimpudence!" he exulted to the lover who would later become his wife.
"Itis my guardian angel in this world." Many years later, when
othersthought that his reluctance to embrace quantum mechanics showed
that hehad lost his edge, he lamented, "To punish me for my contempt
forauthority, fate made me an authority myself."
His success came from questioning conventional wisdom,
challengingauthority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as
mundane.This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect
forfree minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed
him,and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a
necessarycondition for a creative society. "It is important to
fosterindividuality," he said, "for only the individual can produce the
This outlook made Einstein a rebel with a reverence for the harmony
ofnature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom
totransform our understanding of the universe. These traits are just
asvital for this new century of globalization, in which our success
willdepend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of
thetwentieth century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.
Copyright © 2007 by Walter Isaacson
He was slow in learning how to talk. "My parents were so worried,"
helater recalled, "that they consulted a doctor." Even after he had
begunusing words, sometime after the age of 2, he developed a quirk
thatprompted the family maid to dub him "der Depperte," the dopey one,
andothers in his family to label him as "almost backwards." Whenever he
hadsomething to say, he would try it out on himself, whispering it
softlyuntil it sounded good enough to pronounce aloud. "Every sentence
heuttered," his worshipful younger sister recalled, "no matter
howroutine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips." It was
allvery worrying, she said. "He had such difficulty with language
thatthose around him feared he would never learn."
His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness
towardauthority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and
another toamuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much.
Thesetraits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school
kidseverywhere. But they also helped to make him, or so he later
surmised,the most creative scientific genius of modern times.
His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom
inways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contemplated.
Andas for his slow verbal development, he came to believe that it
allowedhim to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others
took forgranted. "When I ask myself how it happened that I in
particulardiscovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the
followingcircumstance," Einstein once explained. "The ordinary adult
neverbothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are
thingshe has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I
began towonder about space and time only when I was already grown
up.Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an
ordinarychild would have."
Einstein's developmental problems have probably been exaggerated,perhaps
even by himself, for we have some letters from his adoringgrandparents
saying that he was just as clever and endearing as everygrandchild is.
But throughout his life, Einstein had a mild form ofecholalia, causing
him to repeat phrases to himself, two or three times,especially if they
amused him. And he generally preferred to think inpictures, most notably
in famous thought experiments, such as imaginingwatching lightning
strikes from a moving train or experiencing gravitywhile inside a
falling elevator. "I very rarely think in words at all,"he later told a
psychologist. "A thought comes, and I may try to expressit in words
Einstein was descended, on both parents' sides, from Jewish tradesmenand
peddlers who had, for at least two centuries, made modest livings inthe
rural villages of Swabia in southwestern Germany. With eachgeneration
they had become, or at least so they thought, increasinglyassimilated
into the German culture that they loved. Although Jewish bycultural
designation and kindred instinct, they displayed scant interestin the
religion or its rituals.
Einstein regularly dismissed the role that his heritage played inshaping
who he became. "Exploration of my ancestors," he told a friendlate in
life, "leads nowhere." That's not fully true. He was blessed bybeing
born into an independent-minded and intelligent family line thatvalued
education, and his life was certainly affected, in ways bothbeautiful
and tragic, by membership in a religious heritage that had adistinctive
intellectual tradition and a history of being both outsidersand
wanderers. Of course, the fact that he happened to be Jewish inGermany
in the early twentieth century made him more of an outsider, andmore of
a wanderer, than he would have preferred -- but that, too,became
integral to who he was and the role he would play in worldhistory.
Einstein's father, Hermann, was born in 1847 in the Swabian village
ofBuchau, whose thriving Jewish community was just beginning to enjoy
theright to practice any vocation. Hermann showed "a marked inclination
formathematics," and his family was able to send him seventy-five
milesnorth to Stuttgart for high school. But they could not afford to
sendhim to a university, most of which were closed to Jews in any event,
sohe returned home to Buchau to go into trade.
A few years later, as part of the general migration of rural German
Jewsinto industrial centers during the late nineteenth century, Hermann
andhis parents moved thirty-five miles away to the more prosperous town
ofUlm, which prophetically boasted as its motto "Ulmenses
suntmathematici," the people of Ulm are mathematicians.
There he became a partner in a cousin's featherbed company. He
was"exceedingly friendly, mild and wise," his son would recall. With
agentleness that blurred into docility, Hermann was to prove inept as
abusinessman and forever impractical in financial matters. But
hisdocility did make him well suited to be a genial family man and
goodhusband to a strong-willed woman. At age 29, he married Pauline
Koch,eleven years his junior.
Pauline's father, Julius Koch, had built a considerable fortune as
agrain dealer and purveyor to the royal Württemberg court.
Paulineinherited his practicality, but she leavened his dour disposition
with ateasing wit edged with sarcasm and a laugh that could be both
infectiousand wounding (traits she would pass on to her son). From all
accounts,the match between Hermann and Pauline was a happy one, with her
strongpersonality meshing "in complete harmony" with her husband's
Their first child was born at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 14, 1879,
inUlm, which had recently joined, along with the rest of Swabia, the
newGerman Reich. Initially, Pauline and Hermann had planned to name the
boyAbraham, after his paternal grandfather. But they came to feel, he
latersaid, that the name sounded "too Jewish." So they kept the initial
A andnamed him Albert Einstein.
In 1880, just a year after Albert's birth, Hermann's featherbed
businessfoundered and he was persuaded to move to Munich by his brother
Jakob,who had opened a gas and electrical supply company there. Jakob,
theyoungest of five siblings, had been able to get a higher
education,unlike Hermann, and he had qualified as an engineer. As they
competedfor contracts to provide generators and electrical lighting
tomunicipalities in southern Germany, Jakob was in charge of the
technicalside while Hermann provided a modicum of salesmanship skills
plus,perhaps more important, loans from his wife's side of the family.
Pauline and Hermann had a second and final child, a daughter, inNovember
1881, who was named Maria but throughout her life used insteadthe
diminutive Maja. When Albert was shown his new sister for the firsttime,
he was led to believe that she was like a wonderful toy that hewould
enjoy. His response was to look at her and exclaim, "Yes, butwhere are
the wheels?" It may not have been the most perceptive ofquestions, but
it did show that during his third year his languagechallenges did not
prevent him from making some memorable comments.Despite a few childhood
squabbles, Maja was to become her brother's mostintimate soul mate.
The Einsteins settled into a comfortable home with mature trees and
anelegant garden in a Munich suburb for what was to be, at least
throughmost of Albert's childhood, a respectable bourgeois existence.
Munichhad been architecturally burnished by mad King Ludwig II
(1845-1886) andboasted a profusion of churches, art galleries, and
concert halls thatfavored the works of resident Richard Wagner. In 1882,
just after theEinsteins arrived, the city had about 300,000 residents,
85 percent ofthem Catholics and 2 percent of them Jewish, and it was the
host of thefirst German electricity exhibition, at which electric lights
wereintroduced to the city streets.
Einstein's back garden was often bustling with cousins and children.
Buthe shied from their boisterous games and instead "occupied himself
withquieter things." One governess nicknamed him "Father Bore." He
wasgenerally a loner, a tendency he claimed to cherish throughout his
life,although his was a special sort of detachment that was interwoven
with arelish for camaraderie and intellectual companionship. "From the
verybeginning he was inclined to separate himself from children his own
ageand to engage in daydreaming and meditative musing," according
toPhilipp Frank, a longtime scientific colleague.
He liked to work on puzzles, erect complex structures with his
toybuilding set, play with a steam engine that his uncle gave him,
andbuild houses of cards. According to Maja, Einstein was able to
constructcard structures as high as fourteen stories. Even discounting
therecollections of a star-struck younger sister, there was probably a
lotof truth to her claim that "persistence and tenacity were
obviouslyalready part of his character."
He was also, at least as a young child, prone to temper tantrums.
"Atsuch moments his face would turn completely yellow, the tip of his
nosesnow-white, and he was no longer in control of himself," Maja
remembers.Once, at age 5, he grabbed a chair and threw it at a tutor,
who fled andnever returned. Maja's head became the target of various
hard objects."It takes a sound skull," she later joked, "to be the
sister of anintellectual." Unlike his persistence and tenacity, he
eventuallyoutgrew his temper.
To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein's ability
tosystemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater
thanhis ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans
arefeeling), which have led some to ask if he might have exhibited
mildsymptoms of some developmental disorder. However, it is important
tonote that, despite his aloof and occasionally rebellious manner, he
didhave the ability to make close friends and to empathize both
withcolleagues and humanity in general.
The great awakenings that happen in childhood are usually lost tomemory.
But for Einstein, an experience occurred when he was 4 or 5 thatwould
alter his life and be etched forever in his mind -- and in thehistory of
science. He was sick in bed one day, and his father broughthim a
compass. He later recalled being so excited as he examined itsmysterious
powers that he trembled and grew cold. The fact that themagnetic needle
behaved as if influenced by some hidden force field,rather than through
the more familiar mechanical method involving touchor contact, produced
a sense of wonder that motivated him throughout hislife. "I can still
remember -- or at least I believe I can remember --that this experience
made a deep and lasting impression on me," he wroteon one of the many
occasions he recounted the incident. "Somethingdeeply hidden had to be
"It's an iconic story," Dennis Overbye noted in Einstein in
Love,"the young boy trembling to the invisible order behind chaotic
reality."It has been told in the movie IQ, in which Einstein,
played byWalter Matthau, wears the compass around his neck, and it is
the focusof a children's book, Rescuing Albert's Compass, by
ShulamithOppenheim, whose father-in-law heard the tale from Einstein in
After being mesmerized by the compass needle's fealty to an unseenfield,
Einstein would develop a lifelong devotion to field theories as away to
describe nature. Field theories use mathematical quantities, suchas
numbers or vectors or tensors, to describe how the conditions at
anypoint in space will affect matter or another field. For example, in
agravitational or an electromagnetic field there are forces that
couldact on a particle at any point, and the equations of a field
theorydescribe how these change as one moves through the region. The
firstparagraph of his great 1905 paper on special relativity begins with
aconsideration of the effects of electrical and magnetic fields;
histheory of general relativity is based on equations that describe
agravitational field; and at the very end of his life he was
doggedlyscribbling further field equations in the hope that they would
form thebasis for a theory of everything. As the science historian
Gerald Holtonhas noted, Einstein regarded "the classical concept of the
field thegreatest contribution to the scientific spirit."
His mother, an accomplished pianist, also gave him a gift at around
thesame time, one that likewise would last throughout his life.
Shearranged for him to take violin lessons. At first he chafed at
themechanical discipline of the instruction. But after being exposed
toMozart's sonatas, music became both magical and emotional to him.
"Ibelieve that love is a better teacher than a sense of duty," he
said,"at least for me."
Soon he was playing Mozart duets, with his mother accompanying him onthe
piano. "Mozart's music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as
areflection of the inner beauty of the universe itself," he later told
afriend. "Of course," he added in a remark that reflected his view
ofmath and physics as well as of Mozart, "like all great beauty, his
musicwas pure simplicity."
Music was no mere diversion. On the contrary, it helped him
think."Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or faced
adifficult challenge in his work," said his son Hans Albert, "he
wouldtake refuge in music and that would solve all his difficulties."
Theviolin thus proved useful during the years he lived alone in
Berlin,wrestling with general relativity. "He would often play his
violin inhis kitchen late at night, improvising melodies while he
ponderedcomplicated problems," a friend recalled. "Then, suddenly, in
the middleof playing, he would announce excitedly, 'I've got it!' As if
byinspiration, the answer to the problem would have come to him in
themidst of music."
His appreciation for music, and especially for Mozart, may havereflected
his feel for the harmony of the universe. As AlexanderMoszkowski, who
wrote a biography of Einstein in 1920 based onconversations with him,
noted, "Music, Nature, and God becameintermingled in him in a complex of
feeling, a moral unity, the trace ofwhich never vanished."
Throughout his life, Albert Einstein would retain the intuition and
theawe of a child. He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic
ofnature's phenomena -- magnetic fields, gravity, inertia,
acceleration,light beams -- which grown-ups find so commonplace. He
retained theability to hold two thoughts in his mind simultaneously, to
be puzzledwhen they conflicted, and to marvel when he could smell an
underlyingunity. "People like you and me never grow old," he wrote a
friend laterin life. "We never cease to stand like curious children
before the greatmystery into which we were born."
In his later years, Einstein would tell an old joke about an
agnosticuncle, who was the only member of his family who went to
synagogue. Whenasked why he did so, the uncle would respond, "Ah, but
you never know."Einstein's parents, on the other hand, were "entirely
irreligious" andfelt no compulsion to hedge their bets. They did not
keep kosher orattend synagogue, and his father referred to Jewish
rituals as "ancientsuperstitions."
Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his
parentsdid not care that there was no Jewish one near their home.
Instead hewent to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood,
thePetersschule. As the only Jew among the seventy students in his
class,Einstein took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended
upenjoying it immensely. Indeed, he did so well in his Catholic
studiesthat he helped his classmates with theirs.
One day his teacher brought a large nail to the class. "The nails
withwhich Jesus was nailed to the cross looked like this," he
said.Nevertheless, Einstein later said that he felt no discrimination
fromthe teachers. "The teachers were liberal and made no distinction
basedon denominations," he wrote. His fellow students, however, were
adifferent matter. "Among the children at the elementary
school,anti-Semitism was prevalent," he recalled.
Being taunted on his walks to and from school based on
"racialcharacteristics about which the children were strangely aware"
helpedreinforce the sense of being an outsider, which would stay with
him hisentire life. "Physical attacks and insults on the way home from
schoolwere frequent, but for the most part not too vicious.
Nevertheless, theywere sufficient to consolidate, even in a child, a
lively sense of beingan outsider."
When he turned 9, Einstein moved up to a high school near the center
ofMunich, the Luitpold Gymnasium, which was known as an
enlightenedinstitution that emphasized math and science as well as Latin
and Greek.In addition, the school supplied a teacher to provide
religiousinstruction for him and other Jews.
Despite his parents' secularism, or perhaps because of it,
Einsteinrather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. "He was
sofervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish
religiousstrictures in every detail," his sister recalled. He ate no
pork, keptkosher dietary laws, and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath,
allrather difficult to do when the rest of his family had a lack
ofinterest bordering on disdain for such displays. He even composed
hisown hymns for the glorification of God, which he sang to himself as
hewalked home from school.
One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as
astudent, an assertion that is made, often accompanied by the phrase
"aseveryone knows," by scores of books and thousands of websites
designedto reassure underachieving students. It even made it into the
famous"Ripley's Believe It or Not!" newspaper column.
Alas, Einstein's childhood offers history many savory ironies, but
thisis not one of them. In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a
clippingof the Ripley's column with the headline "Greatest Living
MathematicianFailed in Mathematics." Einstein laughed. "I never failed
inmathematics," he replied, correctly. "Before I was fifteen I
hadmastered differential and integral calculus."
In fact, he was a wonderful student, at least intellectually. In
primaryschool, he was at the top of his class. "Yesterday Albert got
hisgrades," his mother reported to an aunt when he was 7. "Once again
hewas ranked first." At the gymnasium, he disliked the mechanical
learningof languages such as Latin and Greek, a problem exacerbated by
what helater said was his "bad memory for words and texts." But even in
thesecourses, Einstein consistently got top grades. Years later,
whenEinstein celebrated his fiftieth birthday and there were stories
abouthow poorly the great genius had fared at the gymnasium, the
school'scurrent principal made a point of publishing a letter revealing
how goodhis grades actually were.
As for math, far from being a failure, he was "far above the
schoolrequirements." By age 12, his sister recalled, "he already had
apredilection for solving complicated problems in applied
arithmetic,"and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning
geometry andalgebra on his own. His parents bought him the textbooks in
advance sothat he could master them over summer vacation. Not only did
he learnthe proofs in the books, he tackled the new theories by trying
to provethem on his own. "Play and playmates were forgotten," she noted.
"Fordays on end he sat alone, immersed in the search for a solution,
notgiving up before he had found it."
His uncle Jakob Einstein, the engineer, introduced him to the joys
ofalgebra. "It's a merry science," he explained. "When the animal that
weare hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily
andcontinue to hunt until it is bagged." He went on to give the boy
evenmore difficult challenges, Maja recalled, "with good-natured
doubtsabout his ability to solve them." When Einstein triumphed, as
heinvariably did, he "was overcome with great happiness and was
alreadythen aware of the direction in which his talents were leading
Among the concepts that Uncle Jakob threw at him was the
Pythagoreantheorem (the square of the lengths of the legs of a right
triangle addup to the square of the length of the hypotenuse). "After
much effort Isucceeded in 'proving' this theorem on the basis of the
similarity oftriangles," Einstein recalled. Once again he was thinking
in pictures."It seemed to me 'evident' that the relations of the sides
of theright-angled triangles would have to be completely determined by
one ofthe acute angles."
Maja, with the pride of a younger sister, called Einstein's
Pythagoreanproof "an entirely original new one." Although perhaps new to
him, it ishard to imagine that Einstein's approach, which was surely
similar tothe standard ones based on the proportionality of the sides of
similartriangles, was completely original. Nevertheless, it did show
Einstein'syouthful appreciation that elegant theorems can be derived
from simpleaxioms -- and the fact that he was in little danger of
failing math. "Asa boy of 12, I was thrilled to see that it was possible
to find outtruth by reasoning alone, without the help of any outside
experience,"he told a reporter from a high school newspaper in Princeton
yearslater. "I became more and more convinced that nature could be
understoodas a relatively simple mathematical structure."
Einstein's greatest intellectual stimulation came from a poor
medicalstudent who used to dine with his family once a week. It was an
oldJewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the
Sabbathmeal; the Einsteins modified the tradition by hosting instead a
medicalstudent on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud (later changed to
Talmey,when he immigrated to the United States), and he began his weekly
visitswhen he was 21 and Einstein was 10. "He was a pretty, dark-haired
boy,"remembered Talmud. "In all those years, I never saw him reading
anylight literature. Nor did I ever see him in the company of
schoolmatesor other boys his age."
Talmud brought him science books, including a popular illustrated
seriescalled People's Books on Natural Science, "a work which I
readwith breathless attention," said Einstein. The twenty-one little
volumeswere written by Aaron Bernstein, who stressed the interrelations
betweenbiology and physics, and he reported in great detail the
scientificexperiments being done at the time, especially in Germany.
In the opening section of the first volume, Bernstein dealt with
thespeed of light, a topic that obviously fascinated him. Indeed,
hereturned to it repeatedly in his subsequent volumes, including
elevenessays on the topic in volume 8. Judging from the thought
experimentsthat Einstein later used in creating his theory of
relativity,Bernstein's books appear to have been influential.
For example, Bernstein asked readers to imagine being on a
speedingtrain. If a bullet is shot through the window, it would seem
that it wasshot at an angle, because the train would have moved between
the timethe bullet entered one window and exited the window on the other
side.Likewise, because of the speed of the earth through space, the same
mustbe true of light going through a telescope. What was amazing,
saidBernstein, was that experiments showed the same effect no matter
howfast the source of the light was moving. In a sentence that, because
ofits relation to what Einstein would later famously conclude, seems
tohave made an impression, Bernstein declared, "Since each kind of
lightproves to be of exactly the same speed, the law of the speed of
lightcan well be called the most general of all of nature's laws."
In another volume, Bernstein took his young readers on an imaginary
tripthrough space. The mode of transport was the wave of an electric
signal.His books celebrated the joyful wonders of scientific
investigation andincluded such exuberant passages as this one written
about thesuccessful prediction of the location of the new planet Uranus:
"Praisedbe this science! Praised be the men who do it! And praised be
the humanmind, which sees more sharply than does the human eye."
Bernstein was, as Einstein would later be, eager to tie together all
ofnature's forces. For example, after discussing how all
electromagneticphenomena, such as light, could be considered waves, he
speculated thatthe same may be true for gravity. A unity and simplicity,
Bernsteinwrote, lay beneath all the concepts applied by our perceptions.
Truth inscience consisted in discovering theories that described this
underlyingreality. Einstein later recalled the revelation, and the
realistattitude, that this instilled in him as a young boy: "Out yonder
therewas this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings
andwhich stands before us like a great, eternal riddle."
Years later, when they met in New York during Einstein's first
visitthere, Talmud asked what he thought, in retrospect, of Bernstein's
work."A very good book," he said. "It has exerted a great influence on
Talmud also helped Einstein continue to explore the wonders
ofmathematics by giving him a textbook on geometry two years before he
wasscheduled to learn that subject in school. Later, Einstein would
referto it as "the sacred little geometry book" and speak of it with
awe:"Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the
threealtitudes of a triangle in one point, which -- though by no
meansevident -- could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that
anydoubt appeared to be out of the question. This lucidity and
certaintymade an indescribable impression upon me." Years later, in a
lecture atOxford, Einstein noted, "If Euclid failed to kindle your
youthfulenthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker."
When Talmud arrived each Thursday, Einstein delighted in showing him
theproblems he had solved that week. Initially, Talmud was able to
helphim, but he was soon surpassed by his pupil. "After a short time, a
fewmonths, he had worked through the whole book," Talmud recalled.
"Hethereupon devoted himself to higher mathematics...Soon the flight of
hismathematical genius was so high that I could no longer follow."
So the awed medical student moved on to introducing Einstein
tophilosophy. "I recommended Kant to him," he recalled. "At that time
hewas still a child, only thirteen years old, yet Kant's
works,incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, seemed to be clear to him."
Kantbecame, for a while, Einstein's favorite philosopher, and
hisCritique of Pure Reason eventually led him to delve also
intoDavid Hume, Ernst Mach, and the issue of what can be known
Einstein's exposure to science produced a sudden reaction
againstreligion at age 12, just as he would have been readying for a
barmitzvah. Bernstein, in his popular science volumes, had
reconciledscience with religious inclination. As he put it, "The
religiousinclination lies in the dim consciousness that dwells in humans
that allnature, including the humans in it, is in no way an accidental
game, buta work of lawfulness, that there is a fundamental cause of
Einstein would later come close to these sentiments. But at the time,his
leap away from faith was a radical one. "Through the reading ofpopular
scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in thestories
of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positivelyfanatic
orgy of f reethinking coupled with the impression that youth
isintentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was
As a result, Einstein avoided religious rituals for the rest of hislife.
"There arose in Einstein an aversion to the orthodox practice ofthe
Jewish or any traditional religion, as well as to attendance atreligious
services, and this he has never lost," his friend PhilippFrank later
noted. He did, however, retain from his childhood religiousphase a
profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he calledthe mind
of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe andits laws.
Einstein's rebellion against religious dogma had a profound effect onhis
general outlook toward received wisdom. It inculcated an
allergicreaction against all forms of dogma and authority, which was to
affectboth his politics and his science. "Suspicion against every kind
ofauthority grew out of this experience, an attitude which has never
againleft me," he later said. Indeed, it was this comfort with being
anonconformist that would define both his science and his social
thinkingfor the rest of his life.
He would later be able to pull off this contrariness with a grace
thatwas generally endearing, once he was accepted as a genius. But it
didnot play so well when he was merely a sassy student at a
Munichgymnasium. "He was very uncomfortable in school," according to
hissister. He found the style of teaching -- rote drills, impatience
withquestioning -- to be repugnant. "The military tone of the school,
thesystematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed
toaccustom pupils at an early age to military discipline, was
Even in Munich, where the Bavarian spirit engendered a less
regimentedapproach to life, this Prussian glorification of the military
had takenhold, and many of the children loved to play at being soldiers.
Whentroops would come by, accompanied by fifes and drums, kids would
pourinto the streets to join the parade and march in lockstep. But
notEinstein. Watching such a display once, he began to cry. "When I
growup, I don't want to be one of those poor people," he told his
parents.As Einstein later explained, "When a person can take pleasure
inmarching in step to a piece of music it is enough to make me
despisehim. He has been given his big brain only by mistake."
The opposition he felt to all types of regimentation made his
educationat the Munich gymnasium increasingly irksome and contentious.
Themechanical learning there, he complained, "seemed very much akin to
themethods of the Prussian army, where a mechanical discipline was
achievedby repeated execution of meaningless orders." In later years, he
wouldliken his teachers to members of the military. "The teachers at
theelementary school seemed to me like drill sergeants," he said, "and
theteachers at the gymnasium like lieutenants."
He once asked C. P. Snow, the British writer and scientist, whether
hewas familiar with the German word Zwang. Snow allowed that
hewas; it meant constraint, compulsion, obligation, coercion. Why? In
hisMunich school, Einstein answered, he had made his first strike
againstZwang, and it had helped define him ever since.
Skepticism and a resistance to received wisdom became a hallmark of
hislife. As he proclaimed in a letter to a fatherly friend in 1901,
"Afoolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."
Throughout the six decades of his scientific career, whether leading
thequantum revolution or later resisting it, this attitude helped
shapeEinstein's work. "His early suspicion of authority, which never
whollyleft him, was to prove of decisive importance," said Banesh
Hoffmann,who was a collaborator of Einstein's in his later years.
"Without it hewould not have been able to develop the powerful
independence of mindthat gave him the courage to challenge established
scientific beliefsand thereby revolutionize physics."
This contempt for authority did not endear him to the
German"lieutenants" who taught him at his school. As a result, one of
histeachers proclaimed that his insolence made him unwelcome in class.
WhenEinstein insisted that he had committed no offense, the teacher
replied,"Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile,
andyour mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me."
Einstein's discomfort spiraled toward depression, perhaps even close toa
nervous breakdown, when his father's business suffered a suddenreversal
of fortune. The collapse was a precipitous one. During most ofEinstein's
school years, the Einstein brothers' company had been asuccess. In 1885,
it had two hundred employees and provided the firstelectrical lights for
Munich's Oktoberfest. Over the next few years, itwon the contract to
wire the community of Schwabing, a Munich suburb often thousand people,
using gas motors to drive twin dynanamos that theEinsteins had designed.
Jakob Einstein received six patents forimprovements in arc lamps,
automatic circuit breakers, and electricmeters. The company was poised
to rival Siemens and other powercompanies then flourishing. To raise
capital, the brothers mortgagedtheir homes, borrowed more than 60,000
marks at 10 percent interest, andwent deeply in debt.
But in 1894, when Einstein was 15, the company went bust after it lost
competitions to light the central part of Munich and other locations.
His parents and sister, along with Uncle Jakob, moved to northern Italy
-- first Milan and then the nearby town of Pavia -- where the company's
Italian partners thought there would be more fertile territory for a
smaller firm. Their elegant home was torn down by a developer to build
an apartment block. Einstein was left behind in Munich, at the house of
a distant relative, to finish his final three years of school.
It is not quite clear whether Einstein, in that sad autumn of 1894, was
actually forced to leave the Luitpold Gymnasium or was merely politely
encouraged to leave. Years later, he recalled that the teacher who had
declared that his "presence spoils the respect of the class for me" had
gone on to "express the wish that I leave the school." An early book by
a member of his family said that it was his own decision. "Albert
increasingly resolved not to remain in Munich, and he worked out a
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
There was perhaps one other factor in his decision to leave Germany. Had
he remained there until he was 17, just over a year away, he would have
been required to join the army, a prospect that his sister said "he
contemplated with dread." So, in addition to announcing that he would
not go back to Munich, he would soon ask for his father's help in
renouncing his German citizenship.
Einstein spent the spring and summer of 1895 living with his parents in
their Pavia apartment and helping at the family firm. In the process, he
was able to get a good feel for the workings of magnets, coils, and
generated electricity. Einstein's work impressed his family. On one
occasion, Uncle Jakob was having problems with some calculations for a
new machine, so Einstein went to work on it. "After my assistant
engineer and I had been racking our brain for days, that young sprig had
got the whole thing in just fifteen minutes," Jakob reported to a
friend. "You will hear of him yet."
With his love of the sublime solitude found in the mountains, Einstein
hiked for days in the Alps and Apennines, including an excursion from
Pavia to Genoa to see his mother's brother Julius Koch. Wherever he
traveled in northern Italy, he was delighted by the non-Germanic grace
and "delicacy" of the people. Their "naturalness" was a contrast to the
"spiritually broken and mechanically obedient automatons" of Germany,
his sister recalled.
Einstein had promised his family that he would study on his own to
getinto the local technical college, the Zurich Polytechnic. So he
boughtall three volumes of Jules Violle's advanced physics text and
copiouslynoted his ideas in the margins. His work habits showed his
ability toconcentrate, his sister recalled. "Even in a large, quite
noisy group,he could withdraw to the sofa, take pen and paper in hand,
set the inkstand precariously on the armrest, and lose himself so
completely ina problem that the conversation of many voices stimulated
rather thandisturbed him."
That summer, at age 16, he wrote his first essay on theoretical physics,
which he titled "On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a
Magnetic Field." The topic was important, for the notion of the ether
would play a critical role in Einstein's career. At the time, scientists
conceived of light simply as a wave, and so they assumed that the
universe must contain an all-pervasive yet unseen substance that was
doing the rippling and thus propagating the waves, just as water was the
medium rippling up and down and thus propagating the waves in an ocean.
They dubbed this the ether, and Einstein (at least for the time being)
went along with the assumption. As he put it in his essay, "An electric
current sets the surrounding ether in a kind of momentary motion."
The fourteen-paragraph handwritten paper echoed Violle's textbook as
well as some of the reports in the popular science magazines about
Heinrich Hertz's recent discoveries about electromagnetic waves. In it,
Einstein made suggestions for experiments that could explain "the
magnetic field formed around an electric current." This would be
interesting, he argued, "because the exploration of the elastic state of
the ether in this case would permit us a look into the enigmatic nature
of electric current."
The high school dropout freely admitted that he was merely making a few
suggestions without knowing where they might lead. "As I was completely
lacking in materials that would have enabled me to delve into the
subject more deeply than by merely meditating about it, I beg you not to
interpret this circumstance as a mark of superficiality," he wrote.
He sent the paper to his uncle Caesar Koch, a merchant in Belgium, who
was one of his favorite relatives and occasionally a financial patron.
"It is rather naïve and imperfect, as might be expected from such a
young fellow like myself," Einstein confessed with a pretense of
humility. He added that his goal was to enroll the following fall at the
Zurich Polytechnic, but he was concerned that he was younger than the
age requirement. "I should be at least two years older."
To help him get around the age requirement, a family friend wrote to the
director of the Polytechnic, asking for an exception. The tone of the
letter can be gleaned from the director's response, which expressed
skepticism about admitting this "so-called 'child prodigy.' "
Nevertheless, Einstein was granted permission to take the entrance exam,
and he boarded the train for Zurich in October 1895 "with a sense of
Not surprisingly, he easily passed the section of the exam in math
andscience. But he failed to pass the general section, which
includedsections on literature, French, zoology, botany, and politics.
ThePolytechnic's head physics professor, Heinrich Weber, suggested
thatEinstein stay in Zurich and audit his classes. Instead,
Einsteindecided, on the advice of the college's director, to spend a
yearpreparing at the cantonal school in the village of Aarau,
twenty-fivemiles to the west.
It was a perfect school for Einstein. The teachingwas based on the
philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer of the earlynineteenth
century, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed inencouraging students
to visualize images. He also thought it importantto nurture the "inner
dignity" and individuality of each child. Studentsshould be allowed to
reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached,by using a series of
steps that began with hands-on observations andthen proceeded to
intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery.It was even possible
to learn -- and truly understand -- the laws ofmath and physics that
way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fedfacts were avoided.
Einstein loved Aarau. "Pupils were treated individually," his sister
recalled, "more emphasis was placed on independent thought than on
punditry, and young people saw the teacher not as a figure of authority,
but, alongside the student, a man of distinct personality." It was the
opposite of the German education that Einstein had hated. "When compared
to six years' schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium," Einstein
later said, "it made me clearly realize how much superior an education
based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on
The visual understanding of concepts, as stressed by Pestalozzi and his
followers in Aarau, became a significant aspect of Einstein's genius.
"Visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching
how to judge things correctly," Pestalozzi wrote, and "the learning of
numbers and language must be definitely subordinated."
Not surprisingly, it was at this school that Einstein first engaged in
the visualized thought experiment that would help make him the greatest
scientific genius of his time: he tried to picture what it would be like
to ride alongside a light beam. "In Aarau I made my first rather
childish experiments in thinking that had a direct bearing on the
Special Theory," he later told a friend. "If a person could run after a
light wave with the same speed as light, you would have a wave
arrangement which could be completely independent of time. Of course,
such a thing is impossible."
This type of visualized thought experiments -- Gedankenexperiment
-- became a hallmark of Einstein's career. Over the years, he would
picture in his mind such things as lightning strikes and moving trains,
accelerating elevators and falling painters, two-dimensional blind
beetles crawling on curved branches, as well as a variety of
contraptions designed to pinpoint, at least in theory, the location and
velocity of speedingelectrons.
While a student in Aarau, Einstein boarded with a wonderful family, the
Wintelers, whose members would long remain entwined in his life. There
was Jost Winteler, who taught history and Greek at the school; his wife,
Rosa, soon known to Einstein as Mamerl, or Mama; and their seven
children. Their daughter Marie would become Einstein's first girlfriend.
Another daughter, Anna, would marry Einstein's best friend, Michele
Besso. And their son Paul would marry Einstein's beloved sister, Maja.
"Papa" Jost Winteler was a liberal who shared Einstein's allergyto
German militarism and to nationalism in general. His edgy honesty
andpolitical idealism helped to shape Einstein's social philosophy.
Likehis mentor, Einstein would become a supporter of world
federalism,internationalism, pacifism, and democratic socialism, with a
strongdevotion to individual liberty and freedom of expression.
More important, in the warm embrace of the Winteler family, Einstein
becamemore secure and personable. Even though he still fancied himself
aloner, the Wintelers helped him flower emotionally and open himself
tointimacy. "He had a great sense of humor and at times could
laughheartily," recalled daughter Anna. In the evenings he would
sometimesstudy, "but more often he would sit with the family around the
Einstein had developed into a head-turning teenager who possessed, inthe
words of one woman who knew him, "masculine good looks of the typethat
played havoc at the turn of the century." He had wavy dark
hair,expressive eyes, a high forehead, and jaunty demeanor. "The lower
halfof his face might have belonged to a sensualist who found plenty
ofreasons to love life."
One of his schoolmates, Hans Byland, later wrote a striking description
of "the impudent Swabian" who made such a lasting impression. "Sure of
himself, his gray felt hat pushed back on his thick, black hair, he
strode energetically up and down in the rapid, I might say crazy, tempo
of a restless spirit which carries a whole world in itself. Nothing
escaped the sharp gaze of the large bright brown eyes. Whoever
approached him was captivated by his superior personality. A mocking
curl of his fleshy mouth with its protruding lower lip did not encourage
Philistines to fraternize with him."
Most notably, Byland added, young Einstein had a sassy, sometimes
intimidating wit. "He confronted the world spirit as a laughing
philosopher, and his witty sarcasm mercilessly castigated all vanity and
Einstein fell in love with Marie Winteler at the end of 1895, just a few
months after he moved in with her parents. She had just completed
teachertraining college and was living at home while waiting to take a
job in anearby village. She was just turning 18, he was still 16. The
romancethrilled both families. Albert and Marie sent New Year's
greetings tohis mother; she replied warmly, "Your little letter, dear
Miss Marie,brought me immense joy."
The following April, when he was back home in Pavia for spring break,
Einstein wrote Marie his first known love letter:
Many, many thanks sweetheart for your charming little letter, which made
me endlessly happy. It was so wonderful to be able to press to one's
heart such a bit of paper which two so dear little eyes have lovingly
beheld and on which the dainty little hands have charmingly glided back
and forth. I was now made to realize, my little angel, the meaning of
homesickness and pining. But love brings much happiness -- much more so
than pining brings pain...
My mother has also taken you to her heart, even though she does not know
you; I only let her read two of your charming little letters. And she
always laughs at me because I am no longer attracted to the girls who
were supposed to have enchanted me so much in the past. You mean more to
my soul than the whole world did before.
To which his mother penned a postscript: "Without having read this
letter, I send you cordial greetings!"
Although he enjoyed the school in Aarau, Einstein turned out to be an
uneven student. His admission report noted that he needed to do remedial
work in chemistry and had "great gaps" in his knowledge of French. By
midyear, he still was required to "continue with private lessons in
French & chemistry," and "the protest in French remains in effect."
His father was sanguine when Jost Winteler sent him the midyear report.
"Not all its parts fulfill my wishes and expectations," he wrote, "but
with Albert I got used to finding mediocre grades along with very good
ones, and I am therefore not disconsolate about them."
Music continued to be a passion. There were nine violinists in his
class, and their teacher noted that they suffered from "some stiffness
in bowingtechnique here and there." But Einstein was singled out for
praise: "Onestudent, by the name of Einstein, even sparkled by rendering
an adagiofrom a Beethoven sonata with deep understanding." At a concert
in thelocal church, Einstein was chosen to play first violin in a piece
byBach. His "enchanting tone and incomparable rhythm" awed the
secondviolinist, who asked, "Do you count the beats?" Einstein
replied,"Heavens no, it's in my blood."
His classmate Byland recalled Einstein playing a Mozart sonata with such
passion -- "What fire there was in his playing!" -- that it seemed like
hearing the composer for the first time. Listening to him, Byland
realized that Einstein's wisecracking, sarcastic exterior was a shell
around a softer inner soul. "He was one of those split personalities who
know how to protect, with a prickly exterior, the delicate realm of
their intense personal life."
Einstein's contempt for Germany's authoritarian schools and
militaristatmosphere made him want to renounce his citizenship in that
country.This was reinforced by Jost Winteler, who disdained all forms
ofnationalism and instilled in Einstein the belief that people
shouldconsider themselves citizens of the world. So he asked his father
tohelp him drop his German citizenship. The release came through
inJanuary 1896, and for the time being he was stateless.
He also that year became a person without a religious affiliation. In
the application to renounce his German citizenship, his father had
written, presumably at Albert's request, "no religious denomination." It
was a statement Albert would also make when applying for Zurich
residency a few years later, and on various occasions over the ensuing
His rebellion from his childhood fling with ardent Judaism, coupled with
his feelings of detachment from Munich's Jews, had alienated him from
hisheritage. "The religion of the fathers, as I encountered it in
Munichduring religious instruction and in the synagogue, repelled rather
thanattracted me," he later explained to a Jewish historian. "The
Jewishbourgeois circles that I came to know in my younger years, with
theiraffluence and lack of a sense of community, offered me nothing
thatseemed to be of value."
Later in life, beginning with his exposure to virulent anti-Semitism in
the 1920s, Einstein would begin to reconnect with his Jewish identity.
"There is nothing in me that can be described as a 'Jewish faith,' " he
said, "however I am happy to be a member of the Jewish people." Later he
would make the same point in more colorful ways. "The Jew who abandons
his faith," he once said, "is in a similar position to a snail that
abandons his shell. He is still a snail."
His renunciation of Judaism in 1896 should, therefore, be seen not as
aclean break but as part of a lifelong evolution of his feelings
abouthis cultural identity. "At that time I would not even have
understoodwhat leaving Judaism could possibly mean," he wrote a friend
the yearbefore he died. "But I was fully aware of my Jewish origin, even
thoughthe full significance of belonging to Jewry was not realized by me
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
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
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
Excerpted from "Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson. Copyright © 2008 by Walter Isaacson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.