A great selection of Einstein’s letters and other writings is available on-line and in book form from the Princeton archive, and I tripped over it recently – for several hours! My expertise in over-100-year-old German is as good as my ability to decipher diverse handwriting styles, even from long ago when they wrote neater, so I was delighted to see the letters at least were offered in a typed English version. Do you hope some august institution carefully catalogues and publishes your emails after you’ve gone?
The first casualty amongst the myths of his life was that he was useless at school. When he was 7 in Aug 1886, his mother was able to boast: “Yesterday Albert got his grades, once again he was ranked first, he got a splendid report card…”
What were the first objects of his scientific musings? I didn’t know that he was very interested in the meniscus – the little curve up the edge of your tea where it meets the cup.
This has a lot to do with the attractions between atoms, and was a favourite amongst the cutting-edge thinkers of the time. But that involved some daring because even the late Victorians (or whatever they were called in central Europe) weren’t yet certain that atoms existed. It was about that time that Planck first came up with the notorious idea that even energy came in discrete lumps: quanta; he had to, otherwise he couldn’t explain the exact way in which things cooled down. But this meant that we arrived at quantum theory even before we were certain about atoms. To me, an unexpected order of discoveries.
Einstein was interested in any field of physics that was necessary for understanding the phenomena that intrigued him. I was startled to find how confidently he moved through his deductions on what happens when electric fields move and expand, for example, even though modern physics was still so young, and he was still just a student. Of course I do know nothing about electromagnetism, but that doesn’t stop me being impressed. If he wrote the following in the summer of 1895, he was sixteen:
On the investigation of the state of ether in a magnetic field:
It’s the “Hence, if polarised…” that gets me. Of course it was him who killed “the ether” in the end.
But while following through his scientific progressions, I eventually became aware of a personal soap-opera developing between himself and his kith and kin. This was actually revealed more subtly than his science, but I’m afraid I couldn’t be arsed to go back to the beginning and trace it all carefully, so this I leave to you, gentle reader. Be aware that this record is a multi-stranded saga ideal for being sifted through very carefully right from the beginning, especially for anyone themselves embarking on or involved in a career in scientific research, but who likes things to be leavened with a little personal intrigue (or maybe if you’re just nosy!). Forces abound in this but you’ll need no forcing to turn the page.
His family moved to Munich when he was one but he was born in Ulm (in Germany), so he was born German. His father seems to have worked with electric motors, so a fascination with moving electric fields and such might not be so surprising in young Albert. Continuing money problems eventually took them to Milan. Albert comments on the antisemitism in German universities of the time (pre-WWI) and I think it was this that later forced Albert elsewhere, on his own account. He soon noticed a reluctance to “play the game” in terms of honest science, amongst certain academics. The “game” they preferred was the all too familiar cynical one, and one I recognise perfectly myself in his comments here, though, oddly German scientists now seem to me more honest than most:
Einstein on bad academics:
Prior to 1933 German science gained more Nobel prizes than the UK and USA combined, so imagine how good they’d have been if they’d been honest enough to acknowledge good ideas from outsiders.
I am amazed that his scientific insights didn’t endear him immediately to prospective universities he approached for employment. Not quite good enough for them? Perhaps too good, would be nearer the mark.Near the middle of this page, we have further complaints about his science being unfairly rejected, and at the end, how he acknowledges being a bit of a scrounger for money:
He is often forced to rely on giving private lessons. On the page below we see the wording of an advert where Albert Einstein offers lessons in mathematics and physics but feels is necessary to offer a trial lesson for free. At least he has a proper teaching qualification, so that’s one thing he’s got going for him, if nothing else. This I think was when he was first in Berne, Switzerland, in 1902. He also mentions a fascinating forensic science class he attended on Saturdays, and his thoughts on Mach who “invented” the speed of sound, and Boltzman, who “invented thermodynamics” (don’t quote me on that) :
He signs as “Johonzel”, and Mileva Maric is his partner, mother of his daughter (or soon to be), and, she hopes, soon to be his wife.
It is at Berne of course where he eventually lands his well-known job as a patent clerk. We note with horror how even this seemed to require a patron-like contribution from someone called Heller:
“Besides, he [Heller] added, a little contemptuously, the position is of the lowest rank and it is unlikely that anyone will compete with me for it. I was very glad to hear that.”
So a patronising patron at that. On the same page we have a letter from Einstein’s mum, strongly disapproving of Mileva Maric and his relationship with her. I wonder exactly how and why all that played out in the end; no doubt the story is to be found here. Poor Mileva.
Eventually we get to Relativity, though it may be worth pointing out that he didn’t get his Nobel prize for that, but for his work on quantum theory (as it appears in the photo-electric effect), despite being very suspicious of it. But not as suspicious as the rest of the world was of relativity, so he didn’t get it for that. Also, as well as killing the concept of ether, it was he who, through his work on the exact nature of the little bumps and bounces experienced by tiny particles suspended in liquid (Brownian motion), confirmed at last in most peoples’ minds, the notion of atoms. But he didn’t coin the term “relativity” to refer to his own work; it was an already existing term referring to an already existing concept! Here, the editors give a very nice introduction to Einstein’s development of the “principle of relativity”, eventually known, first as the German equivalent of Relative-Principle (by Planck) and eventually sometimes known as the Principle of Relativity . It had already been used for ages to refer to the inability, even in pure newtonian physics, to know whether you and your moon were whizzing through space at a zillion miles per hour, or standing stock still, if there wasn’t anything else around. [Note – surely this doesn’t apply to rotation – isn’t that still rooted in absolute terms? If you know about gravitation and rotational mechanics, yet the moon still just hovers there in the air looking at you instead of falling into you, presumably you know the exact absolute speed you and it are revolving round each other.]