Meet Albert Einstein – Part 1

Albert Einstein – Part One

Among the greatest joys I have experienced in my studies of science and science history is the revelation of the complete Albert Einstein – the man and the scientist. Lurking under that shock of unruly white hair (later years) was not only one of history’s greatest scientific minds, but also a consummate philosopher with a childlike directness, as well as a world-class humorist gifted with great touch and sense of irony. And, despite the potential language barrier with his native German, his writings display a supreme gift for direct exposition. His book, Relativity, published in English translation in 1920, explains his theories for the layman and is a fine example of his ability to convey complex ideas with an economy of words. Clearly, his gifts of scientific insight and linguistic abilities were reflections of an extraordinarily logical and organized mind.

Einstein’s meteoric rise to prominence is one of the great Horatio Alger stories – “Out of the mud grows the lotus.” While transitioning from unorthodox student at the Zurich Polytechnic Institute in Switzerland to unsuccessful job seeker while completing a Phd in physics, Einstein found the professional pathway which lay ahead distinctly unfriendly to him. This, to some degree, reflected his lack of sterling recommendations from former professors who often saw less of Einstein in class than did regular patrons in the local coffee houses where Einstein adjourned to discuss physics with friends and colleagues.

The irony of his situation is reflected by the fact that he was an enemy of regimented behavior seeking employment in a highly disciplined field in a time and environment which frowned on the unconventional. An academic free-spirit if there ever was one, he studied physics on his own terms. And yet, for most of us, physics and mathematics are very disciplined subjects which require a certain learning protocol and order for success. I relate the traditional approach to science and mathematics by visualizing widely-spaced stepping stones across a deep, rushing creek. While crossing to the other side, one carefully takes one step at a time, each in its proper order, to avoid slipping and being swept away by the torrent. This was not Einstein’s approach. His disdain for regimented learning stemmed from his early schooling in Germany’s gymnasiums. Regimentation and rote were the German style, and Einstein detested those schools. Contrary to some popular notions, he was not a poor student in his young years. His marks in science and mathematics were very good. Subjects such as language and the classics received little of his time and attention, however. He clearly marched to the beat of his own drums, an independent thinker – seemingly from birth.

After months of unsuccessfully searching for his first job as he was struggling to complete his Phd in physics, He finally landed the position of patent examiner in the Swiss patent office at Bern in 1902. Although somewhat demeaning for a near- Phd in physics, Einstein truly enjoyed his role in flushing out the merits of the myriad ideas which flowed across his desk. A certain practical sensibility was clearly required of the young deep thinker whose mind and time were devoted to physics in the evenings and on weekends. I like to think of him as the “part-time, kitchen-table physicist” during those days. He was married in August 1903 to Mileva Maric, a fellow physics student with whom he eagerly discussed his thoughts and ideas.

In 1905 while still employed at the patent office, Einstein exploded upon the scientific scene when he published four key physics papers in the prestigious German scientific journal, Annalen der Physik. His paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies was to rock the physics community under its more familiar name: The special theory of relativity. Close on its heels came Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on Its Energy Content? This paper gave birth to the most famous equation in science, e = mc2, the theoretical foundation of nuclear energy. Despite this dazzling and daring reconstitution of some of physics’ most established ideas, concepts which stemmed from the great Isaac Newton himself, Einstein’s miracle year of 1905 was not yet complete. A paper on Brownian motion and another on the quantum behavior of light rounded out the stunning year. The former dealt with experimental observation of the random motion of thermally agitated molecules at a time when nuclear physics was just being formulated and the nature atomic particles and molecular structure were highly problematical. His paper on light initiated the coming revolution of quantum mechanics by proposing a photon theory which treated light more like particles than wavelengths of energy. Newton, the ranking expert on light in the latter 17th century, had decreed light to have a particle nature, contradicting the view of his great contemporary, Christian Huygens, that light exhibited wave-like behavior. The particle claim was gradually superseded by later evidence showing that light acted very definitely as an electromagnetic wave of energy. Now Einstein had come full circle back to the particle notion by introducing the quantum behavior of light. It is this paper on light in 1905 which won for Einstein the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics! His more important paper on special relativity was far too revolutionary – “bizarre” is a good term – to be readily accepted by the physics community any time soon. Daring indeed, were its ideas concerning time and space! No one since Newton had shaken physics so by their contributions, particularly relativity, as Einstein did in 1905. And yet he was totally unknown professionally, a “part-time, kitchen-table physicist” working as a lowly patent clerk in Bern. His rise to fame started slowly after 1905 once the possibility was granted that he could be correct in his assertions re: relativity. Within fifteen more years, and precisely four years after publishing his monumental general theory of relativity, Einstein was not only the most famous scientist of the time, he was the most recognizable person in the world – bar none.

Albert Einstein – Part Two will appear in a near-future blog post!

Some Einstein quotes:

“To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself”

“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks”

“I am truly a “lone traveler” and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart. In the face of this, I have never lost a sense of distance and the need for solitude”

The above quotes from The Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice

4 thoughts on “Meet Albert Einstein – Part 1

  1. As the graduate of a liberal arts college myself, I love that second-to-last quotation. And I love this post for fleshing out such an iconic figure! Great reflection.

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