3.8  A Very Beautiful Day


Such a solemn air of silence has descended between us that I almost feel as if I am committing a sacrilege when I break it now with some inconsequential babble. But is this not always the fate of the exalted ones of this world?

                                                          Einstein to Habicht, 25 May 1905


In 1894 Einstein's parents and younger sister Maja moved to Italy, where his father hoped to start a new business. It was arranged for Albert, then 15, to remain in Munich to complete his studies at the Gymnasium (high school), but he soon either dropped out or was invited to leave (recollections differ). He then crossed the Alps to reunite with his family in Italy. Lacking a high school diploma, his options for further education were limited, but his father still hoped for him to become an electrical engineer, which required a university degree. It so happens that the Zurich Polytechnic Institute had an unusual admissions policy which did not require a high school diploma, provided the applicant could pass the entrance examination, so after a year off in Italy, the 16 year old Albert was dispatched to Zurich to take the exam. He failed, having made (as he later admitted) "no attempt whatsoever to prepare myself". In fairness, it should be noted that the usual age for taking the exam was 18, but in any case it seems he wasn't particularly eager to (as his father advised) "forget his philosophical nonsense and apply himself to a sensible trade like electrical engineering".


Fortunately, the principal of the Polytechnic noted the young applicant's unusual strength in mathematics, and helped make arrangements for Einstein to attend a cantonal school in the picturesque town of Aarau, twenty miles west of Zurich. The headmaster of the school was Professor Jost Winteler, a noted philologist who taught linguistics and history. During his time in Aarau Einstein stayed with the Winteler family, and later had fond memories of the time he spent there (despite the tragedy that later befell the family), in contrast with what he regarded as the coercive atmosphere at the Munich Gymnasium. He became romantically involved with Marie Winteler (Jost's daughter), but seems to have been less serious about it than she was, and the relationship ended badly when Einstein took up with Mileva Maric. He also formed life-long relationships with two of the other Winteler children, Paul and Anna. Paul Winteler married Einstein's sister Maja, and Anna Winteler married Michelangelo Besso, one of Einstein's closest friends. Besso, six years older than Einstein, was a Swiss-Italian studying to be an electrical engineer. Like Einstein, he played the violin, and the two of them first met at a musical gathering in 1896.


Just a year earlier the 16 year old Einstein had first wondered how the world would appear to someone traveling at the speed of light. He realized that to such an observer a co-moving lightwave in a vacuum would appear as a spatially fluctuating standing wave, i.e., a stationary wave of light, but it doesn't take an expert in Maxwell's equations to be skeptical that any such configuration is possible. Indeed, Einstein later recalled that "from the beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear" that light must propagate in the same way with respect to any system of inertial coordinates. However, this invariance directly contradicts the Galilean addition rule for the composition of velocities. This problem stayed with Einstein for the next ten years, during which time he finally gained entrance to the Polytechnic, and, to the disappointment of his family, switched majors from electrical engineering to physics. Already by this time Einstein seems to have decided (or foreseen) how he would spend his life, as he wrote in an apologetic letter to Marie’s mother Pauline Winteler in the Spring of 1897 (translation from Einstein’s Collected Papers)


Strenuous intellectual work and looking at God’s Nature are the reconciling, fortifying, yet relentlessly strict angels that shall lead me through all of life’s troubles… And yet what a peculiar way this is to weather the storms of life – in many a lucid moment I appear to myself as an ostrich who buries his head in the desert sand so as not to perceive the danger. One creates a small little world for oneself, and as lamentably insignificant as it may be in comparison with the perpetually changing size of real existence, one feels miraculously great and important…


Despite his love of physics, Einstein did not perform very impressively as an under-graduate in an academic setting, and this continued to be true in graduate school. Hermann Minkowski referred to his one-time pupil as a "lazy dog". The biographer Ronald Clark wrote, "Einstein became, as far as the professorial staff of the ETH was concerned, one of the awkward scholars who might or might not graduate but who in either case was a great deal of trouble". Professor Pernet at one point suggested to Einstein that he switch to medicine or law rather than physics, saying "You can do what you like, I only wish to warn you in your own interest". Clearly Einstein "pushed along with his formal work just as much as he had to, and found his real education elsewhere". Often he didn't even attend the lectures, relying on Marcel Grossmann's notes to cram for exams, making no secret of the fact that he wasn't interested in what men like Weber had to teach him. His main focus during the four years while enrolled at the ETH was independently studying the works of Kirchhoff, Helmholtz, Hertz, Maxwell, Drude, Föppl, Poincare, etc., often outside the course of study prescribed by the ETH faculty. Some idea of where his studies were leading him can be gathered from a letter to his fellow student and future wife Mileva Maric written in August of 1899


I returned to the Helmholtz volume and am at present studying again in depth Hertz’s propagation of electric force. The reason for it was that I didn’t understand Helmholtz’s treatise on the principle of least action in electrodynamics. I am more and more convinced that the electrodynamics of moving bodies, as presented today, is not correct, and that it should be possible to present it in a simpler way. The introduction of the term “ether” into the theories of electricity led to the notion of a medium of whose motion one can speak without being able, I believe, to associate a physical meaning with this statement. I think that the electric forces can be directly defined only for empty space…


Einstein later recalled that after graduating in 1900 the "coercion" of being forced to take the final exams "had such a detrimental effect that... I found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful to me for an entire year". He achieved an overall mark of 4.91 out of 6, which is rather marginal. Academic positions were found for all members of the graduating class in the physics department of the ETH with the exception of Einstein, who seems to have been written off as virtually unemployable, "a pariah, discounted and little loved", as he later said.


Meanwhile his friend Michele Besso had gotten a job as an electrical engineer in Milan. In late August of 1900 Einstein wrote to Mileva and mentioned that


I am spending many evening’s here at Michele’s. I like him very much because of his sharp mind and his simplicity, and also Anna and, especially, the little brat. His house is simple and cozy, even though the details show some lack of taste…


In another letter to Mileva, in October, he commented that his friend had intuited the blossoming romance between Einstein and Mileva


Michele has already noticed that I like you, because, even though I didn’t tell him almost anything about you, he said, when I told him that I must now go the Zurich again: “He surely wants to go to his [woman] colleague, what else would draw him to Zurich?” I replied “But unfortunately she is not there yet”. I prodded him very much to become a professor, but I doubt very much that he’ll do it. He simply doesn’t want to let himself and his family be supported by his father. This is after all quite natural. What a waste of his truly outstanding intelligence.


Despite Einstein’s consistently high appraisal of Besso’s intelligence, there was another aspect to Besso’s personality – a certain addle-brained quality – that seemed to amuse Einstein, but that others sometimes found alarming. In March of 1901 Einstein recounted a story about his friend in a letter to Mileva:


On the evening of the day before yesterday, Michele's director, with whom we are rather well acquainted, was at our house for music making. He said how totally unusable and almost mentally incompetent [not responsible for his actions in a legal sense] Michele is, despite his extraordinarily extensive knowledge. Most delectable is the following little story…Once again, Michele had nothing to do, so his principal sends him to the Casale power Station to inspect and check the newly installed lines. Our hero decides to leave in the evening, to save valuable time, of course, but unfortunately he missed the train. The next day he remembered the commission too late. On the third day he went to the train on time, but realized, to his horror, that he no longer knew what he had been requested to do; so he immediately wrote a postcard to the Office, asking that they should wire him what he was supposed to do!! I think the man is not normal.


In another “love letter” to Mileva in April, Einstein wrote about having just read Planck’s paper on radiation “with mixed feelings”, because “misgivings of a fundamental nature have arisen in my mind”. In the same letter he wrote


Michele arrived with wife and child from Trieste the day before yesterday. He is an awful weakling without a spark of healthy humaneness, who cannot rouse himself to any action in life or scientific creation, but an extraordinarily fine mind, whose working, though disorderly, I watch with great delight. Yesterday evening I talked shop with him with great interest for almost 4 hours. We talked about the fundamental separation of luminiferous ether and matter, the definition of absolute rest, molecular forces, surface phenomena, dissociation. He is very interested in our investigations, even though he often misses the overall picture because of petty considerations. This is inherent in the petty disposition of his being, which constantly torments him with all kinds of nervous notions.


Toward the end of 1901 Einstein had still found no permanent position. As he wrote to Grossmann in December of that year, "I am sure I would have found a position [by now] were it not for Weber's intrigues against me". It was only because Grossmann's father happened to be good friends with Friedrich Haller, the chief of the Swiss Patent Office, that Einstein was finally given a job, despite the fact that Haller judged him to be "lacking in technical training". Einstein wrote gratefully to the Grossmann's that he "was deeply moved by your devotion and compassion which do not let you forget an old, unlucky friend", and that he would spare no effort to live up to their recommendation. He had applied for Technical Expert 2nd class, but was given the rank of 3rd class (in June 1902).


As soon as he'd been away from the coercive environment of academia long enough that he could stand once again to think about science, he resumed his self-directed studies, which he pursued during whatever free time a slightly lazy patent examiner can make for himself. His circumstances were fairly unusual for someone working on a doctorate, especially since he'd already been rejected for academic positions by both the ETH and the University of Zurich. He was undeniably regarded by the academic community (and others) as "an awkward, slightly lazy, and certainly intractable young man who thought he knew more than his elders and betters".


In early 1905, while employed as a patent examiner in Bern, Einstein was striving to complete his doctoral thesis, focusing on black-body radiation, and at the same time writing a paper on light-quanta (later cited by the Nobel committee) and another on Brownian motion, each of which was a significant contribution to 20th century physics. After completing these papers he turned his attention once again to the "philosophical nonsense" of the velocity addition problem, which he realized was "a puzzle not easy to solve at all", not least because his ideas about light quanta had made it clear to him that Maxwell’s equations could not claim absolute validity, so there were no clear foundations on which to build.


After completing the statistical and light quanta papers on March 17, April 30, and May 10, 1905, he allowed himself to concentrate fully on the problem of motion, which apparently had never been far from his mind. As he later recalled, he "felt a great difficulty to resolve the question... I had wasted time almost a year in fruitless considerations..." Then came the great turning point, both for Einstein's own personal life and for modern physics: "Unexpectedly, a friend of mine in Bern then helped me." The friend was Michelangelo Besso, who had by then also taken a job at the Swiss patent office. In his Kyoto lecture of 1922 Einstein later remembered the circumstances of the unexpected help he received from Besso:


That was a very beautiful day when I visited him and began to talk with him as follows: "I have recently had a question which was difficult for me to understand. So I came here today to bring with me a battle on the question." Trying a lot of discussions with him, I could suddenly comprehend the matter. Next day I visited him again and said to him without greeting "Thank you. I've completely solved the problem."


It had suddenly become clear to Einstein during his discussion with Besso that the correlations of the time coordinates at different spatial locations need not be (and in fact are not) the same for relatively moving systems of inertial coordinates. Thus, the concept of simultaneity at separate locations is relative. A mere five weeks after this recognition, Einstein completed "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies", in which he presented the special theory of relativity. This epochal paper contains not a single formal reference to the literature (although it does refer informally to the well-known work of Lorentz and others), and only one formal acknowledgement:


In conclusion, I wish to say that in working at the problem here dealt with I have had the loyal assistance of my friend and colleague M. Besso, and that I am indebted to him for several valuable suggestions.


We don't know precisely what those suggestions were, but we have Einstein's later statement that he "could not have found a better sounding board for his ideas in all of Europe." It was Besso who also introduced Einstein to the writings of Ernst Mach, which were to have such a profound influence on the development of the general theory (although subsequently Einstein emphasized the influence of Hume over Mach). Besso self-deprecatingly described their intellectual relationship by saying "Einstein the eagle took Besso the sparrow under his wing, and the sparrow flew a little higher". The two men carried on a regular correspondence that lasted over half a century, through two world wars, and Einstein's incredible rise to world fame. It’s interesting that, despite how highly Einstein valued Besso’s intellect, the latter invariably took a self-denigrating tone in their correspondence (and presumably in their conversations), sometimes even seeming to be genuinely puzzled by the significance that Einstein attached to his “little” comments. In a letter of August 1918 Besso wrote


You had, by the way, overestimated the meaningfulness of my observations again: I was not aware that they had the meaning that an energy tensor for gravitation was dispensable. If I understand it correctly, my inadvertent statement now implies that planetary motion would satisfy conservation laws just by chance, as it were. What is certain is that I was not aware of this consequence of my comments and cannot grasp the argument even now.


The friendship with Besso may have been, in some ways, the most meaningful of Einstein's life. Michele and his wife sometimes took care of Einstein's children, tried to reconcile Einstein with Mileva when their marriage was foundering, and so on. (In Einstein’s correspondence he invariably addressed even his closest friends and associates by their last names, and signed “Einstein”. The only exception is the letters to Besso, addressed to “Michele” and signed “Albert”.) Another of the few close personal ties that Einstein was able to maintain over the years was with Max von Laue, who Einstein believed was the only one of the Berlin physicists who behaved decently during the Nazi era. Following the war, a friend of Einstein's was preparing to visit Germany and asked if Einstein would like him to convey any messages to his old friends and colleagues. After a moment of thought, Einstein said "Greet Laue for me". The friend, trying to be helpful, then asked specifically about several other individuals among Einstein's former associates in his homeland. Einstein thought for another moment, and said "Greet Laue for me".


The stubborn, aloof, and uncooperative aspect of Einstein's personality that he had shown as a student continued to some extent throughout his life. For example, in 1937 he collaborated with Nathan Rosen on a paper purporting to show, contrary to his own prediction of 1916, that gravitational waves cannot exist − at least not without unphysical singularities. He submitted this paper to Physical Review, and it was returned to him with a lengthy and somewhat critical referee report asking for clarifications. Apparently Einstein was unfamiliar with the refereeing of papers, routinely practiced by American academic journals. He wrote back to the editor


Dear Sir,


We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the - in any case erroneous - comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.



P.S. Mr. Rosen, who has left for the Soviet Union, has authorized me to represent him in this matter.


Was the postscript about Mr. Rosen's departure to the Soviet Union (in the politically charged atmosphere of the late 1930's) an oblique jibe at American mores, or just a bland informational statement? In any case, Einstein submitted the paper, unaltered, to another journal (The Journal of the Franklin Institute). However, before it appeared he came to the realization that its argument was faulty, causing him to re-write the paper and its conclusions. Interestingly, what Einstein had realized is precisely what the anonymous referee had pointed out, namely, that by a change of coordinates the construction given by Einstein and Rosen was simply a description of cylindrical waves, with a coordinate singularity only along the axis (thus considered acceptable). The referee report still exists among Einstein's private papers, although it isn't clear if the correction was prompted by that report. The correction may also have been prompted by private comments from Howard Percy Robertson (via Infeld) who had just returned to Princeton from sabbatical. But these two possibilities amount to the same thing, since we now know (see Kinnefick) that Robertson was the anonymous referee.


Another aspect of Einstein's personality that seems incongruous with scholarly success was his remarkable willingness to make mistakes in public and change his mind about things, with seemingly no concern for the effect this might have on his academic credibility. Regarding the long succession of "unified field theories" that Einstein produced in the 1920's and 30's, Pauli commented "It is psychologically interesting that for some time the current theory is usually considered by its author to be the 'definitive solution'". Eventually Einstein gave up on the particular approach to unification that he had been pursuing in those theories, and cheerfully wrote to Pauli "You were right after all, you rascal". Lest we think that this willingness to make and admit mistakes was a characteristic only of the aged Einstein, past his prime, recall Einstein's droll self-description in a letter to Ehrenfest in December 1915: "That fellow Einstein suits his convenience. Every year he retracts what he wrote the year before."


In 1939 Einstein's sister Maja Winteler, was forced by Mussolini's racial policies to leave Florence. She went to Princeton to join her brother while Paul moved in with his sister Anna and Michele Besso's family in Geneva. Ironically, twenty years earlier Einstein had confided in a letter to Besso that


Trouble is brewing between Maja and Paul. They ought to divorce as well. Paul is supposedly having an affair and the marriage is quite in pieces. One shouldn’t wait too long (like I did). It only does you in for no reason at all! Talk to them both some time when you see them. No mixed marriages are any good. (Anna says: oh!)


Apparently Paul had heard the rumors of marital strife and wrote to assure Einstein that “we have been living very harmoniously, as before”. But after their forced separation in 1939 Maja and Paul never saw each other again. In 1946, after the war, they began making plans to reunite in Geneva, but Maja suffered a stroke, and thereafter remained bedridden until her death in 1951. To Besso in 1954, nearly 50 years after their discussion in the patent office, Einstein wrote:


I consider it quite possible that physics cannot be based on the field principle, i.e., on continuous structures. In that case, nothing remains of my entire castle in the air, gravitation theory included..."


In March of the following year, Besso died at his home in Geneva. Einstein wrote to the Besso family "Now he has gone a little ahead of me in departing from this curious world". Einstein died three weeks later, on April 18, 1955.


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