Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany on March 14, 1879. His birth was unremarkable and hinted no signs of scientific genius. His ancestors did not include a single teacher, writer, or artist. He was born into a family of tradesmen and small-business owners. Young Einstein's only advantage was his Jewish respect for scholarship and learning.
|The earliest picture of Einstein|
|From "Albert Einstein Pictures"|
|Einstein's father Hermann|
|From "Albert Einstein Pictures"|
The laid-back father of Albert, Hermann Einstein, had an incurable philosophy of optimism even after repeated failures of his business. This inevitably led to repeated family moves. In 1880, a year after Albert's birth, the Einsteins moved to Munich where their daughter, Maria ("Maja") was born.
Einstein's early childhood is ambiguous. Legend has intertwined itself with truth. Furthermore, Einstein himself fails to recall much of his childhood and marks it as unimportant. His learning was slow and his attitude hesitant. He took his time to ponder and his speech was not fluent. His learning disabilities may have been linked to dyslexia. The Einsteins had even feared that their son was retarded. Unlike most children who took space and time for granted, Einstein questioned them because he was a slow but intelligent child. Einstein also showed a manual dexterity. He liked mechanical toys and was curious about how they worked. He liked jigsaw puzzles and built towers of cards.
When Einstein was five years old and ill in bed one day, his father showed him a simple pocket compass. What interested young Einstein was whichever the case was turned, the needle always pointed in the same direction. He thought there must be some force in what was presumed empty space that acted on the compass. This incident, common in many "famous childhoods," was reported persistently in many of the accounts of his life once he gained fame.
At age 6, Einstein began playing the violin which would become both his hallmark and psychological safety valve later in his life. He was taught by rote rather than inspiration and seven years would have passed before he was aroused by Mozart into an awareness of the mathematical structure of music. Although amateur, Einstein would always enjoy playing the violin. At this time, Einstein also entered the Luitpold Catholic elementary school.
|Einstein and Maja as children|
|From "Albert Einstein Pictures"|
When Einstein was ten, he entered the Luitpold Gymansium. Einstein greatly disliked the Gymnasium. He likened the teachers at his elementary school as sergeants and those at the Gymnasium as lieutenants. The discipline of the Gymnasium created in him a great suspicion of authority. During the Convocation of the State University of New York, he noted, "the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force, and artificial authority." However, in a way the Gymnasium had a positive affect on Einstein's life. It taught him to question and to doubt, valuable qualities of a scientist. His attitude of not caring about the accepted beliefs developed during his stay at the Gymnasium. Although he detested discipline, under his guard, he was taught self-discipline, single-minded determination, and dedication to an ideal.
Einstein also felt the harshness of the Gymnasium represented all the worst aspects of German character. When he was asked at sixty-nine if he had any close German friends or people who he respected, his only reply was Max Planck. It is understandable that Einstein, even a compassionate man, echoed "the only good German is a dead one."
However, his chosen path of physical science did not come from Luitpold Gymnasium. Max Talmey, a young Jewish medical student had been introduced to the young Einstein and started to give him books to read. Because of Einstein's interest in physics and physical phenomena, Talmey gave him Popular Books on Physical Science by A. Bernstein and Force and Matter by L. Buchner. These two books considerably enhanced his interest in physical science.
Max Talmey also gave Einstein Spieker's Lehrbuch der ebenen Geometrie, a popular geometry textbook at the time. On Thursdays each week, Talmey would be shown the problems solved by Einstein during the previous week. After finishing the whole book in a few months, Einstein pursued higher mathematics of Lubsen and even philosophy. Even as a child, Einstein was able to read Kant's works, incomprehensible to most adults.
In 1894, his father's business crashed yet again and this time he went across the Alps to Milan to setup shop. A branch of the wealthy Kochs in Genoa could keep an eye on Hermann Einstein. Albert Einstein would be left at Munich in a boardinghouse to finish school. At twelve, Einstein had three more years at the Luitpold Gymnasium. He was uninterested in the classes yet precocious in philosophy and mathematics. The kindly, gentle Einstein is only true in his later years. In boyhood and early manhood, Einstein could be described as a half-cocksure and almost an insulting Swabian. He knew not only which monkey wrench to throw, but also the best way to throw it.
Einstein's departure from the Gymnasium is the equivalent of one dropping out of high school. However, Einstein's objectives and reasons can be viewed as more noble than those of most teenage dropouts. He first obtained a doctor's certificate announcing that he had a nervous breakdown. He also obtained a statement from his mathematics instructor testifying his ability in math. However, even before the medical certificate could be presented to the school, Einstein was expelled for being "disruptive and affecting the other students" and left without a diploma.
His stay in Italy is not well known. Einstein regarded it as extremely happy. He believed, "the people of Northern Italy are the most civilized people I have ever met." Although the stories about him visiting galleries and observing Michelangelos the longest are unreliable, there is no doubt that he loved the culture and freedom.
However, this new freedom could not long endure. At the age of sixteen, his father earnestly begged him to turn from philosophy to electrical engineering. Einstein's deficient Gymnasium certificate, however, barred him from most universities and colleges. There was only one possible way out. There existed at Zurich the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School (ETH) which only required the applicant to pass the necessary exams to enter.
Einstein arrived at Zurich in the autumn of 1895. The bustling metropolis was the capital of Switzerland. He stayed at the house of Gustav Meier, an old friend of his father. Einstein arrived with the hopes of his family and a strong determination not to become an electrical engineer. At the age of sixteen, he took the ETH entrance exam, an exam designed for eighteen year olds. He did not pass. The accepted belief is that although Einstein was perfectly capable in the mathematics section of the test, he was deficient in the botany, zoology, and modern languages sections. Another reason that might have contributed to his failure was his total lack of preparation for the exam. Instead of going to the ETH, Einstein was enrolled into another high school and prepared to take the test again in the following year.
Einstein started attending the cantonal school at Aurau, a town about twenty miles west of Zurich. The school was almost an antithesis of the Luitpold Gymnasium that Einstein had grown use to. The school was run by the liberal-minded Professor Winteler, who Einstein stayed with. Winteler talked and lectured more than he instructed and often took the students for walks in the mountains. Einstein was also treated to a first-class physics teacher, August Tuchschmid. During class one day Einstein was asked, "Now Einstein, how do the strata run here? From below upwards or vice versa?" The reply was unexpected: "It is pretty much the same to me whichever way the run, Professor." Half a century later, Einstein recalled the school at Aurau as "the most pleasing example of such an institution."
In the summer of 1896, Einstein retook the examination and passed. He returned to Italy to his parents and in October left for Switzerland, dedicated to a four-year course which had the potential of qualifying him for a post on the lowest rung of the professional teacher's ladder.
At the Swiss Polytechnic (ETH)
Einstein settled down in Zurich on October 29, 1896 and lodged at Frau Kagi at 4 Unionstrasse for the first two years at the ETH. Later he would move to Frau Markwalder in 87 Klosbach and back to Frau Kagi at a new address. He received 100 francs per month from his mother's relatives. Einstein's student life was normal enough. He dined at restaurants and took weekend outings in the surrounding minor summits and lakes. He picked up a passion for sailing which he would never lose.
Einstein was notoriously careless. He often forgot his key and would wake his landlady very late in the night calling, "It's Einstein-I've forgotten my key again."
Einstein's character was also slightly arrogant. In many musical evenings that he was invited to, he would often stop performing if attention were lacking. When asked if he counted the beat, Einstein replied, "Heavens, no. It's in my blood."
Einstein's studies at the ETH expectedly leaned toward the areas of mathematics and physics. Some of the math classes Einstein took included differential and integral calculus, analytical and descriptive geometry, theory of the definite integral, and the geometry of numbers. One of his mathematics instructors, Hermann Minkowski, would become a major influence on his work with Special Relativity. Einstein took Weber and Pernet for physics and Professor Wolfer for astrophysics and astronomy. Albert Einstein also took many miscellaneous courses such as antropology, geology of mountains, and banking.
Despite his emphasis on mathematics, Einstein grew toward physics more. Although the physics laboratory at the ETH gave Einstein an excellent oportunity for "contact with experience," Einstein was more drawn to theoretical physics. However, Heinrich Weber, his physics instructor, only touched the past in his lecture, never the present or future developments of physics. Maxwell's work on electromagnetism was simply ignored. Thus, Einstein started reading and studying for himself on the subject. Einstein studied the works of men such as the mathematician Poinclare who wrote a famous paper prophesizing, "Absolute space, absolute time, even Euclidean geometry, are not conditions to be imposed on mechanics; one can express the facts connecting them in terms of non-Euclidean space."
At the ETH, the professorial staff regarded Einstein as a scholar whose likelihood of graduation was skeptical. They regarded him as cocky although clever and Professor Pernet went as far as to say, "But you have one fault: one can't tell you anything." Einstein took nothing for granted, not even Newton. However, Einstein did graduate. He scored an overall mark of 4.91 out of 6. In fact, all of the members of his class had graduated except for Mileva Maric, the daughter of a Serbian peasant. Unfortunately, the teaching position he seeked was not present.
The refusal struck hard on both Einstein's prospects and pride. Later in his life, Einstein wrote regarding Grossman, one of his colleagues, "He, on good terms with the teachers and understanding everything; I, a pariah, discounted and little loved...Then the end of our studies...I was suddenly abandoned by everyone, standing at a loss on the threshold of life." The refusal was not totally unnatural. Einstein's youth could be summarized as rebellious and subversive of authority.
|Einstein as Swiss patent clerk|
|From "Albert Einstein Pictures"|
Failing to obtain a university assistantship, he was eventually hired by the Swiss Patent Office as a Probability Technical Expert, Third Class. The work was undemanding and left Einstein time to develop the momentous ideas that his mined had already started churning.
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