Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 2

Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Man

In This Chapter

bullet Attending school

bullet Being slow to speak and quick to learn

bullet Rebelling as a college student

bullet Falling in love

bullet Studying on his own terms

A lbert Einstein had a fairly ordinary upbringing. He was born in the town of Ulm, Germany, in 1879 and grew up in Munich, where he attended a Catholic school (even though he was Jewish). His parents, Hermann and Pauline, worried that their child might be backward because he was late to speak. Clearly, their fears were unfounded; young Albert was among the best students in elementary school. In high school and college, however, Einstein was so independent that he often clashed with his teachers and professors.

In this chapter, I provide a quick overview of Einstein’s life from birth to college graduation, dispelling some myths (he didn’t have a learning disability, for example) and looking at the events that influenced his life.

Glimpsing Albert’s Early Years

Albert Einstein was born at noon on Friday, March 14, 1879. In the summer of 1880, when Albert was a little over a year old, his family moved to Munich where his father and uncle opened an electrical engineering business (to replace an earlier business that had failed). At the end of 1881, when Albert was 2 and a half, his sister was born. She was named Marie, but everyone called her Maja.

Hermann Einstein’s new business did well, and five years after their move to Munich, the Einsteins bought a nice house with a large garden where Albert and Maja spent many hours playing (see Figure 2-1).

Figure 2-1: Albert Einstein, age 5, and his sister Maja, age 3.

Figure 2-1: Albert Einstein, age 5, and his sister Maja, age 3.

Albert and Maja were very close as children, and they maintained a loving relationship throughout their lives. Most of what people know today about Einstein’s childhood is due to Maja, who years later wrote a small book about her brother’s early years. (See Chapter 21 for a brief biography of Maja.)

Being slow to speak

In her book, Maja described Albert at age 4 as a quiet child who kept to himself and didn’t enjoy playing with other children. She wrote that her parents had worried that Albert might be backward because he learned to speak very late. Later in life, Einstein remembered his parents taking him to the doctor to see if his delayed speech development indicated that something was wrong.

The delay in Albert’s speech may have been due to shyness and pride — even at the age of 2, he wanted to do things right and avoid mistakes. Albert said later that, at that young age, he made the decision to speak only in whole sentences. He would try the whole sentence out in his mind, sometimes even moving his lips, and when he thought he had it right, he spoke it out loud.

This little boy was already different from the rest of his peers.

Einstein’s life during his early years was warm and stimulating. When he was about 4 or 5, lying ill in bed, his father gave him a magnetic compass to cheer him up. The motion of that needle, always returning to a very specific direction due to some mysterious cause unknown to him, left such a “deep and lasting impression” on the young boy that he wrote about it in his autobiographical notes some 60 years later.

Why did the compass needle behave in this way? This was something Albert wanted to understand. You can begin to see in this boy, marveling at the motion of a compass needle, the beginnings of the great genius that revolutionized our understanding of the world. Even at this early age, Einstein was attracted to what would become one of his favorite studies: electromagnetism (see Chapter 6).

Heading to the top of the class

Hermann and Pauline Einstein were not practicing Jews, and they were more concerned with their son’s education than with religious practices. When Einstein was 5, his parents enrolled him at the local Catholic school, which had better standards, was closer to home, and was less expensive than the Jewish school.

We have no evidence that Einstein experienced any religious discrimination at school, in spite of being the only Jew enrolled. However, the young Einstein wasn’t happy with the school’s strict discipline. Granted, most children dislike discipline, but Einstein had an aversion to it throughout his life. (As I mention in Chapter 3, in college, this aversion helped cost him a recommendation for a graduate position.)


Inspired by Mozart

Einstein’s mother, Pauline, was an accomplished pianist who wanted her children to be exposed to music at an early age. She enrolled Einstein in violin lessons and his sister in piano lessons. Einstein’s lessons started when he was 6 and lasted until he was 14 years old. Most of the time, he hated the lessons because he disliked the mechanical and rote instruction methods of the instructors. When he was about 13, however, he fell in love with Mozart’s sonatas, and his interest in playing music turned around. From then on, he strived to improve his technique to be able to reproduce the beauty and grace of Mozart’s music.

Later, he taught himself to play the piano and enjoyed improvising occasionally. The violin remained with him throughout his life. He became a good amateur violinist and was fond of playing Mozart and Beethoven sonatas.


In spite of his distaste for the school, he got excellent reports. When Einstein was 7, for example, his mother Pauline wrote to her mother, “Yesterday Albert got his marks. Again he is at the top of his class and got a brilliant record.” A year later his grandfather wrote, “Dear Albert has been back in school a week. I just love that boy, because you cannot imagine how good and intelligent he has become.” (Do you know any grandparent who doesn’t think his grandchild is “good and intelligent”?)

Many accounts of Einstein’s life paint him as being slow as a child, perhaps having a learning disability. Einstein himself later wrote that he was able to develop the theory of relativity because his intellectual development had been retarded and, as a consequence, he began to think about space and time only as an adult, not as a child.

Was Einstein really slow as a child? He skipped first grade and was at the top of his class in a good school, so that label seems inaccurate. It’s more likely that Einstein was a shy, very proud boy with an advanced mind that didn’t particularly make itself known until his adolescence. He didn’t enjoy elementary school but, due to his intelligence, could obviously perform very well. He kept to himself most of the time, coming up with his own unusual ways to solve the problems for his school work. Despite what some people have claimed, he didn’t have a learning disability. He was smarter than any of his classmates but not a child prodigy.

Going backward in Greek

In October of 1888, when Einstein was 9 and a half, he entered secondary school (the equivalent of middle school and high school today) at the Luitpold Gymnasium. He would attend school there until he was 15. The Gymnasium was even more rigid than the elementary school he’d just left. Einstein once said that the teachers at his elementary school were like sergeants, while the teachers at the Gymnasium were like lieutenants.

The Gymnasium emphasized Greek and Latin. The curriculum also offered modern languages, geography, literature, and mathematics. Einstein liked the logical rigor of both Latin and mathematics and always got the highest grade in the class in those subjects. Greek was another matter. He hated the subject and often made his teacher angry. His Greek teacher didn’t appreciate his independently minded student and stated clearly that Einstein would never amount to anything. Einstein’s sister later wrote that perhaps the teacher had been right: Einstein never became a professor of Greek grammar.

When Einstein was in the seventh grade, he had the misfortune of having his Greek teacher as his homeroom teacher. This teacher once called him to his office and told him that he wished Einstein would leave the school. Einstein replied that he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Your mere presence spoils the respect of the class for me,” said the teacher.

However, not all was bad at the school. Another teacher there, Dr. Ferdinand Ruess, was different from the rest. Instead of emphasizing memorization and passive acceptance of facts, he made the students think for themselves. He inspired in them a love for German literature and for the study of ancient civilizations.

Einstein had a great appreciation for Dr. Ruess. Later in life, when Einstein was famous, he decided to pay his old teacher a visit. As often happens, Ruess didn’t recognize his former student. Seeing Einstein in his usual baggy and worn-out clothes, Ruess mistook him for a beggar and had his maid throw him out.

Einstein kept his dislike for the Gymnasium and its methods of instruction from his family. He never complained about it until later in life.

Studying holy geometry

Although Einstein’s parents were not religious, they followed an old Jewish tradition of sharing a meal with a needy student. For five years, starting when Einstein was 10, a poor medical student from Russia named Max Talmud joined the Einsteins for dinner once a week. Einstein enjoyed talking to the older college student, and Talmud soon realized that Einstein was not an ordinary boy. They talked about science, math, and even philosophy.

When Einstein was 13, Max Talmud brought him Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, a dense book that even philosophy students find difficult. According to Talmud, Einstein was not daunted by it. From then on, the two friends discussed philosophy during the Thursday night visits. Einstein spent several years studying other philosophy texts, alongside his scientific readings. He continued to be interested in philosophy throughout his life, often discussing in his writings the views of well-known philosophers (see Chapter 20).

Talmud also brought Einstein several books on popular science, which the boy read enthusiastically. Einstein was particularly fond of a set of 21 books titled Popular Books on Natural Science by Aaron Bernstein. Einstein later said that he read five or six volumes in this series “with breathless attention.” These books gave the young Einstein a basic understanding of physics and probably helped him develop his amazing ability to discover in his readings what was important and what wasn’t.

One summer, Einstein became interested in a geometry textbook that he had received several months before the school year was to start. He began to work out the problems, showing his solutions to Talmud. By the end of the summer, Einstein not only had worked out all the problems in the book but had also attempted alternate proofs of the theorems.

Years later, Einstein said that this book — which he called his “holy geometry book” — was probably the reason he became a scientist.

Discovering religion

At the age of 11, Einstein began to attend religion classes, as was the custom among Jewish students. His parents were not practicing Jews, and Einstein grew resentful of them for not following religious traditions. He decided to set an example for his family by observing the Sabbath, eating only Kosher food, and even composing religious songs that he sang to himself as he walked to school.

Einstein’s religious fervor didn’t last. In his autobiographical notes, written when he was 67 years old, he said that what he was reading in the science books at age 12 clashed with many of the stories in the Bible. He then grew suspicious of every kind of authority and developed a skeptical attitude. This skepticism, he said, never left him, although it lost its original intensity.

From then on, he decided to understand the nature of the universe, which stood before him like a great riddle. Einstein didn’t think that this quest was as comfortable and reassuring as the religious quest that he had briefly experienced, but he never regretted choosing it.

Later in life, Einstein developed a deep admiration for the beauty of nature and a belief in the simplicity of the order and harmony that he thought human beings can perceive only imperfectly. This admiration and belief formed his religion, which I discuss further in Chapter 20.

Learning on his own

Luckily, Einstein grew up with people who made up for the shortcomings of the schools he attended. His engineer uncle, Jakob, who lived next door and visited often, was one such influence. When Einstein was about 12, Jakob gave him an algebra book and told the boy that algebra was a merry science. “We go hunting for a little animal whose name we don’t know, so we call it x,” he explained. “When we bag our game, we pounce on it and give it its right name.”

During the summer of 1891, Einstein decided to study the algebra book in detail and asked Uncle Jakob to give him problems to solve. Einstein worked out the solutions and gave them to Jakob to check. His uncle discovered that the 12-year-old Einstein could always find a solution to even the more challenging problems he gave him. That summer, Einstein even rediscovered the proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

From algebra and geometry, Einstein moved on to calculus. By the time he was 16 years old, he had taught himself differential and integral calculus, as well as analytical geometry. He enjoyed spending his early teen years learning on his own and found mathematics “truly fascinating.”

For Einstein, studying calculus was like reading a mystery novel. The story for him reached climaxes when it got to the concepts of the differential, the integral, and the infinite series. These climaxes even compared with the immense joy he got while studying his holy geometry (see the preceding section).

Dropping Out of High School

In 1894, Einstein’s father and his uncle Jakob closed the company that they had founded 14 years earlier. During the early years, the company had done well. However, in the early 1890s, the brothers expanded the company in order to market a dynamo that Jakob had invented. They hired more workers, bought equipment, and moved to a larger plant. Unfortunately, the business became too large to be managed well by the Einstein brothers but was still too small to compete against larger corporations. In 1894, it finally failed.

The two families decided to go to Italy and try their luck there. Hermann and Pauline thought that Albert should stay and finish his school year at the Gymnasium. Einstein was 15 years old and had three more years of high school to complete.

After six months alone in Munich, however, Einstein was depressed and nervous. He convinced his family physician, Dr. Bernard Talmud (Max’s brother), to provide him with a certificate stating that, due to nervous disorders, he needed the company of his family. Einstein left the Gymnasium without informing his parents and joined them in Italy.

Although technically Einstein was a high school dropout, he didn’t intend to abandon his education. He promised his upset parents that he would study on his own to prepare for the entrance examination at the prestigious Federal Polytechnic Institute (the Polytechnic) in Zurich. His father wanted him to study electrical engineering there, as his uncle had done. The Polytechnic did not require a high school diploma for admission. All Einstein needed was to pass the admission tests.

Hiking across Italy

Life in Italy was wonderful for Einstein. After his parents accepted the inevitable and agreed to his idea of studying on his own to prepare for the entrance exams at the Zurich Polytechnic, Einstein was free to do what he wanted. He combined studying with traveling around Italy, visiting museums and art galleries. He also hiked.

Einstein was never interested in sports or any other form of organized physical activity. However, while in Italy, he became an enthusiastic hiker and mountain climber. (One time, when he wanted to visit an uncle in Genoa, about 80 miles south of his parents’ new home in Pavia, he hiked almost 60 miles across the Alps, taking the train for only part of the way.)


A man without a country

Einstein never liked the country of his birth. He detested Germany’s militarism and regimentation. Shortly before his parents decided to move to Italy, he informed his father of his desire to give up his German citizenship because he wanted to become a Swiss citizen. Hermann reluctantly agreed and signed the necessary papers to allow his son to submit the request. On January 28, 1896, Einstein received the formal letter relieving him from his German citizenship, but he didn’t become a Swiss citizen until 1901. For five years, he was stateless.


Failing the college admission test

As he had promised his parents, Einstein traveled to Zurich in early October of 1895 to take the admission test at the Polytechnic. He had been given special permission to take the test at the age of 16, even though the minimum required age was 18. Two letters — one from his math teacher at the Gymnasium (which Einstein had been clever enough to request before quitting) and one from his mother stating that Einstein was “gifted” — were apparently convincing.

Einstein’s interest in philosophy had continued to blossom, and he considered studying philosophy in college. When his father heard about this idea, he told Einstein to study electrical engineering, like his uncle Jakob, and forget about this “philosophical nonsense.” Einstein followed his father’s advice and applied to study engineering.

Einstein was tested in political and literary history, German and French, drawing, mathematics, descriptive geometry, biology, chemistry, and physics, and he was required to write an essay. He failed the test. He did well in math and physics but poorly in the other subjects.

However, the director of the Polytechnic saw Einstein’s potential and suggested that he obtain a diploma at a Swiss secondary school and reapply. One of the physics professors, Heinrich Weber, who was impressed with Einstein’s performance in math and physics, told him that he could audit his class if he decided to stay in Zurich.

Spending a Great Year at a Swiss School

Einstein’s parents agreed with the director of the Polytechnic and enrolled him in the Swiss Cantonal school in Aarau, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. That year was perhaps one of the best of Einstein’s youth. Located in a beautiful village some 20 miles west of Zurich, the school was ideal for Einstein. It was run by Jost Winteler, a respected and liberal-minded teacher who created a relaxed environment where the students were encouraged to think for themselves rather than being forced to accept “truths” from higher authorities. This approach suited the rebellious Einstein perfectly.

Einstein boarded with the Wintelers and quickly became part of their large family, calling Jost and Pauline Winteler “Papa” and “Mamma.” Jost Winteler was a scholar himself, and Einstein admired him.

The Aarau school was the only school that Einstein ever liked. He made friends there and was quite popular. He also developed an attitude of self-assurance and, at times, appeared cocky. (This attitude remained with him through life, although it mellowed with age and fame.)

Falling into first love

The Wintelers were a large family. Pauline and Jost had three girls and four boys. Einstein’s links to the Wintelers were to grow stronger in the years to come. One of the boys, Paul, would marry Einstein’s sister, Maja. The oldest girl, Anna, would marry one of Einstein’s closest friends.

Of the three girls, Marie was the prettiest. She was fun to be with and, like Einstein, loved music. She played the piano, and Einstein often joined her in duets. Einstein soon fell in love with her. Although Marie was two years older, Einstein was more mature. She admired his brilliance and, like other girls, thought that he was handsome. He liked her cheerful spirit and beauty, as well as the attention she bestowed upon him.

It wasn’t easy for the two teenagers in love to enjoy their relationship in private, and soon even Maja was teasing her brother about his new girlfriend. Einstein’s parents were extremely pleased to have their son under the guidance of such a respected family and approved enthusiastically of Einstein’s relationship with Marie.

Jost Winteler was a bird-watcher and organized frequent field trips for his class, inviting friends and family to join in. On many occasions, Einstein and Marie went along on these trips, spending wonderful moments walking in the woods, a few steps behind the group.

Performing “thought experiments”

During this period, Einstein developed a method to logically think through a scientific idea by following the steps of an experiment in his mind. These were his famous “thought experiments” that were to be so useful to him when he later developed his theories. (As I explain in Chapter 4, Galileo had used thought experiments centuries before, with similar success.)


His first thought experiment planted the seed that became the special theory of relativity (see Part III). Einstein wanted to know what would happen if he were to ride alongside a beam of light. Would he be able to see the front of the light wave? The young Einstein realized that, in this case, the wave would disappear; it wouldn’t oscillate.

To see why, you can perform your own thought experiment. Imagine that you are a surfer, riding a big wave in Hawaii on your surfboard. To you, the water doesn’t move up and down. You stay at the top of the wave as it moves to shore, and you don’t see it oscillate. The big wave disappears. For a “light surfer,” light, which is an electromagnetic wave, would also stop oscillating.

Einstein wasn’t satisfied with what his thought experiment was telling him and continued to think about it from time to time. Some nine years later, he combined this thought experiment with a better understanding of electromagnetism (see Chapter 6) to state that light travels at the same speed regardless of how the observer moves. Therefore, no one could catch up to a beam of light. As I explain in Chapter 9, that statement became one of the two pillars of his special theory of relativity.

Staying at the top of the class

Einstein passed his final exams at the Aarau school in the fall of 1896 with the top grades in the class. He obtained a 6 (out of 6) in physics, descriptive geometry, geometry, and history and near-perfect grades in everything else. His lowest grade was in French, and the French teacher actually wanted to challenge his graduation. (The French final consisted of an essay, and Einstein’s essay was full of grammatical errors and misspellings.)

Einstein did graduate, however, and he was admitted to the Polytechnic in Zurich, even though he was six months short of the required age to enter college.

When Einstein first attempted to gain admission to the Polytechnic prior to attending the Aarau school, he applied to study engineering. The year in the Aarau school, however, rekindled his interest in science — particularly physics. In his ungrammatical essay for the French final exam, he wrote that his plans included entering the Polytechnic to study physics and mathematics. He was more adept at the theoretical sciences, he wrote, than at experimentation.


Accident in the mountains

Einstein had a close call during a field trip in the Swiss Alps with one of the teachers at the Aarau school. The class was climbing Mount Santis on a rainy day in June, and the ground was slippery. Einstein, who wasn’t wearing hiking boots, slipped and started sliding down a slope when a classmate pulled him up with his walking cane. If it hadn’t been for the quick reaction of his alert classmate, Einstein probably would’ve died, and we’d be living in a very different world today.


Becoming a College Rebel

About a thousand students entered the freshman class at the Zurich Polytechnic with Einstein, and most registered in the engineering schools. Einstein, however, opted for physics. Because the physics, astronomy, and math departments were in the College of Sciences, Einstein registered there.

Focusing on physics

Einstein’s freshman class at the College of Sciences had five students. Three were math majors. Einstein and the only woman in the class, Mileva Maric (who would later become Einstein’s love interest), were the only physics majors.

The physics department was in a large, modern building and was very well equipped. The faculty was world class. Adolf Hurwitz and Hermann Minkowski, two renowned mathematicians, were among Einstein’s professors.

Einstein had been eagerly awaiting his first college physics class and was disappointed when his advisor scheduled him for math courses and some nonscience electives during the first semester. In the second and third semesters, the physics majors took Newtonian mechanics. Engineering majors also took this course, which made Einstein unhappy because he didn’t feel it was “real” physics.

His first “real” physics course was taught by Professor Heinrich Weber, the man who had seen Einstein’s potential even when he failed his first attempt at entering the Polytechnic. Einstein wrote to a classmate that he eagerly anticipated Weber’s masterful lectures on heat, thermodynamics, and the theory of gases. As I explain in the upcoming section “Butting heads,” this mutual admiration wouldn’t last forever.

Cramming for exams

Einstein’s life was the typical life of a European college student at the time. He spent many hours at the local cafes and bars, drinking coffee and arguing with friends about science and philosophy. However, he was selective about what courses he gave his attention to, and he skipped classes if he disliked a course or a professor.

At the Polytechnic, students took two examinations during the four years: the intermediates and the finals. The rest of the time, they didn’t have to worry about grades, tests, or even class attendance. Einstein, the rebel, did as he pleased. He studied books in areas that were not related to any of his classes just because he became interested in the subject, and he didn’t bother with the courses he didn’t like. But skipping classes didn’t help when it came time to prepare for exams, because his class notes were full of holes.

Two or three months before the intermediate exams, Einstein started thinking about studying for them. Without good class notes, the task was impossible. The Polytechnic professors didn’t simply follow textbooks. They were top researchers in their fields; many times their lectures were related to their work. Even when the material was already established, they presented it following their own approaches. The stuff wasn’t in books.

Fortunately for Einstein, his friend Marcel Grossmann kept meticulous class notes. Grossmann was a math major and one of Einstein’s lifelong friends. (He helped Einstein get a job in the patent office after graduation. Many years later, as professor of mathematics at the Polytechnic and dean of the Math-Physics College, Grossman provided Einstein with the advanced mathematical techniques needed for his general theory of relativity.)

Armed with Grossmann’s notes, Einstein spent the summer of 1898 cramming for the exams, which took place in October. When the results came back, Einstein was happily surprised. He had received the highest grade. Grossman, a smart and conscientious student, was second.

Falling in Love Again

Einstein had lost interest in Marie Winteler soon after he left Aarau for the Polytechnic. They wrote letters to each other, but Einstein’s initial enthusiasm faded. However, he still sent her his dirty laundry, which she dutifully washed and mailed back to him.

Einstein couldn’t bring himself to tell Marie that he didn’t love her anymore, so he simply stopped writing to her. However, he remained very close to the Wintelers and wrote to Marie’s mother apologizing for causing her daughter such grief.

Meanwhile, Einstein met Mileva Maric when they both started college at the Polytechnic (see Figure 2-2). She was the daughter of Serbian farmers and was born in the region of Vojvodina, which belonged to Hungary at the time, later became part of Yugoslavia, and is now part of the Republic of Serbia. From an early age, Mileva decided to go to college even against the wishes of her family. Because the Swiss universities were the only German-speaking schools that would accept women, she entered the University of Zurich in 1896 to study medicine. After only one semester, she transferred to the Polytechnic to study physics.

Figure 2-2: Einstein and Mileva Maric in 1911.

Figure 2-2: Einstein and Mileva Maric in 1911.

Mileva was three and a half years older than Einstein and the oldest student in the freshman class at the Polytechnic. In high school she had been good at math and physics, which is perhaps the reason for her switch from medical school to physics.

There is no evidence that Einstein and Mileva had any interest in each other until about the second semester, when they went out on a hike together. Like many of the women Einstein was interested in, Mileva liked music and played the piano. As he did with Marie Winteler, Einstein started playing duets with Mileva, who also had a beautiful singing voice.

Finding an intellectual companion

Although Mileva and Marie Winteler had music as a common interest, Mileva was different in every other aspect. She was plain-looking, moody, and had a temper. Einstein’s friends often wondered what he saw in her. With her close friends, however, Mileva opened up, laughed, and had a good time.

That was the side that Einstein likely saw. To him, she was a serious, independent, and intellectual companion whom he considered to be his equal. His letters to her often dealt with his readings of the physics masters of the time, as well as his own research ideas. Although Mileva didn’t comment on the physics that Einstein discussed in his letters, she was his companion in his program of self-study, reading physics along with him.

Unfortunately, after only one year at the Polytechnic, Mileva surprised Einstein by transferring to the University of Heidelberg (even though women couldn’t enroll as regular students there, so she would be allowed only to audit classes).

Exchanging letters

During their separation, Einstein and Mileva exchanged several letters. After only one semester, however, Mileva decided to return to the Polytechnic. Einstein was delighted and offered to help her catch up in the courses she missed. Mileva was still planning on taking the intermediate exams with her classmates.

With Einstein’s help and the use of his class notes, Mileva began to work on the courses she’d missed. Soon, however, she realized that she needed to postpone taking the exams until the following year.

Einstein and Mileva continued writing letters to each other when they traveled home during school vacations. These letters give people today a glimpse at how their relationship evolved. Unfortunately, while Mileva kept the letters that Einstein sent her, Einstein saved only a few.

Early in 1899, their letters changed from “Dear Mr. Einstein,” or “Dear Madam,” to “Dear Johnnie” and “Dear Dolly,” the names they invented for each other. “I’ll address you different next time,” she wrote. “I’ve thought of a nicer way.” From then on, the letters became love letters. She sent him “a thousand kisses from your Dollie.” He sent her “a thousand wishes and the biggest kisses from your Johnnie.”

Einstein and Mileva spent considerable time together in “their place,” as Einstein called his own apartment in his letters to her. However, he and Mileva kept separate residences, so as not to “start any rumors.”

During his final year in college, Einstein kept up his program of self-study, often reading with Mileva. They grew closer and, at some point during the year, decided to get married.


Justifiable jealousy

Even after Einstein broke up with Marie Winteler, Mileva appears to have been jealous of her. In 1899, Einstein’s sister, Maja, entered the teachers college in Aarau and, like Einstein had done, roomed with the Wintelers. Einstein, who was always close to Maja, visited her often.

Einstein wrote to Mileva that she shouldn’t worry about him seeing Marie. He assured her that his feelings for Marie were under control. “I feel quite secure in my fortress of calm,” he told her. “But I know that if I saw her a few more times I would certainly go mad. Of that I am certain, and I feel it like fire.” So much for reassuring Mileva.


Asserting His Independence

In his third year at the Polytechnic, Einstein took Professor Heinrich Weber’s electrotechnical lab. He had been looking forward to taking this lab and spent a great deal of time in it, doing not only the experiments required for the class, but also some of his own design. He even began to skip lectures so that he could go to the lab and work there.

Butting heads

Although Einstein had been impressed with the introductory physics courses that Weber taught, he didn’t feel the same about his more advanced theory courses. Einstein didn’t like Weber’s course in electricity and magnetism, for example, because Weber didn’t present anything about James Clerk Maxwell’s theory (see Chapter 6), which was “the most fascinating subject at the time that I was a student,” Einstein later wrote.

Einstein became disrespectful and cocky, calling his teacher “Mr. Weber” rather than the polite and customary “Professor Weber.” Weber hated Einstein’s arrogance and classroom demeanor and became disappointed with him. “You are brilliant,” Weber told Einstein at one point. “But you have a serious problem; nobody can tell you anything.”

Einstein paid dearly for his arrogance with Weber after graduation. Weber succeeded in preventing Einstein from getting an academic position, and Einstein had to resign himself to becoming a patent reviewer in Bern (see Chapter 3).


“Physics is too difficult for you”

Einstein took several lab courses from Heinrich Weber during his last two years at the Poly-technic, earning top grades in all of them. In contrast, he failed a lab course he took with Professor Jean Pernet. This course was the only one Einstein ever flunked.

Einstein disliked Pernet from the beginning, and that was part of the problem. Characteristically, he skipped many classes, and when he showed up, he antagonized Pernet by not following the instructions handed out in class. Fed up, Pernet reported Einstein to the president of the university for neglect of duty. He said that Einstein was insolent and arrogant. When Einstein confronted him, Pernet told him to try some other field of study, because there wasn’t any hope for him in physics. “Physics is too difficult for you,” he told Einstein.

Pernet didn’t just fail Einstein; he gave him a 1 in the course, the lowest possible grade. Einstein probably deserved it.


Getting his mind in shape

Disappointed at Weber’s course in electricity and magnetism, Einstein decided to study the subject on his own. He obtained a copy of Paul Drude’s Physics of the Ether, one of the first German books to use Maxwell’s electromagnetism to explain electrical and optical phenomena. In his book, Drude, a professor of physics at the University of Leipzig, explained electrical conduction in metals, thermal conductivity, and the optical properties of metals in terms of interactions of electrical charges.

As he often did, Einstein immersed himself in the study of Drude’s book with great intensity. Often, he read with Mileva, and she sometimes would also check out from the library a copy of the book they were studying. One day, when Einstein forgot his keys and found himself locked out of his room, he ran to Mileva’s apartment and borrowed her copy of the book, leaving her a note asking that she not be angry with him for taking the book “in this emergency, in order to do some studying.”

The emergency, of course, was his own compulsion to learn all he could about electromagnetism and about other areas of physics that interested him.

A few days later, Einstein told Mileva that he had read half the book already and found it stimulating and informative, but the book lacked clarity and precision in some places.

That year, Einstein’s studies of the physics masters continued with books by Hermann von Helmholtz on atmospheric movements and by Heinrich Hertz on the propagation of the electric force. Einstein also studied Maxwell’s electromagnetism from Introduction to Maxwell’s Theory of Electricity by August Foppl, and he read Ernst Mach’s Mechanics.

Spending time in Paradise

During the summer break before his fourth year at Polytechnic, Einstein traveled with his mother and sister to a resort town south of Zurich, where they stayed at the Hotel Paradise. Mileva went home to her family farm to study for her intermediate exams. Einstein wrote to her as soon as he got to the hotel, telling her that he was “completely bookless for a week” while the local libraries were taking inventory, but that this awful situation wouldn’t last because the libraries were going to send him books by Helmholtz, Boltzmann, and Mach. He told her not to worry because he was going to review with her everything he read that summer.

He spent the mornings studying and the afternoons hiking with his sister or playing his violin. He was reading about the ether, a problem that had been on his mind since he was at Aarau (see the sidebar “A 16-year-old scientist”). As I explain in Chapter 3, the idea of the ether had been introduced in the 19th century to provide a medium for the transmission of light in space.

In a letter, he told Mileva about an idea he came up with in Aarau to investigate the motion of the Earth through the ether.

Einstein found the differing points of view about the motion of the Earth through the ether problematic. Hertz’s interpretation, in particular, bothered him. Hertz had recently measured in his laboratory the electromagnetic waves predicted by Maxwell’s theory, and this discovery took the world of physics by storm. In his book about the ether and electrodynamics, Hertz assumed that the ether traveled along with the Earth as the Earth moved in its orbit around the sun.


Einstein took issue with that assumption. In another letter to Mileva, he wrote that he was convinced that the current presentation of the electrodynamics of moving bodies did not correspond to reality. He thought that he could one day do it right and present it in a simper way.

Six years later, he would do just that, with his special theory of relativity (see Part III).

Measuring the ether wind

From the moment he arrived at the Polytechnic, Einstein wanted to perform an experiment to measure the Earth’s movement against the ether. His disagreement with Hertz’s interpretation of the motion of the Earth in the ether revived his interest in the experiment.

For his experiment, Einstein wanted to set up two mirrors so that the light from a single source could be directed in two different directions, one along the motion of the Earth and the other in the opposite direction. Two thermocouples (devices to measure temperature) would detect differences in the amount of heat generated by the two beams. The difference would depend on the motion of the Earth with or against the ether “wind.”

Einstein asked Weber for permission to do the experiment, but the professor would have none of it. Weber probably realized that this measurement was going to be almost impossible to detect.

Other scientists were proposing more sophisticated experiments to measure this velocity. Just a year earlier, for example, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, two physicists at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio (Case Western Reserve University today), had set up what became the landmark experiment to measure this phenomenon.

However, it’s unlikely that Weber knew about the Michelson–Morley experiment. He had been disconnected from the forefront of physics research while he was in charge of building his new laboratory at the Polytechnic. (That’s why his course on electromagnetism didn’t include the recent discoveries of Maxwell and Hertz.)

At the time, Einstein didn’t seem to know about the Michelson–Morley experiment either, and he said so several years later.


A 16-year-old scientist

Einstein first began thinking about the ether after he dropped out of high school and joined his parents in Italy at the age of 16. During the summer of 1895, he wrote a paper on the ether and sent it to his uncle Caesar Koch, his mother’s brother, in Belgium. His uncle was in the grain business, and it’s unlikely that he understood anything in Einstein’s paper, so it’s unclear why Einstein sent it to him. The title of his paper was “On the Examination of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field.” It was never published.


Writing his senior thesis

The Polytechnic required a senior thesis for graduation. Einstein and Mileva chose similar topics in heat conduction, with Weber as the thesis advisor. The thesis had to be completed in three months. However, Einstein didn’t write his on regulation paper and Weber forced him to redo it. Einstein wasn’t happy with this demand, since it shortened his studying time for the finals.

In contrast with the wonders to come (which I introduce in Chapter 3), Einstein’s undergraduate thesis wasn’t much more than a college paper written to fulfill a requirement. Years later, when Einstein was famous, he said that his and Mileva’s theses were of no consequence and weren’t even worth mentioning.

Taking final exams

Einstein and Mileva also prepared together for the final exams, but they weren’t exactly in top form when exam time arrived. Einstein had spent a great deal of time reading other books and not enough time studying, plus he had played hooky in too many courses. Mileva hadn’t done particularly well in her intermediates, which she had taken at the start of her senior year. And she had other concerns on her mind: She had heard that Einstein’s parents were opposed to her relationship with Einstein. His mother, in particular, had said that Mileva was not good enough for her son and blamed Mileva for entrapping Einstein.

Although Einstein did well on his exams, he didn’t repeat the feat of getting the top grades, as he had done in the intermediates. Mileva failed. She did fine in physics but poorly in math and astronomy. Three other physics and math majors graduated with Einstein. Mileva was devastated and thought of quitting, but Einstein talked her into trying again the following year.

Moving Forward

With his college degree at hand, Einstein was ready to start his adult, independent life. He planned on starting his academic career by becoming an assistant to a professor at the Polytechnic while at the same time working on a thesis for his PhD. As soon as he got a job, he and Mileva would get married.

He applied to Weber for an assistantship; however, his rude behavior had turned the professor’s early good impression of Einstein around, and Weber wouldn’t hire him.

Einstein didn’t think that this first rejection was important. He submitted applications to other Polytechnic professors, confident that they would love to hire him. He told Mileva that after both of them obtained their PhD’s, they would happily work together as professional physicists and “money will be as plentiful as manure.”

However, life had some surprises in store for him.


Vacationing with mama

After graduating from the Polytechnic, Einstein joined his mother and sister in a resort town south of Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland, about 25 miles south of Zurich. The first days of the vacation were not pleasant. Although Maja hadn’t dared to tell their mother anything about Mileva, the issue of Einstein’s relationship with her inevitably came up. Einstein told his mother that he planned to marry Mileva. Pauline cried, implored, and argued in an effort to convince Einstein that Mileva was not right for him. Einstein wouldn’t listen.

Soon Pauline realized that she wasn’t getting anywhere and stopped her rant. When Einstein told her that they hadn’t been intimate, Pauline saw some hope of eventually convincing her son of what she thought was a grave mistake.

With his mother appeased, Einstein could enjoy his vacation. He played the violin, went climbing at Mount Titlis with Maja, and read a book by the well-known physicist Gustav Kirkchhoff on the motion of the rigid body.


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