Biographies & Memoirs

Introduction

IN HIS BIOGRAPHY OF Einstein Mr. H. Gordon Garbedian relates that an American newspaper man asked the great physicist for a definition of his theory of relativity in one sentence. Einstein replied that it would take him three days to give a short definition of relativity. He might well have added that unless his questioner had an intimate acquaintance with mathematics and physics, the definition would be incomprehensible.

To the majority of people Einstein’s theory is a complete mystery. Their attitude towards Einstein is like that of Mark Twain towards the writer of a work on mathematics: here was a man who had written an entire book of which Mark could not understand a single sentence. Einstein, therefore, is great in the public eye partly because he has made revolutionary discoveries which cannot be translated into the common tongue. We stand in proper awe of a man whose thoughts move on heights far beyond our range, whose achievements can be measured only by the few who are able to follow his reasoning and challenge his conclusions.

There is, however, another side to his personality. It is revealed in the addresses, letters, and occasional writings brought together in this book. These fragments form a mosaic portrait of Einstein the man. Each one is, in a sense, complete in itself; it presents his views on some aspect of progress, education, peace, war, liberty, or other problems of universal interest. Their combined effect is to demonstrate that the Einstein we can all understand is no less great than the Einstein we take on trust.

Einstein has asked nothing more from life than the freedom to pursue his researches into the mechanism of the universe. His nature is of rare simplicity and sincerity; he always has been, and he remains, genuinely indifferent to wealth and fame and the other prizes so dear to ambition. At the same time he is no recluse, shutting himself off from the sorrows and agitations of the world around him. Himself familiar from early years with the handicap of poverty and with some of the worst forms of man’s inhumanity to man, he has never spared himself in defence of the weak and the oppressed. Nothing could be more unwelcome to his sensitive and retiring character than the glare of the platform and the heat of public controversy, yet he has never hesitated when he felt that his voice or influence would help to redress a wrong. History, surely, has few parallels with this introspective mathematical genius who laboured unceasingly as an eager champion of the rights of man.

Albert Einstein was born in 1879 at Ulm. When he was four years old his father, who owned an electrochemical works, moved to Munich, and two years later the boy went to school, experiencing a rigid, almost military, type of discipline and also the isolation of a shy and contemplative Jewish child among Roman Catholics—factors which made a deep and enduring impression. From the point of view of his teachers he was an unsatisfactory pupil, apparently incapable of progress in languages, history, geography, and other primary subjects. His interest in mathematics was roused, not by his instructors, but by a Jewish medical student, Max Talmey, who gave him a book on geometry, and so set him upon a course of enthusiastic study which made him, at the age of fourteen, a better mathematician than his masters. At this stage also he began the study of philosophy, reading and re-reading the words of Kant and other metaphysicians.

Business reverses led the elder Einstein to make a fresh start in Milan, thus introducing Albert to the joys of a freer, sunnier life than had been possible in Germany. Necessity, however, made this holiday a brief one, and after a few months of freedom the preparation for a career began. It opened with an effort, backed by a certificate of mathematical proficiency given by a teacher in the Gymnasium at Munich, to obtain admission to the Polytechnic Academy at Zurich. A year passed in the study of necessary subjects which he had neglected for mathematics, but once admitted, the young Einstein became absorbed in the pursuit of science and philosophy and made astonishing progress. After five distinguished years at the Polytechnic he hoped to step into the post of assistant professor, but found that the kindly words of the professors who had stimulated the hope did not materialize.

Then followed a weary search for work, two brief interludes of teaching, and a stable appointment as examiner at the Confederate Patent Office at Berne. Humdrum as the work was, it had the double advantage of providing a competence and of leaving his mind free for the mathematical speculations which were then taking shape in the theory of relativity. In 1905 his first monograph on the theory was published in a Swiss scientific journal, the Annalen der Physik. Zurich awoke to the fact that it possessed a genius in the form of a patent office clerk, promoted him to be a lecturer at the University and four years later—in 1909—installed him as Professor.

His next appointment was (in 1911) at the University of Prague, where he remained for eighteen months. Following a brief return to Zurich, he went, early in 1914, to Berlin as a professor in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Theoretical Physics. The period of the Great War was a trying time for Einstein, who could not conceal his ardent pacifism, but he found what solace he could in his studies. Later events brought him into the open and into many parts of the world, as an exponent not only of pacifism but also of world-disarmament and the cause of Jewry. To a man of such views, as passionately held as they were by Einstein, Germany under the Nazis was patently impossible. In 1933 Einstein made his famous declaration: “As long as I have any choice, I will stay only in a country where political liberty, toleration, and equality of all citizens before the law are the rule.” For a time he was a homeless exile; after offers had come to him from Spain and France and Britain, he settled in Princeton as Professor of Mathematical and Theoretical Physics, happy in his work, rejoicing in a free environment, but haunted always by the tragedy of war and oppression.

The World As I See It, in its original form, includes essays by Einstein on relativity and cognate subjects. For reasons indicated above, these have been omitted in the present edition; the object of this reprint is simply to reveal to the general reader the human side of one of the most dominating figures of our day.

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