Today is Albert Einstein’s 137th birthday. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Albert Einstein
BIRTH DATE: March 14, 1879
DEATH DATE: April 18, 1955
EDUCATION: Luitpold Gymnasium, Eidgenössische Polytechnische Schule (Swiss Federal Polytechnic School)
PLACE OF BIRTH: Ulm, Württemberg, Germany
PLACE OF DEATH: Princeton, New Jersey
It’s the birthday of the man who said: “I’m not much with people, and I’m not a family man. I want my peace. I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.” That’s the physicist Albert Einstein, born on this day in Ulm, Germany (1879). It is often said that he was a terrible student who couldn’t get a job after graduation. In truth, he was a good student, and always a star at math and physics. The issue wasn’t with his performance so much as his attitude toward his teachers, many of whom knew less than he did — he was cocky about the fact that he was self-taught in science, and he was generally disrespectful. After he graduated from Zurich Polytechnic, none of his professors wanted to write him a recommendation, which he needed to get a good job in academia. Instead, when he finally got a job, it was as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern.
It turned out that the job suited him fine. During the day, he worked in the office as a “technical expert third class,” and in the evenings, in his rental flat in Bern, he was able to work on his scientific ideas. The year 1905 is often referred to as Einstein’s own personal annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles,” because it was during that year that he published four important scientific papers in just a few months. Among the groundbreaking observations in those papers, he proposed that the scientific community was wrong in its assumption that light was a continuous wave, and that in fact, it was made up of distinct particles; and he first proposed his theory of special relativity with its famous equation e=mc2. He was only 26 years old. Scientists were not immediately convinced that Einstein was right, particularly about light particles, and although e=mc2 is famous now, at the time it didn’t make much of a splash. He couldn’t even get a low-level teaching job at a university — all he got was a promotion to “second-class” at the patent office.
He worked his way up slowly. By 1909, he was able to quit his job at the patent office and he became an adjunct professor of theoretical physics in Zurich. In 1914, he moved to a teaching post in Berlin. He worked on a “General Theory of Relativity,” which he published in 1916.
In May of 1919, two astronomers in different parts of the world observed a total solar eclipse and verified one of Einstein’s theories in his General Theory of Relativity: that the gravitational field of the sun deflected light from stars, so they were actually in a different position than they appeared to be. The findings were announced in November in London, during a joint meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society. The president of the Royal Society declared: “This is the most important result related to the theory of gravitation since the days of Newton. … This result is among the greatest achievements of human thinking.” The New York Times wrote about Einstein’s success in an article with the headlines: “Lights All Askew in the Heavens”; “Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations”; “Einstein Theory Triumphs”; “Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to be, but Nobody Need Worry.” Suddenly, Einstein was famous. He said in 1919, “With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.”
In 1921, Einstein came to America for the first time for a lecture tour.
He got off the boat in Battery Park in Manhattan on April 2nd, 1921. The New York Times wrote: “A man in a faded gray raincoat and a flopping black felt hat that nearly concealed the gray hair that straggled over his ears stood on the boat deck of the steamship Rotterdam yesterday, timidly facing a battery of cameramen. In one hand he clutched a shiny briar pipe and with the other clung to a precious violin. He looked like an artist — a musician. He was. But underneath his shaggy locks was a scientific mind whose deductions have staggered the ablest intellects of Europe. One of his traveling companions described him as an ‘intuitive physicist’ whose speculative imagination is so vast that it senses great natural laws long before the reasoning faculty grasps and defines them.”
Thousands of people had waited for hours to welcome Einstein. Some enthusiastic Jewish spectators sang both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah,” a Zionist anthem. He was paraded through the streets of New York in a motorcade that lasted all afternoon and all evening, and he didn’t make it to his hotel until 11:30 that night.
Einstein wrote some complimentary things about the United States: “What first strikes the visitor with amazement is the superiority of this country in matters of technology and organization. Objects of everyday use are more solid than in Europe, houses much more practically designed. […] The second thing that strikes the visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life. The smile on the faces of the people in photographs is symbolical of one of the greatest assets of the American. He is friendly, self confident, optimistic — and without envy.” But that was Einstein’s public face. After the conclusion of his tour, in an interview with a Dutch newspaper, he said: “The vast enthusiasm for me in America appears to be typically American, though, and as far as I can judge I rather understand it: the people are so uncommonly bored, yes honestly much more so than is the case with us. And there is so little for them there anyhow. […] So folks are happy when they are given something to play with and which they can revere, and that they then do with exceptional intensity. Most of all it is the women, by the way, who dominate all of American life. The men are interested in nothing at all; they work, work as I haven’t seen anyone anywhere else. For the rest, they are toy dogs for their wives, who spend the money in the most excessive fashion and who shroud themselves in a veil of extravagance. They will do anything that’s in vogue and in fashion, and, as it happens, have thrown themselves among the throngs of the ‘Einstein-craze,’ Does it make an outlandish impression upon me, the crowd’s excitement here and there about my beliefs and theories, about which it doesn’t understand anything? I find it amusing and also interesting to watch them. I certainly believe that it is the magic of non-comprehension that attracts them.”
Despite his ambivalent feelings about his fame, Einstein was a good self-promoter, a natural speaker, and throughout his career, he was happy to be photographed. He didn’t need to be prompted to stick out his tongue or ride on a bicycle. People loved his goofy hair and vagabond image. He described himself to his cousin’s eight-year-old daughter: “I hear from Elsa that you are dissatisfied because you did not see your uncle Einstein. Let me therefore tell you what I look like: pale face, long hair, and a tiny beginning of a paunch. In addition an awkward gait, and a cigar in the mouth — if he happens to have a cigar — and a pen in his pocket or his hand. But crooked legs and warts he does not have, and so he is quite handsome — also no hair on his hands such as is often found on ugly men. So it is indeed a pity that you did not see me.”