Young Einstein

Albert Einstein was born on this day in 1879. Einstein published his first scientific paper as he turned twenty-two, while employed at the Swiss Patent Office. “The paper elicited no comment,” says biographer Walter Isaacson (Einstein: His Life and Universe, 2007) “and contributed nothing to the history of science.” But it was a publication Einstein could use, he wrote his future wife, to canvass “every physicist from the North Sea to the southern tip of Italy” about a job. Receiving no offers, he stayed on as a clerk at the Patent Office, but he continued to publish -- four new papers over the next three years -- and to persevere: “God created the donkey,” Einstein wrote a friend, “and gave him a thick skin.”

The five papers Einstein published next, all appearing in his annus mirabilis of 1905, transformed physics. This was the author’s expectation, judging by his letter to a friend that spring:

The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and is very revolutionary…. The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms. The third proves that bodies on the order of magnitude 1/1000 mm, suspended in liquids, must already perform an observable random motion that is produced by thermal motion. The fourth paper…employs a modification of the theory of space and time.

Isaacson notes that Einstein’s letter neglects to mention his fifth paper of 1905, which “posited a relationship between energy and mass” and gave rise to “the best-known equation in all of physics: E = mc2.” Isaacson also notes that Einstein’s letter gives us a glimpse of his playful personality, his salutation to his friend addressing him as “you frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul.”

Issacson’s book is the first popular biography to be written with access to letters recently released by the Einstein estate. The letters show how “character and imagination and creative genius were all related” and reflect a man “passionate in both his personal and scientific pursuits”:

At college he fell madly in love with the only woman in his physics class, a dark and intense Serbian named Mileva Maric. They had an illegitimate daughter, then married and had two sons…but eventually their relationship deteriorated. Einstein offered her a deal. He would win the Nobel Prize someday, he said; if she gave him a divorce, he would give her the prize money. She thought for a week and accepted. Because his theories were so radical, it was seventeen years…before he was awarded the prize and she collected.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

 

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