Maggie: We’re still on Einstein, right?
John: Yes, we’re discussing the story of his life today, but we will only get through about half of the biography, up to the year 1905. Next time we’ll tackle the second half.
Maggie: I tried reading some articles about him. He’s tough!
John: Yeah, I agree. But we will give it a try. We’ll never learn if we don’t at least take at shot at understanding him.
Maggie: So true.
Like we normally do, can you give me the basic facts first, before we get into the cool stuff? I like to put the good stuff into a context.
Albert Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany and he died in 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey. He had one sister, Maria, who was two years younger than him.
Shortly after he was born, Albert’s family moved to Munich, where his father Hermann operated an electrochemical factory. His mother, Pauline, took care of the household and the children.
Maggie: Okay, I got the basics. What’s next?
Early Life and Education
John: First, let’s discuss his early life and education. Does that work?
John: Einstein experienced four major events in his early childhood that influenced and developed his interest in science.
The first “wonder,” as he called it, occurred when he was five. He discovered a compass and became fascinated by the invisible force that acted on the needle, causing it to point to the magnetic north. This interest in invisible forces followed him the rest of his life.
Maggie: I love hearing about those moments when a person discovers something that captures her and it becomes a life-long interest. It happens to musicians and scientists and doctors and philosophers. It’s like a light goes on in their heads that drives them. These stories inspire me.
John: I love those stories too.
Maggie: What’s the second major event?
John: At the age of 12, Einstein discovered a geometry book. Once he started reading and working the problems, he couldn’t stop. He called the book his sacred little geometry book.
Maggie: Total nerd! But I wish I were like that. Can you imagine how cool that would be?
Hey, I heard he was not a very good student at school and that he was kind of dumb. This story about the geometry book contradicts that.
John: Stories have circulated that Einstein was not a good student, with some stories saying that he was a slow learner and others even postulating that he had developmental issues when he was young. But these stories are not true. He, in fact, excelled in science and math as a student.
Maggie: Then how did the stories get started?
John: Einstein had two problems as a student. First, he didn’t like subjects like literature, so he didn’t try all that hard in them. This led some teachers to think he was less than intelligent and to comment on it. Second, German schools in his time were not like schools today; they were very authoritarian and a lot of the education was based on rote memory. There wasn’t room for creativity. Einstein deplored this style of education and actively rebelled against it.
Maggie: I get it. He was the smart kid who was bored with formal education, so he didn’t try very hard.
John: Exactly right.
Maggie: I know kids like that.
But I got us off course. What is the third major event?
John: The third event is not really an event, but a person. A young medical student named Max Talmud used to have regular dinners with the Einsteins. He became a mentor to Albert and he introduced Albert to a series of books that drove his interest in physics, entitled the Popular Books on Physical Science. Einstein was enthralled from the first read, especially with the thought experiments in the books. One experiment asked readers to imagine themselves riding alongside electricity as it traveled through a telegraph wire. These sorts of creative thought experiments would become the hallmark of Einstein’s scientific thinking. He would later make some significant discoveries by imagining what it is like to ride alongside a beam of light.
Maggie: You know what I like about Einstein?
Maggie: He was imaginative and creative, not just full of memorized facts and data.
John: I like that too. It shows that advancement of knowledge requires creative thinking, not just data sorting.
Maggie: And the fourth major event?
John: Again, it is not really an event, but a practice that influenced him as he grew older.
Einstein started taking violin lessons when he was five. But he really fell in love with the violin at the age of thirteen, when he discovered Mozart. The purity and beauty of Mozart’s music, he said, was “a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe itself.” He played the violin frequently throughout the rest of his life.
Maggie: Good music is beautiful. It gives me peace.
Do you think playing music helped develop his creativity?
John: That is exactly what I was thinking. Playing music helps stimulate brain development and creativity, which in turn helped his creative thinking.
Maggie: So cool. We should all be involved in music, whether we play an instrument or just learn to appreciate listening to it.
John: I agree.
Maggie: So what’s next?
John: As we saw, Albert had some positive influences in his life that helped develop his interest and abilities in science. But he also has some difficult times.
In 1894, Hermann Einstein moved the family to Italy. His company had failed and he went to Milan to work with a relative. Albert was left behind in Germany at a boarding house to finish school.
Maggie: Ouch! He had to be lonely.
John: Yeah, he was. In fact, he only lasted about six months before he dropped out of school and traveled to Italy to be with his family.
Maggie: That had to create some problems for him.
John: It did. His family was not happy with him and they worried about his future job prospects since he was a dropout.
But, it got a little better when he applied to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School. This was a college, and he could go there without completing the equivalent of his high school education if he could pass the entrance exam. He did well enough on the math and physics sections that he was given a provisional acceptance, but it required him to finish his formal education first.
Maggie: What parts of the exam did he fail? Or do poorly at? What subjects I mean.
John: Subjects like French, chemistry, and biology.
Maggie: Wow, he was really single minded in physics and math.
How did he finish high school?
John: He went to a special school run by a man named Jost Winteler in Switzerland. He also lived with the Winteler family during this time, developing a close relationship with them.
He graduated high school in 1896 and began his career at the Swiss Polytechnic. But again, he was just not a very good student. He would cut classes in order to spend time studying advanced subjects on his own. So the professors did not like him that much, and many thought he was lazy.
Maggie: But he graduated, right?
John: Yes, in 1900 he got a teaching diploma that allowed him to teach physics and math. His final physics scores were higher than his math scores because he didn’t spend a lot of time studying math. Later in life, he explained this by saying that “[i]t was not clear to me as a student that a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics was tied up with the most intricate mathematical methods.”
But there are a couple more things I want to tell you before we move on to his post-graduation years.
John: When Einstein was in Italy, he published his first scientific paper entitled The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields. He was just sixteen.
Maggie: Getting a paper published had to be exciting for him.
John: That’s exactly right. This paper helped drive his desire to be a physicist and to publish in this area.
Maggie: That is so cool. What is your last point?
John: Einstein made some close friends while he was in college: Marcel Grossman and Michele Besso. He often went on long walks with these friends, discussing mathematics, space, and time, which helped develop his thinking in these areas. These friendships lasted his entire life. Towards the end of his life, Einstein said that his years at the Swiss Polytechnic were his happiest years.
Marriage and the Search for Employment
Maggie: What happened to Einstein after he graduated?
John: His bad luck continued.
For a long time, he couldn’t get a regular teaching job. Like I said earlier, he was not well liked by his professors. And it appears that one professor actually gave him a poor recommendation.
Maggie: How did he live?
John: He was able to get low paying tutoring jobs, but nothing permanent.
And adding to his stress, he fathered a child with his future wife, Mileva Maric, in 1902. It is not clear what happened to the child after it was born. Some say that the child died of scarlet fever, while other say it was given up for adoption. But Einstein never spoke about the child afterwards.
Maggie: That seems harsh to me. Kind of makes me angry with Einstein.
John: It seems harsh to me too, but we don’t really know all the facts since Einstein never talked about the child. So I try not to judge his actions, since any judgment would be based on my ignorance.
Maggie: That’s fair. I will try not to judge him too.
John: Then, late in 1902 his luck began to change. Do you remember Marcel Grossman?
Maggie: Yeah, his friend from college.
John: Grossman’s father recommended Einstein for a job as a patent clerk. After quite a wait, he was finally offered the job and began work at the patent office in Bern. The job gave him a regular salary, although not a large one. But it was enough that he felt like he could propose marriage to Mileva Maric.
Einstein and Maric were married in 1903. They went on to have two children, while in Bern. Hans was born in 1904 and Eduard was born in 1910.
This job also turned out to be a dream gig for Einstein. Once he learned how to analyze the patent applications, he was able to get his work done quickly, so he had quite a bit of time during each day to think about physics. And the job was not overly taxing to his brain, so he also had the mental energy to do physics.
Maggie: Which is how he was able to come up with his theories on relativity, right?
John: Correct. And that brings us to Einstein’s miracle year.
1905: The Miracle Year
Maggie: What year is that?
Maggie: This is the year he came up with the theory of special relativity, isn’t it?
John: I see you have been reading about Einstein.
Maggie: I have, like I mentioned earlier. Tell me what else happened in 1905.
John: So picture this – Einstein is working away at physics during his time at the patent office. He is also newly married and raising a son.
Maggie: He had to be incredibly disciplined.
John: Yeah, that’s what I think also. He didn’t let anything distract him from his first love: physics.
So he is working away, developing several different theories at a time. Then in 1905, four ideas all come to completion in his mind. He writes about them in four different articles and was able to get them published in a prestigious journal: the Annals of Physics.
Maggie: Tell me, what were the titles of the articles.
John: The first paper was titled On the Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.
It presented a new theory about the photoelectric effect.
Maggie: Can you explain that to me? Just a short explanation.
John: In gist, when light hits a solid material, electrons are released.
But here is what is actually cool about the paper: Einstein suggested that this occurs because light consists of “discrete packets” (quanta or photons), which is different from the classical wave theory of light. Einstein’s novel idea—that light consisted of discrete packets—would eventually lead to the field of quantum mechanics.
Maggie: A whole new field? So cool!
John: A whole new field of science, my friend. And you’re right, that is pretty cool for a patent clerk!
Maggie: That’s pretty cool for anyone. Tell me more!
John: The second article was titled On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat. It focused on Brownian motion.
Maggie: Again, I am going to need more.
John: Brownian motion refers to the random movement of particles in a fluid, which Einstein postulated moved when they collided with other molecules and atoms. Like the first one, this paper also helped advance quantum theory because it provided evidence of molecules and atoms.
Maggie: Remember our discussion of paradigm shifts?
John: Yes I do, and I am glad you remember.
Maggie: He really created a paradigm shift, didn’t he?
John: Totally. The biggest paradigm shift since Newton.
Maggie: This is fun! What’s next?
John: Einstein’s third paper was titled On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies. This is the paper where he proposed the special theory of relativity, arguing that the speed of light is constant. In other words, the speed of light is not relative to the person observing it, and light travels at the same speed regardless of whether the source of the light is moving.
Maggie: Can you make this really simple for me?
John: Let me try, but this is just an introduction because we will discuss this in more detail later.
Generally speaking, the motion and speed of any object is relative to the motion and speed of any other person or object.
Picture this in your mind: you are riding your bike down a narrow, gravel road out in a rural area when a car traveling at 50 miles-per-hour passes you. Tell me what you are thinking right now.
Maggie: I am asking myself, “Why is that car going so fast? He better slow down before he hurts someone.”
John: Perfect. Relative to your own speed, the car is traveling fast.
Now let’s do another thought experiment. You are driving 60 mph on a three-lane freeway and you come up behind a car going 50 mph. What are you thinking?
Maggie: I am frustrated because the car is going so slow, and I am asking myself why they let such slow drivers on the road.
John: Great. The car is traveling slowly compared to your own speed.
Now consider this: in both instances, the cars are traveling at the exact same speed, 50 mph. But your speed is different in each scenario. So whether those cars are going fast or slow depends upon your own speed. Another way to say this is that the speed of those cars is relative to your own speed.
Maggie: So, in science language, the speed of a moving object is relative to the speed of any other object, including the speed of the person observing the moving object.
John: That works perfectly for our purposes.
And this is always true, except for the speed of light, which is constant. The speed of light is independent of the source of the light and the observer. It is the one thing we can rely upon.
Maggie: So why is this so important?
John: This will freak you out. We just discussed how speed is relative to the observer, right?
Maggie: Yes, and I get that. It makes sense to me.
John: Well… we need to apply this same concept to space and time. Distance, for example, is relative, and the time it takes to travel a certain distance is also relative.
Maggie: I am trying to picture this in my mind, but it’s hard to understand.
John: I know this is weird and challenging, but we will discuss it in more detail when we get to Einstein’s theories.
Maggie: Okay. And I will work on it myself until then.
What is the fourth article?
John: His fourth article was titled Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content. In this paper, Einstein came up with the most famous equation in the history of science –E=mc2.
Maggie: Can I say what this means?
Maggie: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.
John: Right! And here is why this is so important. Prior to Einstein, the mass and energy of a body at rest were thought of as different and distinct. Einstein showed that these two things are connected: the energy of a body is equivalent to its mass times the speed of light squared.
Maggie: And all of this was done by a patent clerk who couldn’t get a teaching job.
John: Yeah. So ironic, isn’t it?
Maggie: Did anything else happen in 1905?
John: One last thing. Einstein also submitted a paper for his doctorate this same year, and was awarded the degree by the University of Zurich.
Maggie: He had quite a year. I suppose it made up for all his prior struggles.
John: It was a good year for him.
Maggie: Will we finish up his biography next time?
John: That is my hope.
Maggie: I can’t wait. À bientôt!
John: See you later.