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The Contradictory Genius

Albert Einstein: A Biography

by Albrecht Fölsing, translated by Ewald Osers
Viking, 882 pp., $34.95


Until the age of seven or eight, whenever the young Albert Einstein was asked a question, he would slowly formulate an answer, mutter it tentatively to himself, and finally repeat aloud his considered response. This laborious method of speaking gave the impression that he needed to say everything twice. His parents consulted a doctor, and the family housekeeper called the boy “stupid.” Decades later, Einstein’s sister Maja recorded this odd childhood habit and attributed it to her brother’s thoroughness in thinking. Yet the doubling of each sentence, once for himself and once for everyone else, may also have been an early sign of the deep inner world that Einstein inhabited. Brilliant, supremely self-confident, brutally honest, witty, stubborn—Einstein was above all else a loner.

In an essay he published in 1931, at the age of fifty-two, the physicist wrote:

My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a “lone traveler” and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude—

With this passage one cannot help recalling a close contemporary of Einstein’s, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who famously advised another young poet to “love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you.” Einstein’s isolation was surely in part the artist’s compulsion to create alone. And the great physicist was indeed an artist in his devotion to simplicity and mathematical beauty. But his distance went far beyond any aesthetic concerns. Throughout his life, he maintained a strong awareness that he did not fit in, intellectually, socially, spiritually. Einstein had a profound sense of otherness, even alienation.

Numerous anecdotes from childhood suggest that these feelings were partly a consequence of innate temperament. But they were also strongly accentuated by his harsh and authoritarian early teachers, the German military service that caused him to renounce his citizenship at the age of sixteen, his parents’ contempt for his sweetheart and first-wife-to-be, Mileva Mariå«c, his inability to secure university employment after college, and finally his growing identification with the plight of his fellow Jews, whom he referred to as his “tribal companions.”

The 1931 passage on solitude, together with many of Einstein’s other public essays, have long been available in two of his books, Mein Weltbild (1934) and Ideas and Opinions (1954). (The latter is an extraordinary compendium of Einstein’s thoughts on philosophy, religion, education, politics, and the methods of science.) These writings, from later life and after his rise to worldwide fame, conform more or less to the popular image of Einstein as a wise, grandfatherly figure. When hints of the lone trav-eler appear here and there, they are couched in rather abstract language. A more private and gritty view of Einstein is now emerging in several new biographies, stimulated by the recent availability of the younger Einstein’s personal letters and perhaps also by the recurrent fascination with the frailties of our heroes. Beyond the usual revealed intimacies and imperfections is clear evidence that Einstein’s sense of estrangement began at a young age.

Of the new biographies, the fullest by far is Albrecht Fölsing’s huge Albert Einstein, originally published in German in 1993 and now appearing in English.1 Fölsing’s book, while needing clearer scientific explanations, provides a nuanced, nonjudgmental personal portrait, resting firmly on prodigious archival work. Albert Einstein allows us to see deeply into Einstein’s inner world, to hear his voice, both muttering and proclaiming, and thus offers an excellent companion to Abraham Pais’s fine intellectual biography Subtle Is the Lord.2

Prime among the new source material is a set of fifty-two love letters exchanged between Einstein and Mileva Mariå«c, extending from 1897 to 1902. These letters were released to scholars only in 1986, upon the death of Einstein’s older son, Hans Albert. They have been printed in full in the first volume of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, an immense project jointly sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Princeton University Press. (At his death in 1955, Einstein willed all of his papers and letters to Hebrew University; the Einstein Archive there now contains some 45,000 documents, and The Collected Papers is expected to run to over twenty-five volumes.)

Mileva Mariå«c, born in 1875 and three years older than Albert, came from a well-to-do Serbian family living in what was then Hungary. Darkly pretty, with a slight limp from childhood, she excelled in physics and mathematics. At the time that her surviving correspondence with Albert began, in October 1897, they were both in their second year of study at the Polytechnic in Zurich—Switzerland being the only German-speaking country that then allowed women into higher education. Mileva had just taken a temporary leave to attend lectures at the University of Heidelberg.

From these letters we learn in Einstein’s own words how he is tormented by his parents over Mariå«c. In 1900, he writes her: “My parents are very distressed about my love for you, Mama often cries bitterly & I am not given a single undisturbed moment here. My parents mourn for me almost as if I had died.” A hint of Mama’s objections is given in a letter Einstein wrote to Mariå«c a few months earlier, in which he quotes his mother as saying: “She is a book like you—but you ought to have a wife.” “When you’ll be 30, she’ll be an old hag.”

Other letters convey a strong sense that the young physicist was battling the world, not just his parents. In 1901, Mariå«c failed her degree examination at the Polytechnic and moved back with her parents while she was pregnant with Einstein’s illegitimate child. (The child, a daughter named Lieserl, was evidently given up soon after birth; no records have been found, and she has vanished from history.) Einstein, meanwhile, was living close to poverty and having no luck in obtaining a job. It is under these circumstances that he writes to her:

I decided the following about our future: I will look immediately for a position, no matter how humble…. The moment I have obtained such a position I’ll marry you and take you to me without writing anyone a single word before everything has been settled. And then nobody can cast a stone upon your dear head, and whoever dares to do anything against you, he’ll better watch out!

Then, in December 1901, just after Einstein has learned that he may be offered a clerkship in the government Patent Office in Bern, he writes: “We shall remain students (horribile dictu) as long as we live, and shall not give a damn about the world.” Two weeks later, he writes: “Apart from you, all the people look so alien to me as if they were separated from me by an invisible wall.”

The young Einstein was especially embittered by his failure to receive recognition from the academic establishment, many of whose eminences he considered self-satisfied men, far beneath him in scientific ability. After sending a letter to Paul Drude, a leading physicist and editor of the prestigious Annalen der Physik, about some errors in Drude’s work, the twenty-two-year-old Einstein received an unyielding reply from Drude, and wrote to Mariå«c in July 1901:

I have just come home from Lenzburg & found this letter from Drude, which is such an irrefutable evidence of its writer’s wretchedness that no comment by me is necessary. From now on I’ll not turn any longer to this kind of person but will rather attack them mercilessly via journals, as they deserve. It is no wonder that little by little one becomes a misanthrope.

In November 1901, Einstein submitted a doctoral thesis to Professor Alfred Kleiner at the University of Zurich, criticizing some of the work of the great Ludwig Boltzmann, a colleague of Kleiner. In December of that year, Einstein wrote to Mariå«c:

Since that bore Kleiner hasn’t answered yet, I am going to drop in on him on Thursday…. To think of all the obstacles that these old philistines put in the way of a person who is not of their ilk, it’s really ghastly! This sort instinctively considers every intelligent young person as a danger to his frail dignity, this is how it seems to me by now. But if he has the gall to reject my doctoral thesis, then I’ll publish his rejection in cold print together with the thesis & he will have made a fool of himself.

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany. His mother, Pauline Koch, was musical and helped get young Albert started in playing the violin. His father, Hermann, was in the electrical business, first with his younger brother Jakob and later on his own, initially investing his own money and then borrowing family money. Hermann suffered one business failure after another. In the hopes of achieving success, the family moved several times, first to Munich in 1880, then to Milan in 1894, to Pavia in 1895, and back to Milan in 1896. Einstein entered primary school in Munich, at the age of six. As his sister Maja recalled in her unpublished 1924 biography of her brother, Einstein’s teacher taught her students the multiplication tables with the help of whacks on the hand, all to better prepare them early to be good German citizens. Einstein was the only Jew among seventy classmates. One day his teacher of religious studies brought a nail to class and told his students that with such nails Christ had been nailed to the cross by the Jews.

At home, young Albert was becoming more and more of an introvert. Instead of playing with other boys, he liked to work out puzzles, to create complicated constructions out of building blocks, and, with great patience and determination, to build houses of cards many stories high. In the fall of 1888, the boy entered secondary school, the Luitpold Gymnasium. When his family moved to Milan in the summer of 1894, the fifteen-year-old Einstein stayed behind in Munich to finish his studies, boarding with a family. In December, after an argument with one of his teachers at the gymnasium, Einstein abruptly dropped out of school and moved back to Milan with his family. He announced to his parents that he would never return to Munich and would prepare himself to enter college at the Zurich Polytechnic. Then, and for the next few years, he voraciously read physics and mathematics on his own.

After graduation from the Polytechnic in 1900, Einstein applied for the position of assistant to most of the leading physics professors in Europe. He was turned down by all of them, possibly because of cool letters from his professor at the Polytechnic, Heinrich Friedrich Weber, whom Einstein admired but did not lavish with the customary subservience. (Mariå«c quietly offered her explanation in a letter to a friend: “You know that my sweetheart has a sharp tongue and moreover he’s a Jew.”) Einstein barely supported himself by tutoring for two years before he received his job at the Patent Office in Bern, in 1902.

  1. 1

    Other recent books on Einstein include Denis Brian, Einstein: A Life (Wiley, 1996); Abraham Pais, Einstein Lived Here (Oxford University Press, 1994); Gerald Holton, Einstein, History, and Other Passions: The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century (Addison-Wesley, 1996); and Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1982.

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