The Contradictory Genius

Albert Einstein: A Biography

by Albrecht Fölsing, translated by Ewald Osers
Viking, 882 pp., $34.95
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein; drawing by David Levine


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…

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