Everyone knows Albert Einstein as a wild-haired, violin-playing genius who revolutionized physics, and many have heard how he arrived at his groundbreaking theories via one ingenious thought experiment, or gedankenexperiment, after another. But did you know that he was also an eccentric who gleefully eschewed socks, dodged German military service and spurned social conventions? Or that he was an enthusiastic but third-rate sailor?
Ever since solar eclipse observations in 1919 made him front-page news, we haven't been able to get enough of this guy. And why not? Einstein's influence extended beyond the scientific fields he revolutionized. His theories of relativity, which departed from the classical Newtonian view of the cosmos, came to symbolize a broader societal shift away from Enlightenment-influenced concepts of art, literature, morality and politics. More than that, thanks to his strong political and social views, often distilled into playful, philosophical and pithy quotes, he's been a mainstay of dorm-room posters and pop culture for decades.
But with the revelations that accompanied the release of his private papers 30 years after his death, do we finally have too much of Einstein? Do they remind us to never meet our heroes, or merely that all geniuses are, finally, human? As we explore the many facets of this extraordinary man, we might find that the answer changes relative to our reference frame.
Einstein did not speak until comparatively late in childhood, and he remained a reluctant talker until the age of 7 [source: Wolff and Goodman]. This fact, combined with his single-minded devotion to physics, his imposition of routines on his wife, his musical talent and other factors have led some to argue that Einstein had Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that affects language and behavioral development in children.
Other historical talents, including physicists Isaac Newton and Marie Curie and artists like Wassily Kandinsky and J.M.W. Turner, have received similar postmortem armchair diagnoses [source: James]. Departing from this view, Stanford economist and author Thomas Sowell coined the term "Einstein Syndrome" to describe non-autistic gifted people with delayed speech. How his ideas are viewed by child development experts, or how they differ from the more commonly known phenomenon of asynchronous development, in which gifted children develop faster than average in some areas and more slowly in others, remains unclear.
In the end, Einstein, a lifelong visual thinker, might simply have had a rich inner life and no need for speech because, as one famous anecdote claims he said, "up to now everything was in order."
We love to swap ironic facts about famous people, especially in our click-bait-driven Internet culture. So it's no surprise that the notions that Einstein struggled with math and that he failed his college entrance exams have such staying power. In truth, he excelled in physics and math from a young age and studied calculus while only 12 years old. He also knew his way around Greek conjugation and Latin declension. So how did the idea that he failed math gain traction? Possibly because, during one year of Einstein's education, school officials reversed the grading system, turning the numerical equivalent of A's into F's (and confusing unwary future biographers).
Einstein did fail his first round of entrance exams -- due to extenuating circumstances. When the young man applied to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, he was a 15-year-old dropout who lacked the equivalent of a high school diploma. Moreover, the rigid educational system that he grew up in did not provide him the background in French, chemistry and biology that he needed to pass the institute's exams. He scored so highly on his mathematics and physics tests, however, that the university accepted him anyway, on the condition that he complete his secondary education soon after.
While attending university in Zurich, Einstein fell in love with an older physics student, Mileva Marić, who would eventually become his first wife. By the standards of late 19th-century Europe, theirs was a modern love affair. They soon grew quite close and gave one another nicknames: He called her "Dollie," and she nicknamed him "Johnnie."
Marić was a remarkable woman, having overcome enormous social resistance to earn a place as the fifth woman accepted to the prestigious university [sources: PBS]. But for years after graduation, Einstein remained too poor to marry her. Moreover, his parents rejected Marić as a too-old, bookish Eastern Orthodox Serb, and his father did not approve the marriage until just before his death in 1902 [sources: Golden; Kaku; PBS].
Earlier that year, in January, the couple had a daughter named Lieserl (diminutive for Elisabeth). Marić returned to her parent's home near Novi Sad, a Serb cultural center then located in the Kingdom of Hungary but today part of Serbia's rural Vojvodina region. There she gave birth to the child, after which the couple never spoke of their daughter to others, even friends. Lieserl's fate remains a mystery to this day. The two prevalent theories hold that she died of scarlet fever or was given up for adoption [sources: Golden; Kaku; PBS].
Whatever closeness Einstein and Marić shared did not survive long into their marriage, as their correspondence makes clear. Indeed, his own letters paint him as an unkind philanderer who neglected and mistreated her while openly enjoying several flirtations and affairs [sources: Golden]. One mistress, his cousin Elsa, would eventually become his second wife, although he also considered marrying her daughter, his future stepdaughter. This must have made family reunions both uncomfortable and confusing, especially since Elsa was Einstein's first cousin on his mother's side and his second cousin on his father's side [sources: Golden; Kaku]. He cheated on Elsa as well, but she allowed it as long as he kept his affairs quiet.
Meanwhile, because he could not afford to support himself and his first wife in the case of a divorce, Einstein struck a deal with Marić: She would grant him a divorce, and he would give her and their two sons the prize money from his presumably imminent Nobel. Finally, after five years living apart, Marić divorced Albert in 1919. Thereafter, he grew estranged from his sons, one of whom was schizophrenic, leaving Marić to care for them and her own crumbling family [sources: Golden; Kaku; PBS].
In 1905, Einstein published four papers that rocked contemporary views of space, time, mass and energy and helped set the stage for modern physics, all while writing a doctoral dissertation and working as a third-class examiner in the Swiss patent office.
After graduation, Einstein had applied for numerous academic posts, but school after school had rebuffed him. Their rejections stemmed in part from a letter of recommendation that Einstein had foolishly requested from Heinrich Weber, a professor whose classes he had regularly ditched [sources: Kaku]. As decisions go, it was an object lesson in the difference between intelligence and wisdom. But the clerkship left Einstein enough daydreaming time to conceive his four landmark Annals of Physics journal papers, all published in a single annus mirabilis:
- "On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light" explained the photoelectric effect using quantum theory (and would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize, see below).
- "On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat" experimentally proved the existence of atoms.
- "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" established the mathematical theory of special relativity.
- "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?" explained how relativity theory led to a mass-energy equivalence of E = mc2.
Einstein was willing to put his pacifism and commitment to peace into action, even at the risk of his own hide. In 1914, he and three colleagues in Germany singled themselves out by daring to sign a statement protesting the then-empire's militarism and involvement in World War I [source: Kaku]. The four issued the declaration in reply to the "Manifesto to the Civilized World," a government-sponsored document that defended Germany's invasion of neutral Belgium and which nearly 100 eminent German intellectuals signed. While many of his colleagues offered the fruits of their genius to the war effort, Einstein refused.
The war left Germany devastated, deeply in debt and facing social upheaval. During the turmoil that followed, radical students at the University of Berlin took the rector and several professors hostage, and no one wanted to take their chances finding out how the police would resolve the standoff [sources: Bolles; Kaku]. Both students and professors respected Einstein, so he and Max Born, a German-born pioneer of quantum mechanics, found themselves in a position to defuse the situation, which they did [source: Kaku]. In later years, Einstein would recall with amused wonder how naïve they had been for never considering that the students might have turned on them [source: Bolles].
As with most scientific revolutions, Einstein's breakthrough insights on special relativity in 1905 did not arise out of a vacuum. His genius lay in how he transformed previous work by scientists like Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz into a new, unified theory, one that removed the friction between Newtonian physics and James Clerk Maxwell's theory of light.
Published in 1916, Einstein's theory of general relativity completed special relativity by bringing gravity and acceleration into the picture through the concept of warped space-time. Unfortunately, it took years to prove one of its key predictions, the lensing effect of gravity. When astronomers finally confirmed the bending of starlight during observations of a 1919 solar eclipse, it launched Einstein into overnight celebrity, but three more years would pass before the Nobel committee retroactively awarded him the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics in 1922.
Einstein received the prize for "the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect." The photoelectric effect refers to the release of electrically charged particles (ions or electrons) from (or within) a material that absorbs electromagnetic radiation (such as light). Einstein's crucial work in this area resolved perplexing questions regarding the particle-wave duality of light. Nevertheless, Einstein's acceptance speech focused on his work in general relativity, a problem that had occupied him for nearly a decade, and whose importance would not be fully appreciated for decades to come.
Between gas in the pipes and arsenic in the paint and wallpaper, households in the 1920s packed more than their share of deadly substances. Thus it seems appropriate that the transition from the traditional icebox (literally, an insulated wooden box with ice in it) to electrical refrigerators added to the peril by occasionally leaking volatile chemical coolants like methyl chloride, ammonia or sulfur dioxide to poison hapless homeowners.
One such incident in 1926 inspired Einstein to enlist the help of Hungarian physicist Léo Szilàrd in designing a new kind of appliance called an absorption refrigerator that required only ammonia, butane and water, plus a heat source for the pump. Patented in 1930, their device relied on the principle that liquids boil at lower temperatures when exposed to lower atmospheric pressures. As pressure in the pipe above the butane reservoir dropped, the butane would boil off, drawing in heat from its surroundings and lowering temperatures in the fridge. Because it had no moving parts, the appliance would last as long as its casing [sources: Jha].
Einstein and Szilàrd's refrigerator lost out to more efficient competitors and to the introduction of chlorofluorocarbons, which replaced more hazardous coolants and rendered the compressor fridge safer for people, if not the ozone layer. But new technologies and growing environmental concerns have today sparked renewed interest in their approach, particularly as a means of providing refrigeration in remote and rugged areas.
Although Einstein made his mark primarily as a physicist, his political views have grown nearly as famous as his scientific achievements. But they were also more complex than many realize.
Einstein was a lifelong pacifist, except when it came to taking up defensive arms against the Nazis, who singled him out for persecution. Moreover, when he realized that scientists in Nazi Germany might be working on nuclear chain reactions with bomb potential, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt urging that the U.S. government coordinate its own research in the area. The letter may have contributed to the formation of the Manhattan Project, to which Einstein -- much to his relief -- was not invited; the government considered him a security risk due to his many associations with peace causes and memberships in social advocacy groups like the NAACP [sources: Kaku]. Nevertheless, his E = mc2 equation was essential to their successful efforts in making the first atomic bombs [sources: Kaku]. Einstein also helped fund the war effort by auctioning his manuscripts, and worked after the war to oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb and to control nuclear proliferation.
In 1952, Israeli premier David Ben-Gurion offered Einstein the presidency of the newly established state of Israel. Einstein politely turned him down, citing advancing age and stating that his lifelong focus on objective matters had left him unsuited to politics [sources: Einstein; Kaku].
Einstein intended that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered secretly, so as to avoid the possibility of admirers making a shrine of his grave. But when pathologist Dr. Thomas Harvey walked into the Princeton morgue on April 18, 1955, all of that went out the window. Presented with the opportunity to study the brain of one of the great geniuses of the age, and without permission, authority or experience as a neuroscientist, he absconded with 2.7 pounds (1.2 kilograms) of Einstein's gray matter. He also removed the deceased physicist's eyeballs and gave them to Einstein's eye doctor, Henry Adams. They remain in a New York City safe deposit box to this day [sources: Schifrin; Toland].
A tragicomic series of road trips ensued, with Harvey storing slices and chunks of the brain in jars, first in his basement, then in a cider box squirreled away beneath a beer cooler as he relocated after losing his medical license, then in the backseat of a reporter's car. He apparently intended to study the brain and determine what made it so smart, but in 43 years he never got around to it, perhaps because he moved around so much or because lacked the expertise and funding. Ultimately, he returned most of the brain to Princeton, bringing the physicist's postmortem peregrination full circle [sources: Schifrin; Toland].
Stephen Hawking said his 'ultimate ambition' is to fly into space. And Richard Branson is going to help him with that. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Einstein
Historical views of great men and women undergo pendulum swings, and Einstein is no different. I've done my best to occupy the middle ground throughout this article, which unfortunately is no guarantee of being correct, only of minimizing the damage if my sources have erred. Consequently, I may have left out the occasional juicy tidbit or sidestepped some of the wilder assertions of armchair analysts, which I think is just as well.
Two of the most unrealistic expectations we have of our heroes are that they achieve everything single-handedly, without precursor or colleague, and that they somehow engage in obsessive pursuit of their goals without cost to themselves or to those around them. I have yet to find a case in which either held true, let alone both. If Einstein was a flawed genius, then he was in good company.
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